Conner Paine watches his ball after hitting onto the 11th green at the Maine Junior Golf Championship last summer at Val Halla Golf Club in Cumberland. Portland Press Herald photo by Derek Davis

Conner Paine knew college golf was an option. But the South China native found out that the kind he wanted to play — higher tier, down south, bigger program — was going to require a change.

“I could have joined a team, but I wouldn’t have done anything,” Paine, 19, said. “I wouldn’t have been an asset at all.”

Paine reached out to an assortment of college coaches to gauge interest. He cites a conversation with Stetson University (DeLand, Florida) coach Larry Watson that helped sharpen his focus.

Conner Paine, an Erskine graduate, practices his golf swing in Lakewood Ranch, Florida last week. Contributed photo

“He said, ‘I know a lot of kids that take gap years, move down here and play every day, and it elevates their game to a level where they’re ready to compete,'” Paine said. “He said, ‘If you want to take golf seriously, that’s your best option. You’ve got to do that.'”

He’s taken that advice. The former Erskine standout is living in Florida with the sole objective of developing his game, spending every day on the course at Lakewood Ranch Country Club, about 35 miles south of Tampa. Paine, a member of the club, spends five to eight hours a day practicing and playing, and has committed to playing at Saint Leo (Florida) University, one of the best Division II programs in the country and the 2016 national champion.

“I’ve literally done nothing but play golf,” said Paine, who moved south in October. “I don’t take any days off, I don’t go to the beach, I don’t hang out with people. It’s been a grind.”

A grind that’s paying off, and that has Paine poised to potentially make an impact on a winning program.

“He’s going to come in and hopefully learn from the older guys and gain experience from playing with them,” Saint Leo coach Chris Greenwood said. “I expect him to push those guys, because he’s got ability. … He is a good athlete, and he’s been working hard on his game. I expect him to be in the running to play in the lineup.”

The work has been hard, but Paine has enjoyed it. He wanted to see how far he could go in the sport, and it’s been rewarding to see the answers in the form of below-par scores on championship-length courses, scores he never could have approached in previous summers.

“I’m even more excited now,” he said. “I just never knew if I could be this good, and play this kind of golf. … To post good rounds on tough courses, it’s almost like all the work that I put in is starting to pay off, and the feeling that I get from the work paying off makes me want to work even harder.”

Paine had aspirations of playing college golf going back to his days at Erskine, but a disappointing summer in 2018 had him reconsidering those hopes. The phone call with Watson, however, rekindled his interest in seeing the progress he could make with a year-round commitment to the game.

“(He said), ‘You could be as good as these guys. There’s no reason why you couldn’t be. You just have to put in the time,'” Paine said. “To hear that from a coach, I was kind of like, ‘Maybe I can be as good as these guys.'”

Paine had a good summer last year, which included an eight-stroke victory in the MSGA Junior Championship, then in the fall moved to Estero, Florida, a town north of Naples. Soon after coming home for Christmas, however, Paine relocated to Lakewood Ranch, where he lives with another golfer from Maine, Chris Farley, and is set up with three different courses and an elaborate training facility.

“I’ve really been lucky to play here,” said Paine, who added he’d been saving his money the past few years to support his golf dream. “I’ve really made the most out of it.”

Paine typically spends the mornings on the range and practice green, and then plays 18 holes after lunch. The courses he plays are demanding — 7,400 yards, with constant stiff winds to deal with — and Paine said he’s been forced to reach another level with his game in order to keep up.

“I have much more control over the ball,” he said. “I can start the ball on the line that I’m trying to start it on. If I need to hit it 114, I need to hit it 83, I’m so much more dialed in. … In terms of hitting the ball where I need to hit the ball and being able to control it and work on different flights, I’m a completely different golfer. It’s exciting.”

That’s the sort of improvement Greenwood is looking to see.

“Being a good wedge player means every time you have a wedge in your hand you’re inside 15 feet, and if you’ve got 99 yards in, you hit it 99. You don’t hit it 109,” Greenwood said. “My message to him was it’s all well and good how well you hit a 4-iron. But what you really need to be able to do is consistently hit wedges well.”

Conner Paine, an Erskine graduate, tees off in Lakewood Ranch, Florida last week. Contributed photo

Paine’s summer, from a competitive standpoint, is in flux due to the coronavirus, but he’s looking forward to the fall, and being part of a team again for the first time in two years.

“I’m pumped. I’ve pretty much been alone down here all winter,” he said. “I’m excited to be around other good golfers that are going to help push me. … It’s great to be part of a school. It’s just something you look forward to in golf, the college atmosphere and everything that comes with it.”

Paine knows he’ll have to wait his turn. But he’s confident it’s a turn that will come.

That’s what this move was all about.

“Once I got here and had these facilities, my game took off to another level that I never thought it would get to,” he said. “I hoped it would, but I never thought it actually would.”


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