Being the head men’s golf coach at the University of Florida is a full-time job for J.C. Deacon, but that doesn’t mean he can’t play just as well as some the players he coaches.
Deacon recently completed a wire-to-wire victory at the Florida Open, his second win at the tournament in the past four years, beating several current and former Florida Gators in the process. It’s not necessarily a surprise that the college coach can still compete at a high level given his pedigree — Deacon had a stellar college career at UNLV, reached the semifinals of the 2005 U.S. Amateur and played on the Mackenzie Tour for three years — but the wins say a lot about his mentality on the course.
In this conversation with Graff Golf’s Sean Fairholm, Deacon explains what he has learned from coaching that has helped him as a player. That relationship has been particularly powerful as he mentors emerging star Ricky Castillo, the No. 2 amateur in the world who was the national freshman of the year in college golf.
Sean Fairholm: So two Florida Open wins in four years. How would you compare the two wins?
J.C. Deacon: The first one I was neck and neck with Matt Borchert and we kept on taking the lead from each other, it was wild. I went up a stroke heading into 18 and we both made birdie, so I only won by a shot. I remember that week, I just found something in my swing right before the tournament and it ended up working out.
I’ve been playing solid for a few years now, but leading into this week I didn’t really know what to expect. I didn’t feel perfect on Thursday before the tournament but just kind of eased into the first round and didn’t make many mistakes. It just went from there. I felt really, really good on Saturday when I shot 65. It could have been 60 pretty easily.
SF: Has the pandemic helped with getting more playing time leading into the tournament?
JD: I really got to prepare. Other than being a dad and chasing two little girls, I haven’t had any other responsibilities because we can’t be on the road to recruit. I practiced and prepared almost like a tour player could. It was a huge advantage and made a very big difference.
Having said that, I’m desperately ready to get back to my job. We have a great team and I’m just hoping we get a chance to play. If we don’t play this fall, I may look into playing a little more.
SF: When you are able to play at a level like this, what kind of impact does that have on recruiting and just the overall respect players have when they see you performing like that?
JD: I think it does help. It’s not just all talk when I’m coaching them. I’ve been where they are and I’ve proved it in competition. I think it adds a little more credibility to what I’m saying. I beat two current players this past tournament, so if they aren’t beating me they have to have an open ear when I’m talking to them.
SF: How often do you actually get to play with your team during practice rounds?
JD: I did a better job of this when I was an assistant coach at UNLV because I didn’t have as many administrative responsibilities than I do now. I want to get back to doing that, because I haven’t played as much with our guys here as I’ve wanted to. I think it’s important, because I learn a lot about their games, more so than what you can learn on the range. When you spend four hours with a young man in a cart, you can really develop a relationship and learn a lot about them as human beings.
SF: When you watch one of your players in competition, does it help coaching-wise when you’ve gone through those experiences recently? Of course you’ve played a lot of golf in your life, but being reminded of what those nerves are like when you step to the first tee.
JD: It absolutely does. If you haven’t experienced what it actually feels like to be nervous or to hold the lead before the final round or to make a double and know what is going through your body and mind, it’s hard to tell a kid how to act. I know how much it can hurt.
I ask myself the question a lot, “What would I want to hear right now?” before I talk to our guys. Playing every year and staying sharp is a reminder of how hard the game is… as coaches, it’s easy to sit on the sidelines and expect greatness from your players, but it’s a hard game that humbles you.
SF: When you are only playing a couple of tournaments a year, what do you go through mentally to turn that switch on? Because it’s a different feel than just going to the range and hitting balls.
JD: That’s where I’ve changed the most from coaching. When I was playing professionally on the Mackenzie Tour, I was very poor mentally. That’s why I never made it. After 11 years of coaching, just watching what the great ones do on our team and also on other teams, you see trends in what the best guys are doing. I’ve just picked those up throughout a lot of conversations with people.
As a 23 or 24-year-old pro, you just think that you’ll hit it long and straight and putt well and then you’ll beat everyone. It just doesn’t work like that. If you’re not ready to respond to adversity, you’re just not going to play well.
SF: Has there been an example of something you’ve seen that’s made you change your mental game?
JD: The biggest thing is averages and expectations. I only hit one shot shape with my driver now, whereas before I tried to work it both ways. I keep it super simple. And now there are times during a round where if I don’t feel comfortable, I’ll just hit it into the middle of the green. I never used to do that. I always thought I had to be aggressive. I’m a way better golfer hitting it to 30 or 40 feet and just trusting my lag putting.
Ricky Castillo reinforced that for me. He’s 18 years old and you would think he would be this hot shot, but he will hit it in the center of the green and be totally happy with it. I have never seen that in a kid that young. That type of maturity sets him apart and it really helped me as a player to see him go through that process.
SF: When you are coaching a player like Ricky who has that type of composure and the physical tools to win just about any event he plays, how do you handle that as a coach?
JD: He’ll be the first one to tell you that he’s had to grow up a lot. He had a tough round at Olympia Fields during an event last year, and the two of us sat down at a Starbucks and I just asked him — do you want to be the best player in the world? He said yes and I told him exactly what he needed to do to get there.
We talked about his emotions and his self-talk, needing to be a lot more positive. He was never the same after that. He was the mentally strongest player in college golf. I think only five people total beat him in the spring season before we stopped.
SF: Given what’s he has accomplished, how do you see him evolving at UF and what will his progression be like?
JD: Now that he’s right near the top of the amateur rankings, he’s going to have a target on his back every week. This past year he was a freshman who had to prove himself, and now he has to go and back it up. Getting stronger in the gym is going to help, but being able to control his emotions and go through life experiences in college is really going to help him. It sounds scary, but I can see him making a big jump and playing even better than he did last year.
He’s the most competitive person I’ve ever been around. He has something in him that I’ve never seen before.