Tuesday, May 11, 2021

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George Cunningham hitting on all cylinders on way to Destin

The Korn Ferry Tour rolls on to Destin, Florida, for this week’s Emerald Coast Classic at Sandestin, but George Cunningham wishes he could get another week in Savannah after finishing just one shot out of a playoff at last week’s Club Car Championship at The Landings Club. The T3 was Cunningham’s second top-three or better at The Landings Club in seven months after finishing T3 there in October as well.

Cunningham, who travels to and from events in a motorhome with his dad/caddie Tracy, couldn’t help but wonder what could have been on the drive to Destin.  

“It’s obviously kind of a hard pill to swallow when you’re one shot out of a playoff because you can look back on pretty much every round and think of a shot here and shot there that you could have gotten back and you know you made a couple mistakes,” Cunningham said. “But I also did a lot of good. So, I’ve been trying to focus on the positives.”

Considering where Cunningham is now versus the end of August, it’s easy to find the positives these days. After undergoing a stretch of 14 straight missed cuts last year, a stretch that lasted six months on the calendar, Cunningham has now reeled off three top-six finishes in his last five starts and is up to 54th on the Korn Ferry Tour Points Standings.

“I had gone through a swing change, which I had already gotten down but mentally playing bad with the swing change, I wasn’t quite getting out of that,” Cunningham said. “Even though the game was good before the last five events, mentally I wasn’t quite ready to perform.”

Cunningham, who seemed to be cruising up through the professional golf ranks after graduating from the University of Arizona in 2018, gets asked all the time why he even bothered with a swing change in the first place with how well he was acclimating to the pro game out of college. He had finished second on the 2018 Mackenzie Tour Order of Merit and was T29 in his first career TOUR start at the 2018 RBC Canadian Open and T36 in his second at the Shriners Hospitals for Children Open. He had Korn Ferry Tour membership for 2019 and a future PGA TOUR membership seemed to be coming in short order.

“To be honest, I felt like I was only going to do one year on the Korn Ferry Tour,” Cunningham admitted.

But it was that T36 in Vegas, which included weekend pairings with Tony Finau and Gary Woodland, that made Cunningham realize that the game that had brought him there might not be enough to keep him there.  

“I felt that with where my swing was and how I played that even if I got to the PGA TOUR, I was going to struggle to keep my card because the rest of my game needed to be on all the time in order for me to compete,” he said.

When Woodland or Finau hit a driving iron or fairway metal off the tee, he was hitting driver. When they were hitting long irons into par 5s, he was hitting 3-woods. When they all hit driver on par 4s, they’d have a pitching wedge and he’d have a 7 or 8. As he looked at the distance of the best players in the world, he saw lots of bombers and not many guys that hit it like him.

“I was shorter than the average guy on the PGA TOUR, and I looked at the top 20 players in the world and there was like three guys in the top 20 or 25 that hit it my distance,” Cunningham said. “All the other ones hit it a minimum of 10-15 yards further. So that’s what I was looking at when I decided to make the change.”

Cunningham knew he didn’t move his body very well in his swing at the time and thought it’d be a simple change when he decided to make the switch that would result in a lot more power. But he didn’t want to make the switch until he had locked up at least Korn Ferry Tour status for the following season. So, after back-to-back top-10s in a stretch that included six top-25s in seven starts, he had an off week following a T6 at the 2019 Evans Scholars Invitational and believed there was never a great time to make a swing change, so he went for it.  

“I didn’t think it was going to be that big of a change. I thought I might miss three weeks of bad golf, but I thought after that, I’d get it going,” Cunningham said.

With the change, he got the distance he sought, but the results that followed were a “big shock” as he missed the cut in 10 of his last 12 events after missing just one in his first 10 starts to open the season. As he learned to move his body better through the swing, additional problems cropped up that needed correcting. The longer the changes took to show results on the course, the more it began to creep into his mental game.

Despite a T4 to open 2020 at The Bahamas Great Exuma Classic at Sandals Emerald Bay, he still wasn’t trusting it, and the lowest stretch came from February to August last year when he missed 14 straight cuts.

“The more cuts I missed the easier it was to get negative. You try not to, but we’re all human. You keep playing bad, it’s hard not to be negative,” he said. “But it was really tough. What was keeping me going was I knew my game was moving in the right direction. I knew if I could keep at it, it’d eventually turn around.”

Cunningham was right. He’s gained 20-25 yards of additional carry off the tee, jumping from 275 to 295-300 carry, and the results have now started to follow.

“I would say I’m a little above average now, and that’s plenty far enough,” Cunningham said. “It’s now allowing me to reach a couple of the par-5s that I couldn’t before and I haven’t lost any consistency off the tee, which was really important to me.”

Come August or September, it may just be long enough to reach the PGA TOUR, too.

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