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Collegiate Golf: Leaning on positivity with Leach

Tyler Leach's highly-praised golf demeanor and success hasn't vanished during his journey from Spring Valley High School to Marquette University. (File photo)

Tyler Leach believes his golf game hit a low point following his high school graduation.

The reigning WIAA Division 3 State golf champion went through one of the most challenging periods of his career just weeks after defeating St. Mary's Springs' Doyle Kelly by one stroke at University Ridge Golf Course.

"I'd go out and play, and as soon as one thing wasn't going my way, I'd let it bother me and I'd have a difficult time recovering from that," Leach said. "I almost reached a point where I felt like I kind of hit rock bottom."

Leach, the two-time state champion, partially attributed his lapse to the major transition from high school to collegiate golf he was about to experience.

The transition of leaving his legacy as a well-known high school golfer to start over as a freshman at Marquette University was daunting for the 2018 Spring Valley graduate — as it is for most successful high school athletes. But unlike many of those who've found themselves under pressure to carry their high school accomplishments over to the collegiate level, Leach embraced his struggles on the course and allowed them to become his greatest strengths in the fall.

"Coming to Marquette, I knew I was going to have to play well for the vast majority of my rounds, and my game wasn't really where I wanted it to be," Leach said. "But towards the end of the summer I just kind of hit the reset button and tried to have the same mindset that I always had."

With a new set of clubs and added confidence, Leach saw his putting game take a complete 180 in the fall.

"My biggest setback became my greatest strength," Leach said. "Once you start playing well you start gaining confidence and the positive mindset starts to come back in."

Leach didn't allow a single barrier to stand in his way during his journey to Marquette, and is now watching his determination pay off as he claims a spot on the Division I Golden Eagles' starting roster.

But Leach's maturity shouldn't come as a surprise to those who've watched the way the unfazed golfer carries himself on the greens.

"I would say one of the biggest things that differentiates me from the average college player is my demeanor," Leach said. "When I play with other kids it's easy for me to see them get frustrated, throw their clubs, and I think that that affects their score at the end of the round. I think my mindset has almost given me an advantage, and I've been able to take it to the next level during my time here."

Among the best in the east

The freshman has found himself in the Big East team's starting lineup at every tournament this season, and is currently the eighth-best golfer and top freshman in the conference. Though Leach may have faced some self-doubt the summer before moving his life to Marquette, it's obvious he belongs on Division I golf courses.

The Golden Eagles' head coach Steve Bailey agrees.

"The foundation of our team is our culture," Bailey said. "Tyler was not only an accomplished player but he competed at an elite level while possessing the character traits that aligned with our program."

Leach was first contacted by Bailey the summer after his sophomore year of high school and was offered a spot on the Golden Eagles' roster a year later. Although Leach's level-headedness was praised during his high school career, he believes Bailey has taken it to new heights.

"That was already one of the strengths of my game, but (Bailey) talks to us a lot about maintaining a positive mindset, which I feel has helped me out a lot with my game," Leach said. "I would attribute a lot of the successes that I've had this fall to just completely eliminating negative thoughts."

Leach's go-to tactic paid off for him during his first qualifying round with the Golden Eagles.

"In the first event, I played one of the worst rounds I had that fall and I was easily in last place," Leach recalled. "So I kind of dug myself a hole for the rest of the qualifying round, but I just kept with that positive mindset: 'You've got a ton of golf left. Just keep being true to yourself. You're going to still shoot some solid scores.'"

Leach turned things around at Erin Hills, which he claims is his favorite course to play on because of the challenges it presents.

"I would say that's the hardest golf course I've ever played," Leach said. "I went out and shot a 69 in that round, and that was a big turning point for me and that set the tone for the rest of the fall."

Since then, Leach has wholeheartedly embraced his role at Marquette where he no longer feels like a celebrity every time he steps onto a course and has found the advantages of carrying a low profile as a freshman.

"At every event I went to in high school, I kind of felt everyone's eyes watching me, and it was expected of me to shoot a really good score," Leach said. "So I had that added pressure.

"Now coming to college, nobody knows who I am. I'm just a small-town Wisconsin boy playing Division I golf. Obviously that takes a lot of pressure off."

Taking advantage of snow, small town

Four of the Golden Eagles' eight golfers claim Wisconsin as their home state and are used to putting their outdoor golfing on hold during the snowy months of Midwest winters. Some would say the climate of Milwaukee puts Marquette at a disadvantage compared to some of its southern Big East competitors, but Leach is once again able to find the benefits in another hitch.

"While it might slightly be less advantageous for us because we don't get to play year round, I feel like we kind of embrace that period where we can't play and just use it to our advantage," Leach said. "We can hit the reset button and once we step up again, I feel like we have an advantage over the guys who play year round because it's pretty easy to get burnt out for them."

Though Leach is joined by three other Wisconsinites on his team's roster, he is only one of two Marquette players who come from a small town of less than 1,000 people. The freshman believes coming from a town of 800 people may have hindered his recruiting process, but considering where he's ended up, Leach concedes that growing up on Spring Valley's golf course offered him more opportunities than impediments.

"The amount of support that I have received throughout my golfing career from everyone back home has been mind blowing," Leach said. "And just the opportunity to be able to play as much free golf whenever I wanted to was an opportunity that not a lot of other kids could say they had growing up.

"I'm blessed to have grown up where I did."

Coach Bailey believes Leach has handled his transition from Spring Valley to Marquette well and says it's been great for his freshman's growth and development as a person and player. He also perceives Leach's small-town roots as a benefit rather than a hindrance.

"(Hometown size) isn't something we really seek out while recruiting," Bailey said, "but I would say it seems the young men we've had from smaller towns are gritty competitors and very confident in their ability."

Leach matches the trend.

The Golden Eagles finished in ninth place at their most-recent event, the Thunderbird Collegiate, and are projected to win the Big East this spring. Leach has high goals for the postseason that go beyond winning a team conference title, but for now he plans to take one event and one shot at a time.

"As long as I'm not getting ahead of myself and putting all of my focus into every shot, I really can't leave anything else out on the course," Leach said. "I know that sounds really cliche, but I feel like I'm at my best when I do that."

Again, Bailey agrees.

"One of Tyler's biggest strengths is his ability to focus place his focus on his process and not think too much about the results," Bailey said. "As you transition to the collegiate level, you must strive to improve every facet of your game. Tyler has certainly embraced this challenge and knows if he can get a little better everyday, the outcome will take care of itself."

Leach's ability to let the golf play out while handling what he can control has led him to where he is today, and he believes any small-town Wisconsin boy can follow his lead.

"If there's anybody that wants to pursue a career collegiately, they're definitely more than capable of doing that," Leach said. "For someone in my shoes, they should be reaching out to any coaches they can think of. The worst they're going to tell you is 'Sorry, we're not interested.' But at least let them make that decision. That's all you can really do."