Gordon Neale had everything settled. As a top-25 prospect in his recruiting class, he had his pick of offers from high-profile programs. But there was only one school he wanted to attend. With a scholarship lined up, he was headed to play golf at Southern Methodist University.
Until he wasn’t.
At the beginning of his senior year at Tesoro High School in Orange County, California, after being committed to the Mustangs for a year and a half, he was informed by an assistant coach at SMU that head coach Josh Gregory had resigned amid allegations of recruiting violations.
Gordon was shocked.
“Nobody saw that coming,” he said.
Gordon committed to SMU expecting to play for Gregory, so after his would-be coach’s departure, he lost interest in the school.
Now, overwhelmed with uncertainty concerning his future as a college athlete, Gordon had only months to make a decision most golfers have years to make.
But after having to overcome the disappointment of missing out on his perfect fit, having to build relationships with coaches he’d never spoken to and being forced to rush a decision that would affect the rest of his life, he eventually found a home in Gainesville.
Excited to be a Mustang
It’s easy to see why Gordon wanted to go to SMU. After all, heading into the 2014 fall season, the Mustangs were coming off a postseason run in which they won the American Athletic Conference and advanced to the NCAA quarterfinals, where they lost a hard-fought match to eventual champion Alabama.
SMU’s commitment to its golf program brought about some of the best facilities in the country, including a new golf course estimated to cost $50 million, which will host PGA tournaments beginning in 2018. The Mustangs, who finished ranked No. 26 the previous season, were looking like a national title contender in 2014-15. Gordon was excited to play for Gregory, who his father said he “really, really, liked.”
While Gordon had looked at schools near his hometown of Dove Canyon, California, his reason for leaving the Los Angeles area was, strangely, the reason most people come to Southern California in the first place.
“The weather was perfect,” Gordon said.
Gordon was too ambitious to play in pristine conditions. He wanted wind. He wanted rain. He even wanted to be tested by types of grass that the Los Angeles area couldn’t offer.
The range of conditions in Dallas made it the perfect destination, and SMU the perfect school.
But then, everything changed.
On Aug. 8, 2014, SMU announced Gregory’s resignation. In the school’s official release, there was no mention of why he resigned.
However, days later, details emerged that Gregory had resigned under pressure from the university after repeated allegations were made against him for violating NCAA rules, including impermissible text messages sent to recruits, according to a report from Golfweek.
Gordon’s father said he didn’t think the allegations warranted Gregory’s resignation.
“It was an unfortunate circumstance,” his father, Garth, said.
While Gordon remained committed at the time, he told Golfweek in the days after Gregory’s resignation that he was reconsidering his commitment and exploring other colleges.
“I still don’t know what’s going to happen," he told Golfweek at the time.
In the weeks that followed, Gordon grew less and less comfortable with the state of SMU’s program. Finally, he decommitted.
“The program started going downhill,” Gordon said. “There was a bunch of uncertainty.”
Searching for a new home
Gordon went from an excited high school senior with a secure future to a free agent in a few weeks, looking for a new school when most of his peers had long since committed. He felt lost.
“I can’t imagine being a young kid like that, fired up to go to a college, and to have it all derail,” his personal coach Bob Lasken said. “From being on a potential top-five team with the best facilities, and to have that pulled out from under you and be back to square one was really difficult.”
Gordon found himself in a strange position. One would think that a top recruit becoming available would be a godsend, and coaches from top-tier programs would be knocking down his door every day.
However, with some elite golfers committing as early as middle school, many programs had exhausted their scholarship budget for the 2015 class.
“You get afraid that all the scholarships are locked up,” Gordon said.
He felt like his future — one that he’d spent a year and a half looking forward to — was taken away from him.
While he had other offers from programs like three-time national champion Texas and hometown USC, none of them offered the same comfort he felt from SMU and Gregory.
Florida enters the fold
Before he decommitted from SMU, Gordon didn’t have any interest in Florida, and the former Gators coaching staff didn’t recruit him. He didn’t want to go to school that far from home.
“I didn’t look at any schools east of Texas,” Gordon said.
However, newly hired UF coach J.C. Deacon had been following him from afar ever since his days as an assistant coach at Nevada-Las Vegas. While Gordon didn’t have any interest in a lower-tier program like UNLV, Deacon saw an opportunity to reach out to him once he arrived at Florida.
Early one morning during Gordon’s senior year, a call from an unknown number jarred him awake. He didn’t recognize the voice on the other line. It belonged to Deacon.
Gordon knew the coach from Deacon’s UNLV days and heard from friends committed to UNLV how excited they were to play for him. But he didn’t know Deacon had recently taken the head coaching job at Florida.
The call from Deacon sparked Gordon’s interest in playing for the Gators.
Even though the 17-year-old was reluctant to go so far from home, UF offered an intriguing opportunity.
While in Florida to compete in the Junior Players Championship, Gordon decided to take advantage of a chance to visit Gainesville.
He was glad he did.
He instantly connected with Deacon and then-assistant coach John Handrigan, now the head coach at Notre Dame.
“We were good buddies right away,” Deacon said. “He was really comfortable from day one.”
In Florida – and its new stable of coaches – Gordon saw an opportunity to find an environment that felt like home. One that felt like SMU.
“I fell in love with the coaching staff,” he said.
A tough choice
Even though Gordon liked what he saw during his Florida visit, it wasn’t enough for him to decide on Florida outright. As National Signing Day loomed in the spring, Gordon had yet to make a decision between Florida and other schools, namely Arizona State.
“I remember it coming down really close between us and ASU,” Deacon said. “Honestly, we were worried.”
While many high school athletes make their recruiting decisions based on superficial factors like clubhouse amenities, Gordon was slightly different.
He made a pros-and-cons list.
With an elaborate point system.
He made a list of the schools he was considering and assigned points to each school based on possible benefits. For example, schools got points if they had an on-campus golf course. He didn’t want to drive for 40 minutes through traffic to get to practice like he would have to at a school like UCLA.
He added up the total points, and while it was close, Florida won.
Garth said he was proud of his son for the maturity he showed throughout the process.
“He made a decision without being starry-eyed,” he said.
Gordon verbally committed to the Gators in February while traveling to South Africa for a tournament and made it official by signing his Letter of Intent in April.
Despite how difficult the decision was for him, Gordon, now a star junior at UF, says he has no regrets about choosing the Gators.
Everything that drew him to SMU was there for him at Florida: top-flight facilities, a coaching staff he trusted and an environment that would challenge him.
For an upperclassman with plans to win major tournaments like the Masters while playing on the PGA Tour, it would be easy for him to think about his post-collegiate career.
But coming off of a career-best semester this fall — notching two top-five finishes, including second place at SMU’s Trinity Forest, the course he once thought he’d call home — Gordon’s focus is on his legacy as a Gator. After his first coaching choice resigned, months of uncertainty, and an improvised recruiting process, Gordon is finally able to enjoy some stability.
“I want to leave my name hanging around UF for a while,” he said.
You can follow Tyler Nettuno on Twitter @TylerNettuno, and contact him at [email protected].