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August 24, 2011

18 Holes with Joe Looney

I had the unique privilege of getting to play a round of golf with Wake Forest senior offensive guard Joe Looney at the Atlantic Coast Conference Kickoff in Pinehurst earlier this summer.

It was an opportunity to get to know Looney beyond the mere question-and-answer format of the ACC Kickoff, which is extremely helpful from the standpoint of writing articles but not so much from the standpoint of really getting to know a player.

Few things are more helpful at getting people to relax and let their guard down than a round of golf, so it was fitting that our foursome set out on a gorgeous Carolina Monday morning in late July with smiles on our faces eager to have some fun and represent our various schools and media outlets well.

We played Pinehurst's No. 4, which doesn't offer the mind-numbing challenge of the daunting No. 2 course that has hosted multiple U.S. Opens, but still gives even good players more than enough tough shots to call it a difficult course.

Our group included Looney, who was playing his first-ever full round of 18 holes, as well as myself and a member of the new media staff at Florida State.

Also our our team was Greg Barnes, a beat reporter for InsideCarolina.com and a former assistant Golf Pro at Occoneechee Golf Course in Hillsborough, who was easily the best player we had.

Barnes was justifiably our 'A' player, but interestingly enough somebody (not Looney) gave the Wake Forest veteran lineman an 18 handicap despite his having never played a full round of golf before.

The 18 handicap gave Looney the 'B' spot in our foursome.

Wearing a black Wake Forest polo shirt, a white Orange Bowl hat turned backwards, khaki shorts and a pair of black Nike socks pulled up high, Looney didn't exactly cast the image of a golf champion, but he would prove to be a light-hearted, fun-loving companion for the loop around one of the most picturesque golf courses in North Carolina.

In the 'Shotgun' style of play in the Skeeter Francis Memorial Golf Tournament at the ACC Kickoff, the media members, coaches, and players all start on a different hole and play a full 18 holes---just not in typical sequence of one through 18.

THE BEGINNING: Our foursome began on the 16th hole, and Looney received the honors of the first tee shot. He swung an iron and nailed a clean, smooth shot that didn't carry very far, but settled comfortably into the middle of the fairway.

After receiving compliments for his straight shot, Looney mentioned that he had been taking a golf class at Wake Forest this summer.

Our collective approach shots on this first hole weren't great, but Barnes converted a great chip on his third shot to set us up for a par putt.

Looney stepped up as the first to putt, and he coolly nailed this first attempt to give us a 'four' to start.

17th HOLE: As we were waiting to tee off, one can see how excited Looney is about the start of football season. He flexes his arms, bows up and exclaims 'Football!" He doesn't distract any of his partners with the act---his exclamation is quiet and mostly to himself---but one who was watching couldn't help but notice how energetic Looney was.

18th HOLE: By this point its obvious that Barnes is carrying our team. He shoots a natural par on this hole, and our foursome uses all four of his shots in the 'Best Ball' format. I learn on this hole that Looney's father played college football at Louisville.

This is the end of the line for most folks when they come to Pinehurst---winding down on the 18th hole in front of the majestic clubhouse---but we drive ourselves around to the first tee and begin the rest of our round.

1st HOLE: Before teeing off, I ask Looney which he prefers, pass blocking or run blocking. He says he prefers pass protection over run blocking and pulling because of the speed of the linebackers. He also sings the praises of senior center Garrick Williams, who Looney said has been starting since his sophomore year. Looney speaks of the value of the offensive line having played together extensively.

2nd HOLE: ACC Photographer Robert Crawford stopped through on this hole. Barnes nailed an awesome approach shot to give us an Eagle putt. We all had our opportunity to sink a key putt with the pressure on---Crawford was shooting each of us as we sized up and attempted our putt---but none of us could convert. We all choked!

We managed to get the birdie, but none of us were happy about the missed opportunity for a three on the par-five hole.

3rd HOLE: Joe tells me about his younger brother James Looney, a 2013 center/defensive end at Lake Worth (Fla.) High, Looney's own alma mater. Looney says of his younger brother, a sturdy 6-3, 230-pounder, 'He's a beast,' and adds that Wake Forest's coaches have shown a little initial interest.

4th HOLE: Despite his lack of golf expertise, Looney makes an astute observation on this challenging par three. Staring out at the hole before his tee shot, gazing at the large lake directly in front of his path to the green, Looney says, 'This could get interesting.' He adds, 'Everybody wants to play the long game, but this is where it's at right here.'

