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College confidence: Cooney finding success at USF

University of Sioux Falls golfer J.J. Cooney hits a shot at the Bob Writz Invite on March 25 at Bear Creek Golf Course in Denver, Colorado. (Tim Flynn / Colorado School of Mines Athletics)

SIOUX FALLS — J.J. Cooney is an easy-going guy.

And on the golf course, he's even more relaxed.

In a demanding mental sport, it's an attribute that can't be underestimated. It's helped Cooney adjust to college golf at the University of Sioux Falls so well. Fresh off a sixth-place finish at the Northern Sun Intercollegiate Conference, Cooney has now recorded nine top-10 finishes in his two seasons playing with the Cougars.

"His level head on the golf course and his positivity stand out to me. His play has been so consistent," USF head coach Brett Bennett said about Cooney's two seasons. "The mental approach he brings, he won't be unraveled by a bogey or two. He's a kid that is going with the flow, happy-go-lucky and he understands that's the approach it's going to take for him to be successful."

A two-time Class B state champion (2015 and 2016) at Andes Central, Cooney said he's fit in well at USF.

"I have a good team to work with and a good coach that supports us," Cooney said. "The school supports us really well and it's been a good experience so far."

The experience has been just as good on the golf course for Cooney as well. In four tournaments this spring, he recorded four top-10 finishes. With 19 rounds played in his sophomore season, he recorded a scoring average of 74.7—three strokes better than anyone else at USF and eighth-best in the NSIC. As a freshman, he averaged 75.5 per 18 holes.

"The competition gets more and more competitive. You have to keep working to get better or you'll fall behind, but I've seen I can compete with everybody that's out there in our conference," Cooney said. "On the course, I've just been trying to keep the ball in play and keeping the game simple. Making the best of what the next shot will be and having fun."

That's what he did at the NSIC tournament, where he carded a 76 in his first round, 75 in his second and 73 in the final round, which tied for the second-best score of the day. He recorded six birdies over the three days and just 12 bogeys with only one double-bogey.

"The weather wasn't with us like it's been all spring. We were dealing with some elements, but you just had to persevere and keep going," said Cooney, who started his final round with back-to-back birdies. "I took it shot by-and-shot. I kept battling."

Seeking his first win

Both Bennett and Cooney said the next step is to win a college tournament, but Bennett said the plethora of strong finishes have only prepared Cooney more to have a chance to win in every tournament.

"He understands his competition and understands what it takes to play at that level," Bennett said. "He knows that par is going to have a possibility to win tournaments. He's making a few more birdies this year, but he's not giving up those big numbers."

Unlike many Division II golfers, Bennett said Cooney's experience on the junior golf tour, where he played in tournaments across the country, really prepared him for college golf. He noted Cooney was accustomed to playing against other high level golfers and playing against people he would not know.

"It's a level of maturity. He's experienced it at a younger age than some of the other guys at this level," said Bennett, noting other members on USF's team may not have played much outside of their home state.

"His improvement and his dedication to the game has been phenomenal."

As far as physical abilities, Bennett didn't have to think twice about Cooney's best weapon.

"His driving is probably his biggest strength," Bennett said. "He's not the longest guy, but the fairways hit is key for him. His iron-play and short game are never poor."

While Cooney is happy with his golf game, he stressed there's still more to work on. Cooney, a double business major in business administration and entrepreneurial studies, will stay in Sioux Falls over the summer and has a handful of tournaments lined up.

"I was hoping to have a couple more top-5 (finishes) and maybe a win under my belt, but I still got two years left," Cooney said. "I'll keep working on drills to keep my game fresh and improve both my mental and physical shape."

Bennett said he'd like to see Cooney play a little more with an attacking style, but added his confidence continues to grow which will allow him to do that. He's excited to see what Cooney's junior and senior seasons will look like.

"He will win," Bennett said. "He's got the mentality. He's got the game and he's got the ability to do it."