Rickey Sullivan is the Director of Instruction at The Ranch at Bulls Bay Golf Club. Located just minutes north of historic Charleston, the course looks and plays more like Ireland than the South Carolina Lowcountry. Though the Mike Strantz-designed course is private, the state-of-the-art teaching facilities at The Ranch are open to any golfers taking lessons from Sullivan or fellow teaching professional Greg Boyette.
Three such students just happen to be among the small crop of newcomers to the PGA Tour in 2012. Tommy Biershenk and Kevin Kisner were among the 29 players who earned their cards at the 2011 Qualifying School, played Nov. 30-Dec. 5 in Palm Springs, Calif.
Scott Brown earned his player’s card by finishing inside the top 25 money winners on the 2011 Nationwide Tour. Both Kisner and Brown earned their Tour Card after just one year working with Sullivan, who has served as Biershenk’s swing coach for the past six years.
Brown, 28, is a North Augusta, S.C., resident who played his college golf for USC-Aiken. In 26 events on the Nationwide Tour last season, Brown won $282,502 to rank eighth on the year-end money list. In 55 career Nationwide Tour starts, he made 29 cuts, posting eight top-10 and 14 top-25 finishes and banking nearly $390,000. But five of those top-10 finishes – in fact, five top-3s, including a solo second at the Nationwide Tour Championship – came in 2011, his first year working with Sullivan.
He also finished runner-up at the Rex Hospital Open in Raleigh last year.
A Spartanburg native and Clemson graduate, Biershenk was in the hunt for his card when the Nationwide Tour Championship came to Charleston. But a 6-over-par showing earned only a tie for 43rd, his worst finish of the year, and left him 31st on the final money list, six spots short of the final Tour Card awarded from the Nationwide money list. Biershenk rebounded with a T-5 showing at Q-School, where he shot 14-under 418 in the six-round marathon.
Biershenk, 38, turned pro in 1997, right after earning a degree in education and human resources. In his career, he has played in 143 Nationwide Tour events, making 81 cuts and earning nearly $600,000. Last year, he had two top-10s among his 18 made cuts in 25 starts. His career includes 14 top-10 and 48 top-25 finishes, his best being a second in the 2000 Oregon Classic.
Kisner, an Aiken native who turns 28 just a month into the 2012 season, earned his way back to the PGA Tour, thanks to his T-11 finish at Q-School, where he shot 12-under 420. He went into the final round tied for 24th and “on the bubble,” but his closing 67 was just one shot off the best round of the day.
In 2010, Kisner won the Nationwide Tour’s Mylan Classic among six top-10 finishes. In 2011, he made 24 starts on the PGA Tour, making 10 cuts and posting his best finish at the season-ending event at Disney World, where he tied for 12th. But he failed to hold onto his card when he finished 181st on the money list with $270,170.
Kisner played college golf at Georgia, where he was the school’s first four-time All-American and helped the Bulldogs win the 2005 NCAA Championship. Before that, he won two AAAA State Championships for South Aiken High School.
Anyone familiar with Sullivan’s career is hardly shocked by news that three more of his students are advancing to the PGA Tour – emphasis on the word “more.”
Charlotte resident Brendon de Jonge began working with Sullivan at the beginning of the 2008 season while he was still on the Nationwide Tour. By the end of that same year, the native Zimbabwean who played collegiately at Virginia Tech was that tour’s Player of the Year, having posted 16 top-25 finishes in 28 starts, including a 4-shot victory at the Xerox Classic. He has yet to win on the PGA Tour, but has 14 top-10 finishes, including this year’s season-opening Sony Open. His best finish entering 2012 was a solo third at the Greenbrier Classic in 2010, a season in which he posted two T-3 finishes as well as a solo fourth at the Wells Fargo Championship at Charlotte’s Quail Hollow Club.
De Jonge is just one of several Charlotte area players who regularly make the trip down to Charleston to work with Sullivan. Others include Huntersville’s Logan Harrell, the 2009 North Carolina Junior Player of the Year--now in his sophomore year at South Carolina--as well as Drew Perry and Anthony Metzelaars.
Perry, from Matthews and a cousin of PGA and Champions Tour star Kenny Perry, played collegiately at Wofford, where he made Southern Conference Academic Honor Roll. Metzelaars is from Charlotte and is the son of former NFL tight end and Indianapolis Colts offensive line coach Pete Metzelaars, who spent one of his 16 NFL seasons as a Carolina Panther. Anthony played quarterback for Wingate College before concentrating on golf as a professional and moving on to the mini-tours.
In addition to coaching four PGA Tour players, as well as Gareth Mayben on the European Tour, Sullivan has coached some 60 juniors to NCAA Division I golf scholarships and helped students win numerous state and regional titles.
In 2009, Sullivan saw four different students win four major state titles in South Carolina, including the Junior Boys, Junior Girls, Girls Match-Play and Men’s Senior championships – a rare superfecta punctuated by the fact that it marked the first time juniors sharing the same swing coach had won both the boys and girls state titles in the same year.
Still in his early 40s, Sullivan is a glaring exception to the old adage that “Those who can, do; and those who can’t, teach.” He won more than 40 titles as a junior growing up in Florence, S.C. and went on to play three seasons as a professional.
After graduating from Limestone College in 1988 with a BA, Sullivan earned a degree in country club management from the Golf Academy of the South in 1990. Following school, he spent six years as head professional at a club in Skien, Norway, where his students included six playing professionals, four Division I collegiate players and seven Norwegian national team players. In 1996, he competed on the European Challenge Tour – the equivalent to the Nationwide Tour in America – before returning to the United States to play two seasons on the NGA Hooters Tour.
“But on the Hooters Tour, I was teaching 10 guys that I was playing against,” Sullivan explained with a perplexed smile. “I’m thinking, ‘This is crazy. I’m teaching guys that I’m trying to beat.’ And the thing was, I found myself being more interested in how they played than how I played. I’d shoot 75 and think, ‘That’s OK,’ because a couple of the guys I was working with shot 67 or 68.
“That’s when I realized I was really a teacher. My mind-set had switched. I was more concerned with someone else’s game than my own. I was happy when my students played well, genuinely happy.”
Looking at the lineup of 2012 PGA Tour rookies, Sullivan has plenty to keep him smiling these days.