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Gamecocks find something 'special'

Sometimes when you’re looking for something special, you need to look in a different place.

South Carolina men's golf signee Kieron Fowler

The South Carolina men’s golf program is on the right track. Head coach Bill McDonald is beginning to revive a program that was in good shape when he inherited it, but there needed to be a spark. He’s landed some homegrown talent like the Bryan brothers, George and Wesley, to help move the program in the right direction.

There are a lot of great players in the program, including top-ranked junior player Matt NeSmith, who just finished his first semester on campus.

That being said, the Gamecocks were looking for something a little different - something special.

South Carolina has brought over a few European players before but they’ve typically come from Scandinavia. The final piece to the 2013 class wasn’t in the typical recruiting territory. He wasn’t in the Palmetto State or the surrounding area. He wasn’t in the United States, Sweden, or Finland.

The right player, the special player that South Carolina was looking for, was in Spain.

Kieron Fowler signed a National Letter of Intent in November to begin a collegiate golf career at South Carolina. He is the special player that McDonald was looking for and assistant coach Don Hill found.

It started with an email from Fowler’s dad to former head coach Puggy Blackmon, who then forwarded it on to the South Carolina coaching staff. The Fowlers didn’t just pick Columbia, S.C. out at random. Fowler has an aunt who lives in the Columbia area, which is how it all began.

There’s a lot more to just wanting to play for a school, especially in a Division I program on the uptick. There has to be some ability, too. Hill and the Fowlers continued to exchange emails. Scores were sent as were swing videos and interest grew.

“You get thousands of emails a year from a recruit or parents,” Hill said. “When you get one like that -- we just sort of joked about it but I shot an email back. Next thing you know, we were having almost daily email contact. We were in a spot in the 2013 class at the time, we were trying to figure out where to go. No one really caught our eye that set themselves apart. As we went through things, he was sending results and swing videos. I came away impressed and the next thing you know, he was committed to South Carolina.”

A lot happened to get to that point, though. Fowler, like most kids his age on the opposite side of the Atlantic Ocean, grew up loving soccer. An injury at an early age kept him off the pitch for an extended period and that’s when Fowler picked up a club.

He started playing golf at the age of 10 but didn’t really begin to take it seriously for a few years. By age 15, though, he knew and those around him knew he had a chance to be a special player.

“My dad was playing golf, I went with him, and form that point onwards I was in love with the game,” Fowler said. “Around the age of 15, I knew I wanted to take it on as a career as I loved playing the game and if I can make a career out of what I love doing, then that is living the dream.”

Fowler has some British background but now lives in Alicante, Spain and plays with a bit of Spanish flare. Hill says his most recent signee has “Spanish hands,” which is synonymous with great touch around feel, especially around the green with the short game.

Perhaps being a regular playing partner with two-time major championship winner and European Ryder Cup captain Jose Maria Olazábal has a little something to do with that.

As Fowler saw his skill level increase, he began to look at his future. He knew he wanted to come to the United States to get an education and play in the collegiate ranks. What he needed to do was drum up some interest from schools and that’s where South Carolina came into play.

After months of emails and analyzing swing video online, Hill decided it was time to go do a little in-person scouting. He boarded a flight to London, England to watch Fowler play for the Brabazon Trophy, which is equivalent in stature to the U.S. Public Links.

An amateur event that features the best players in Europe, Fowler finished 35th out of 152 competitors. There were only a handful of players in the field younger than Fowler, who was born in 1994.

“He had pretty much one chance to show me what he’s got in arguably one of the biggest events in Europe,” Hill said. “He has a toughness to him. I’m saying, ‘This kid can play right now.’ And we’re a year away from him stepping onto campus.”

Hill watched 108 holes of golf - two practice rounds and four rounds in the tournament. Fowler went 74, 77, 76, 75 and finished 15 strokes behind the winner, a player eight years his senior. The tournament featured around 40 golfers currently in the college ranks.

It was a big moment for Fowler, who was basically playing for a college scholarship over the course of a week. Flounder and he’d have to look elsewhere. Thrive and he may see his dream of coming to South Carolina come true.

“When he said he was coming to watch me I got so excited,” Fowler said. “It was just so great because I had something to work towards. I just wanted to show him what I could do. I believe there is no such thing as pressure, you just have to perform to the best of your ability. If that’s not enough, then tough luck. If you are good enough, then keep on getting better.”

It was a refreshing attitude for Hill, who notes that one of the strengths of Fowler’s game is his mental approach. Fowler, who was the Spanish Junior Player of the Year in 2011, was unfazed by Hill’s presence and the magnitude of the tournament.

“He has great touch, great feel, and great imagination,” Hill said. “He flights the golf ball especially well. Depending on the conditions, he has no problem doing things to flight the ball down or flight the ball up. He dissects the golf course and has a game plan. The maturity there that he displayed is pretty cool and not something that you see a lot.”

Hill said Fowler’s focus when he gets to school is just to hit the weight room. “Wiry strong,” according to his future coach, Fowler also said he has to improve his consistency of his ball-striking to continue to improve his game.

“My strengths are definitely my attitude towards the game and my short game,” Fowler said. “I have a never give up attitude in the game and I am very competitive. This helps me to draw my best game in the bigger tournaments. My short game has always been something that I love practicing so it comes easier.”

Fowler has not visited South Carolina before, much less the campus, but he’s scheduled to come on an official visit the weekend of January 18. He’ll be given a taste of college life before he begins his Gamecock career in the fall.

“For me there was not much choosing to play for south Carolina,” Fowler said. “I took one look at the university, the Gamecocks website and the facilities of everything there and I fell in love. I made my choice in very little time. I knew I wanted to be a Gamecock.”

He knew he wanted to be a Gamecock but it took a special situation for it to happen.

“To achieve on the national level, sometimes you have to look internationally,” Hill said. “He filled a void. It was a special situation. He is a special kid, right time, right place, right moment that it happened.”

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