Tim and Wes Conover
Photography by Jay Clark
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TWO UNDER PAR
Different courses to golf success both led to ECU
By Doug Boyd
ECU News Services
On a February day cold enough to make fingers shiver, East Carolina University golfers Tim and Wes Conover are hitting balls, honing their games for the spring season.
They’ve taken different paths to this point. Younger brother Tim, a freshman, has been playing since he was big enough to hold a club. Wes was a baseball star before picking up clubs as a teenager and trying to get good enough to beat his kid brother.
“I taught him some things,” Tim says matter-of-factly.
“So far this year, I’d say I’ve gotten to him a little bit,” responds Wes, a junior. That’s modest coming from a player who was the conference newcomer of the year after the 2013-2014 season.
The Conovers are one of a handful of brothers to play together on the men’s golf team, and while they wanted to beat each other when they were younger, they’re each other’s biggest fans now.
“It’s a really interesting dynamic,” says coach Press McPhaul. He met Wes while recruiting Tim and offered Wes a spot on the team as well. “I’ve never had brothers on a team before and didn’t know what to expect. I think they’re a positive influence on each other. I haven’t been able to detect any rivalry between them.
“I think he’s got a pretty remarkable set of God-given gifts not only physically but mentally as well,” he says of Wes.
“And Tim is one of the best putters you’ve ever seen,” he added about the time Tim made a 20-footer on the practice green.
Growing their games
When the family lived in New Jersey, Tim would practice on the putting green at a local public course. “We would shine the headlights of our car to give him light in the dark,” his mother, Jackie, recalls. “He wouldn’t leave until he chipped one in.”
Then about eight years ago, the family moved to a golf course community in Holly Springs in Wake County when their father took a new job. Living beside a course gave Tim a chance to practice every day. His skills improved quickly, and soon he was winning junior tournaments.
Older brother Wes stuck with other sports but would go with Tim every once in a while to the golf course.
“That’s when we both started going together,” Wes says.
“That’s when I was playing with him and not against him. Tim was kind of my mentor. He taught me to play golf, honestly.”
His brother agrees. “He’s a really good athlete, so he already had the basic skills to play any sport,” Tim says. “I definitely saw his skills in golf coming together.”
Tim was a four-year letterman on the golf team at Holly Springs High School. He was twice named the Tri-9 4A Conference Player-of-the-Year. In 2012, he played in the U.S. Junior Amateur Championship and in 2013 won the Carolinas PGA Junior Championship.
"If the golf course could be lit, he'd probably play all night."
- Sam Greene, Tim's high school coach
Wes caddied for Tim at that U.S. Junior Amateur tournament in Stratham, New Hampshire. “I think I get more nervous as a caddy than when I’m playing,” he says with a laugh.
In his first year of college golf, Tim has been a regular starter on the four-man rotation; his lowest 18-hole score is 70, which he shot at tournaments in South Carolina and Chapel Hill. He led the team’s opening round in the first two matches of 2015.
Tim’s high school golf coach, Sam Greene, has plenty of praise for the brothers on and off the course. “They were good students, someone any teacher would want in the classroom,” he says. “Pick a sport, pick a situation, their attitude is unbelievable. You can count on it.”
Greene recalls the state 4A championships Tim’s ninth-grade year. The rounds were played in Pinehurst, the heart of North Carolina’s golf community. Tim’s shot a 78 the first day, putting himself far out of reach of the leaders. He didn’t get down, however, and returned the next day to shoot a 72. He didn’t win, Greene says, “but I told him, ‘Look how many people you passed.’
That experience was valuable for Tim. “I was young, so it was really nice to do that in a big tournament,” he says. “It gave me confidence.”
Before long, Greene says, someone told him about Tim’s older brother, who by that time had started playing weekend golf tournaments and was doing pretty well.
“They said, ‘Well, you know, Tim’s brother, Wes, is just as good if not better,’” Greene says. “I said, ‘Really? Can I see this guy?’”
Their parents’ perspective
Jackie Conover sent the following email, lightly edited, summing up how she and her husband, Barry, feel about their sons playing golf at ECU:
“(W)e are beyond thrilled that they are in school together and playing together. We think in the next year-and-a-half they will do great things together for ECU. It makes it easier for us and it is really fun going to watch them, especially when they are right behind one another.
“To us, golf is one of the hardest sports to watch your child play though. It is an emotional roller coaster on every hole. We love the coaches at ECU, and the boys’ teammates are a great group of boys.
