May 26, 2009
By JERRY HILL
Baylor Bear Insider
Cody Paladino has such an unorthodox swing that it makes you "look like you're going to sit on the ground."
Which might explain why the Baylor sophomore golfer from Kensington, Conn., had one of the most drastic swings between failure and success that you will ever see.
After finishing last among 60 golfers at the Big 12 Championships, Paladino came back two weeks later for an improbable third-place finish and playoff victory at the NCAA South Central Regional, earning a spot in the 112th NCAA Championships that begin Tuesday at Inverness Golf Club in Toledo, Ohio.
"The change of emotions, the roller-coaster ride has been pretty incredible," Paladino said.
"That was uncharacteristic for him to finish last," coach Greg Priest said. "He was kind of down a little bit and going through a little rough patch, and he got it turned around and got his swing worked out. But just having the ability to turn it around, you've got to be pretty mentally strong."
As bad as he shot at the Big 12 Championships, which were held April 27-29 at Prairie Dunes Country Club in Hutchinson, Kan., Paladino thought he might be starting his summer a little early. With his spot on the five-man team in doubt for the regional, his mother had already purchased him a ticket for a flight home as soon as final exams were over.
"I had just about the worst week I've ever had on a golf course," said Paladino, who finished at 46-over-par 326 with rounds of 85, 79, 81 and 81. "It was awful. The second round, I was 2-over with a couple holes to go. And I still don't know how. But then I just fell apart. It was awful."
Paladino's mother sent out a 9-1-1 call to Chuck Lasher, his personal golf instructor and family friend who's worked with him since he was 7 years old.
"For someone like me, it makes a huge difference," Paladino said. "Because when I stand on the range and ask some of the players or ask our coaches, `Hey, take a look at my swing,' I don't feel entirely comfortable with what they say. It's not that I don't trust them. But they give you a lot of the same fundamentals that you would say to others that don't necessarily apply to my swing. So to have the guy who's basically built my swing since I was 6 or 7 years old, that's huge. Everything I know about my swing has come from him."
By the time Paladino picked up Lasher from the DFW Airport, he had already returned home from the Big 12 tournament and spent nine hours on the range. "I did everything that I knew worked and just tried to get back to some place where I could remember how to do things my way," he said.
"It was amazing, because the ride from Dallas to Waco . . . was probably the most important hour and a half in my golfing career, I would think, to this point," said Paladino, who was third on the team this year with a 74.25-stroke average. "We talked about everything that I figured out on the range. And in that hour and a half we spent in the car, I learned so much about my swing and what's so important for me to play well."
More than anything, he figured out that he had to go back to his swing. As unorthodox as it might look - his stance is much wider and farther away from the ball than most people, and the plane of his swing is "really flat, like way around my body" - it works for him.
"When we got back to Waco, we went straight to the course and straight to the 1st tee box," Paladino said. "We didn't go to the range at all. He said, `OK, I want to know what you did yesterday, but I want to see it on the course.' So we went out and played nine holes. And he was like, `OK, Wow! That's what you're supposed to be doing.' It was just a matter of getting the timing back and getting comfortable with it again."
"Nobody knew how to fix it," Priest said. "But I think by going through these changes and having some ups and downs and some adversity, when it does go off now, we know to change it. So I think we definitely learned something."
Right after the Big 12 Championships, Priest's original thought was to leave Paladino home for the regional. "But that was just in the moment," he said. Paladino eventually won an intra-squad scrimmage, finishing fourth in stroke play and then beating two other potential qualifiers in match play.
"I knew that if we were going to make it out of there, Cody had to be in the lineup," Priest said. "He's a guy that's carried us, and we only make it if he's in there. And he's going to have to play well."
Looking nothing like the golfer that had hacked his way around the Prairie Dunes layout, Paladino certainly upheld his end of the bargain at the regional in Stillwater, Okla. He opened with a 2-over-par 74 on the difficult Karsten Creek Golf Club layout and followed with rounds of 73 and 74, finishing at 5-over 221 and tying for third individually with LSU's John Peterson after 54 holes.
"I got to the first tee on the first day and was like, `OK, I know what doesn't work,''' Paladino said. "And that's standing there, kind of questioning what I'm doing. I know I've got to try something different. So I'm like, `OK, trust what you know works.' And for 54 holes, that's what I did."
In a two-hole, sudden-death playoff, Paladino made pars on both holes while Peterson missed an 8-foot birdie putt that would have won it on the first hole and then three-putted from eight feet for bogey on the second hole.
After hitting his approach shot on the par-4 10th hole over the green, Paladino chipped to within four feet and sank the putt to win the playoff and earn the qualifying spot for the NCAA Championships.
"When that putt went in on the second playoff hole, it was amazing," he said. "There have only been a couple times in my golf career where that much emotion comes to you. And that was definitely one of them. You're in the moment, and you're so isolated, that you don't really know what's happening. And then all of a sudden, I hit it and it went in the hole, and I was like, `Oh, geez!'''
Paladino should not be intimidated or awed by the talented field of the nation's premier collegiate golfers or event itself this week. He's performed well on the national stage, finishing as the runner-up at the 2007 U.S. Amateur Public Links Championship the summer before he enrolled at Baylor.
Facing a pair of players who are now on the PGA Tour, Paladino defeated Derek Fathauer of Louisville, 1-up, in the semifinals before losing to recent SMU graduate Colt Knost, 6-and-4, in a 36-hole final.
"I had about a two-footer on the 18th hole to (defeat Fathauer)," Paladino said. "And when that putt went in, it was almost unbelievable. That's the other time that I was talking about when I've been overwhelmed by emotion. Making the putt to make it to the finals, I will never forget that."
Live scoring for the NCAA Championships is available at www.golfstat.com. Paladino was scheduled to tee off at 8:55 a.m. Tuesday.