Redshirt freshman Miguel Leal was awarded Southeastern Conference freshman of the week Feb. 9 after turning his life upside down to play golf at Florida.
Leal moved to Gainesville from Guatemala City, Guatemala, by himself to play Division I golf after high school. For years, he made trips to the U.S. to compete in several amateur tournaments annually in hopes of getting noticed by recruiters.
The level of competition is immensely different here, he said.
In Guatemala, Leal didn’t get to practice as much. There aren’t personal trainers for golf like there are in the U.S. Golf is also more popular in the U.S., he said, and there are a plethora of opportunities to play.
Leal always knew he wanted to play college golf. He’s been playing since 2008, when he was 6 years old. He has four brothers and two older cousins who played in Guatemala before they also moved away to play golf.
“Guatemala being such a small country, my tournaments over there were at most 10 players, 12 players” he said.
In the U.S., it’s typical for a golf tournament to have over 100 participants.
Leal thought he wouldn’t be heavily recruited if he only played in Central America, he said. After committing to UF in 2020, Florida has become a special place for him. He’s grateful for the opportunity UF gave him, he said.
“It’s great to be here as a Gator,” he said. “Being able to learn and get better every day is something I’ll probably always remember.”
Leal’s dedication to the game is something Florida men’s golf head coach J.C. Deacon acknowledged when considering him for the team.
The first thing Leal did when the Guatemalan airports reopened after COVID-19 was play in five consecutive U.S. tournaments.
Deacon liked that Leal reached out to him first, he said.
“One of the things that I always look for in recruiting is guys that want to play [at] Florida,” he said.
When players open that line of communication themselves, it shows him how much they want to be here, Deacon said. They have a better chance of staying strong through tough times, he said.
Leal began his career with the Gators in 2021 as a freshman. However, he redshirted and never got the opportunity to play meaningful time until his sophomore year.
“He wasn’t even close to being ready for this level,” Deacon said.
Leal and Deacon had a conversation about where he needed to be to continue as a Gator.
His work ethic and academic performance improved following the talk, Deacon said. He worked hard on his pitching and chipping and became more comfortable on the team.
“He flipped the switch, and he's been incredible for the last 14 months,” Deacon said. “His game continues to improve, and he’s had some really tremendous results.”
Along with his technical skills, Deacon spoke highly of Leal’s character.
“Miguel is just a wonderful young man — always has a smile, always positive,” he said. “He brings a really good energy to our culture and to our team.”
Leal’s best friend, roommate and teammate, redshirt freshman Matthew Kress, said Leal is the most friendly, easygoing guy he’s ever met.
“We came into a different situation with COVID where we both kind of were the odd ones out,” Kress said. “We both didn’t get to come visit … basically, we only had each other to latch onto.”
Their experiences early in their college careers created a bond between them, he said, with the time they spent living together contributing to their friendship more than golf did.
Kress believes his teammate will go far in his golf career one day. He wouldn’t be here if people didn’t think he could succeed, he said.
“He’s really transformed his whole life, and it’s obviously showing with his results,” Kress said.
Leal hopes to continue his journey with golf after college, he said. However, he doesn’t like to think about the future much; he’d rather focus on where he’s at right now, he said.
“My main goal … is to win nationals, leave this place with my name on the wall, have a ring and have a great time with my teammates,” he said. “If things go my way, maybe I’ll play on tour.”
While he plans to make his mark as a Gator, he recognizes he has three or four years left before he graduates.
“I’m just focusing day by day,” Leal said.
Contact Madilyn at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @DestefanoMadi.