“From the time they were walking, they were always playing sports…they had great hand-eye coordination from a couple of months old. Wes was walking at 8 months old, and they would play every sport possible in our basement with their dad with sports on TV every day.”
(Family photos courtesy of Jackie Conover)
Once he did see him play, Greene thought about how much Wes could help his golf team. “I was always asking the baseball coach, ‘Can I have Wes for just a couple of matches?’” Greene says with a laugh, mentioning the blank spot on his office wall where he believes a state championship plaque would be if Wes had played for him.
Since the baseball and golf seasons were at the same time of year, Wes never did join the golf team. But by the time he graduated in 2011, he had lettered four times on the baseball team, was a three-time all-conference player, a member of the 2011 4A state championship team and a team captain. He also played a season of varsity basketball.
His high school baseball coach, Rod Whitsell, described him as a “great kid, works hard, hard-nosed.” He’s not surprised that when he turned to golf, he got very good very fast.
“I think he enjoyed the camaraderie and competition of a team sport,” Whitsell said. “I’m sure some of that competitive fire he had in baseball carried over into golf.”
Whitsell describes a time in practice before a playoff game when Conover misplayed a ground ball and it hit his face, breaking his nose. “He had a huge knot on his head and showed up the next day ready to play,” the coach said. “He’s mentally tough, physically tough. He’s just got that attitude of no matter what happens I’m going to find a way to win. East Carolina’s lucky he switched sports.”
A fast start
Wes came to ECU in the summer of 2013 and immediately became a starter for the 2013-2014 golf season. Before coming to Greenville, he had been a member of the club golf team at N.C. State University and a student in that school’s professional golf management program. In his first year with the Pirates, he posted the second-lowest scoring average on the team, 74.29. He was named Conference USA Newcomer-of-the-Year and twice was named conference golfer-of-the-week.
The first weekly award followed his play at the Sea Best Invitational at TPC Sawgrass in Pointe Vedra Beach, Florida—the course where the PGA Tour holds its Players Championship. There, he carded an ECU-career-best 5-under 67 in the final round.
He received his second weekly accolade after capturing individual medalist honors for the first time, winning the 2014 River Landing Intercollegiate in Wallace with a 4-under-par 212 over the three rounds.
“I helped Tim transition into college a little bit better, showed him the ropes,” Wes says. “I’m glad we ended up together.”
McPhaul thinks Wes’ experience playing baseball, where a 40 percent success rate at the plate is amazing, helps him handle the ups and downs of golf, where every shot counts.
Wes agrees. “Playing baseball, you get to learn to deal with failure a lot,” he says. “I think it’s easier to hit the golf ball, but in golf, you have so much time to think about all the things you’re doing wrong.”
He says the 67 at Sawgrass is his most memorable round. “I could see the players on the holes I was playing” he said, referring to tour pros such as Rory McIlroy and Tiger Woods. “That round kind of showed me I’m supposed to be here playing college golf.”
While the 67 stands out, his best-ever round is a 63 at a course in Gulf Shores, Alabama. That’s also Tim’s best score; he shot it at Devil’s Ridge in Holly Springs.
Wes says his favorite course is Sawgrass. Tim’s favorite is Trump National Golf Club in Sterling, Virginia.
An athletic lineage
Tim and Wes come from a sports family. Their father, Barry, played college basketball at Green Mountain College in Vermont, an uncle played college basketball, and four cousins played Division I baseball. Their grandfather, Dick, played three seasons of basketball at Syracuse University and also coached college basketball.
McPhaul believes the coaching background of their grandfather is an important ingredient of the brothers’ success.
“That familiarity with competing and competing in college and being aware that you have work to do, responsibilities to teammates and academic requirements—being familiar with that is nothing but a help,” the coach says.
He recalls one day their father asked if it would be OK if he gave the brothers some advice. He told McPhaul what he wanted to say, and the coach readily agreed.
“No lame excuses, and don’t spiral downward,” McPhaul says with a smile.
Teammate Josh Chandler says having a brother of his own who plays golf helps him appreciate the bond between the Conovers.
“We all form sort of a brotherhood being teammates, and I’m sure it’s a little more special for them,” he said.
A communication major, Wes plans to pursue professional golf with broadcasting as a fallback. Tim’s majoring in applied atmospheric sciences and wants to be a meteorologist once his golfing days conclude.
As the brothers take a break from practice, they talk about their plans to attempt to qualify for the U.S. Amateur championship this summer and how much fun it is to be teammates in college.
“All we ever tried to do growing up was beat each other,” Wes says. “Now we’re out here competing against each other. Not everybody gets to be out here with your brother.”
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