Hesitant all day to use a wood off the tee, Looney hits another iron, but its not the shot we use. Once again Barnes carries us, nailing a long putt to help us save par.

5th HOLE: We get to talking about Wake Forest head coach Jim Grobe, and our colleague from Florida State in our foursome marvels about the longevity of Grobe in Winston-Salem, reminiscent of former FSU legend Bobby Bowden.

Looney says, 'It's awesome,' when asked how cool is it to know your coach isn't leaving for another school or on the hot seat.

I say to Looney that the true test of Grobe's loyalty to Wake Forest was when he turned down the Nebraska job to stay a Demon Deacon, and if he won't leave Wake to go to Nebraska, he won't be going anywhere else.

Looney says simply, 'He won't leave.'

6th HOLE: The conversation switches to Wake Forest's quarterback situation, and the upcoming battle in training camp between Tanner Price and Ted Stachitas. Looney says that Stachitas runs well and is very good on his feet, but adds that, 'I think Tanner will keep that starting job.'

7th HOLE: Now we're talking Syracuse, Wake's season opening opponent. Looney says, 'It's a good team. It's a chance to put ourselves on the map.'

8th HOLE: While things are going great from a conversation standpoint, our golf game isn't as noteworthy. While some of the foursomes are on their way to scores in the high 50's and low 60's, our foursome is struggling to stay at par. We're having a good time, but we're not making a lot of good golf shots---that is, except for Barnes.

I notice on this hole that Looney's preferred word after a bad golf swing is 'cripes.' He had said it a couple of times previously in the round, but it was the par-four Eighth that it really became noticeable to me.

Surrounded by guys who were cursing at the mere thought of a bad swing, here's a guy that can't bring himself to say anything worse than 'cripes' when he doesn't make it happen.

I honestly can't think of any other time I've been on the golf course with someone when they didn't utter a single curse word over 18 holes.

9th HOLE: On this hole, we ask Looney about his year---whether he's a fifth-year senior or fourth-year. He informs us he's a fourth-year senior who saw action as a true freshman back in 2008. Looney is breaking the mold in that regard, as Wake has been well-known for redshirting the majority of its true freshmen, and especially along the offensive line.

We also talk about the Wake Forest pipeline to Florida, where approximately 35 players that signed with the Demon Deacons in the 2007 through 2011 classes hailed from.

"There's a lot of ballers down there, and a lot of guys people don't know about,' said Looney as he prepared to tee off.

10th HOLE: Making our way again to the Back Nine, our foursome gets excited over something we see ahead of us. The group playing in front of us on the 10th gets a picture-perfect tee shot out of one of its team members.

Looney responds with, 'That was disgusting.'

Unfortunately, none of our shots measure up to what we saw ahead of us, as we record another par.

Par is good on any day playing by yourself, but in Captain's Choice, par won't get you but so far.

13th HOLE: After recording two more pars at 11 and 12, we make our way to an interesting par five. This tee shot requires carrying some water, and it's a challenge that Looney rises up for.

In what was arguably his single-best shot of the day, Looney nails a clean iron that rises on a straight trajectory directly over the water. He easily clears the water and lands on the fairway, setting us up for what will be our fourth straight par of the Back Nine.

After the shot, Looney gets laughs from all of us when he bursts out, 'Why can't I do that every time?'

THE FINISH: Our streak of pars continued through 14---our fifth straight par---heading into our final hole, the 15th. Our team is one over par going into the 367-yard par four, and while he have aspirations of finishing the day even, it's not meant to be.

Our putting woes continue, as none of us can convert a 12-foot birdie putt with 72 on the line.

It's a one-over 73---a round that's a lifetime for 95 percent of the world's golfers, but pretty ho-hum for a Captain's Choice foursome. We later learn our 73 is one of the worst rounds of the entire event.

We quickly head back to the clubhouse, as it's time for Looney to make his way back to Winston-Salem for a 3:00 preseason workout in the weight room with his teammates.

We shake hands and exchange one last pleasantry, and he's out.

It's fair to say that Joe Looney won't be looking to earn his PGA Tour Card anytime soon, and former Wake golfing greats like Arnold Palmer and recent Wyndham Open winner Webb Simpson don't have to worry about Looney stealing their thunder on the links anytime soon.

But Looney represents the best of what Wake Forest and the ACC has to offer on the football field, and given all the turmoil that ACC programs have faced over the last year, it's truly refreshing to spend time with a young man like Looney who has all his priorities in the right place.

Win or lose, good golfer or not-so-good golfer, Wake Forest has plenty of reasons to be proud of Joe Looney.






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