The black widow is native to the Canary Islands, an archipelago off the coast of Africa.
The son of “The Black Widow” is as well. That’s the nickname UF golfer Manny Girona says his father earned from his black hair, trimmed into a bowl cut. Manny’s father, a soccer goalie, was also notoriously competitive.
It naturally made sense that Manny was too.
When it came time for young Manny to pick up a sport, there was hardly any question as to what it’d be. Golf practically runs in his family’s blood. Girona says his grandfather was the founder of what was allegedly the first golf club in the Canary Islands.
Manny and his father learned golf together. The elder Girona took his son to the driving range as a toddler, and the learning curve took off from there.
Manny hit his first golf balls out on that range. It started as a fun father-son outing. But before long, father and son competed against each other.
“When I started beating him, he quit,” Manny laughed.
It took time and a move halfway across the world for golf to stick with Girona permanently.
Girona’s parents owned a jewelry store in the islands until Manny was five years old. Wishing to pursue other endeavors, the couple sold the store back to the franchise and moved to the United States.
However, it wasn’t until Girona was 10 years old that he started to fall in love with the game after attending a couple of summer camps. He remembers winning the first golf tournament he ever played in when he was 11.
“Winning my first tournament I ever played, I think, was a big pivotal moment just because it was like, ‘Wow, like, this is fun, winning is fun,’” he said. “The funny thing was that the week after the tournament, I shot 10 shots better than I had the week before and lost.
“I remember my dad hugging me and telling me how proud he was,” Manny said. “That was just like, a big, big moment for me because I realized I was pretty good at something, something that I enjoyed doing.”
Girona transferred to Windermere Preparatory School near Orlando midway through his sixth-grade year. Heading into seventh grade, he decided to try out for the golf team. Windermere is a K-12 school, so he had to compete against high schoolers for the team.
Girona made varsity his very first year after only playing the sport for a year and a half, which he says tells you more about the state of the team at that point than his own abilities.
It wasn’t until the school hired a new golf coach by the name of Kyle McClone ahead of his junior year that things started to fall into place for Girona. Before McClone arrived at Windermere, the team had gone through multiple coaches during Girona’s stint at the school alone.
But with McClone came stability and success for both the team and Girona as an individual. The small private school won districts and regionals to advance to states. With three strong seniors and Girona, it felt like this was the year for Windermere.
Unfortunately for Windermere, it came up short at states, finishing in third and losing by nine strokes to Lake Mary Prep.
“That was pretty frustrating because… we thought we were pretty screwed because we were losing three big guys,” says Girona.
However, Windermere was back at states the very next year, armed with four seniors, including Girona. Windermere came out on top this time, beating runner-up Lake Mary by seven strokes and validating a long high school varsity golf career for Girona.
“That was just like the mic drop,” said Girona. “After seven years of trying to win the state title and all of that, it was awesome. I remember that day just like it was yesterday.”
Girona’s performance at Windermere didn’t go unnoticed, either. He started to receive offers from various schools to play golf.
It was Girona’s personality off the course that attracted UF men’s golf coach J.C. Deacon as much as Girona’s performance on the course.
“I liked his personality and his demeanor,” Deacon said. “He had a really good reputation in junior golf with the other kids, and that’s shown true in school, too.”
Wishing to stay close to home while still wanting to play golf at the collegiate level, Girona narrowed his choices down to four schools: Auburn, USF, UNF and Florida. He saw Florida as “the complete package” of golf (Girona says that the team was ranked second in the country at the time of his commitment) and academics, a value constantly ingrained into his head by his parents.
However, just because Florida was the “complete package” didn’t mean that it was going to be easy. Girona found himself behind a logjam of older, more experienced golfers his first year at UF as well as trying to adjust to college as both a student and on the golf course. It was decided that it was best for him to redshirt.
Girona doesn’t consider himself the type to get down on himself or quit. Instead, he continued to work on his game, playing with other teammates and just trying to figure out what he could do to improve his game.
“He handled it really well,” Deacon said. “For him to get a year under his belt and see how we do things and watch those guys play and see, you know, how good you have to be to play at the University of Florida, he learned a lot.”
That also didn’t mean that it would be easy for Girona to have to sit on the proverbial sidelines and watch as his teammates competed with no opportunity for him to be with them. He remembers looking on as the team played at Isleworth Country Club in Windermere, his “home” course that he admits that he’s played “over 74 rounds” at.
“That’s when I think it hurt the most,” Girona remembers. “That’s when I realized I was redshirting and… seeing them all play a course that I loved and a course back home.”
Girona met with Deacon and associate coach Mark Leon to discuss what he was going to do to improve his game. Deacon asked him during the meeting, “What are you going to do to get two, three shots better? Don’t answer it, just do it.”
With the season over, Girona headed back home and talked to his swing coach there. They created a plan to accentuate the powerful 5-foot-11, 200-pound freshman’s strengths, specifically his ball striking with irons.
“He’s a really good iron player, a really, really, really good iron player,” Deacon said. “He hits it a long ways.”
Girona immediately started to see improvements in his game as the summer went on and played in various tournaments.
“The summer felt like… an okay day would be a 70, 71,” Girona said. “Last year, during my redshirt year, I was grinding out to try to just break par.”
He mentioned his last tournament in the summer before heading back down to Gainesville this year, a tournament in Georgia. Girona was one under heading into the final day. He felt like he had played much better than his score, just waiting for a bounce to go his way or for a putt to drop.
He scored a 66 on the final round, bringing home not only a top-five finish but also momentum heading into his first fall season.
“It kinda… set the wheels, set the wheels running for me,” Girona said. “This is my year.”
The departures of Alejandro Tosti and Andy Zhang from the previous year’s squad created openings in the roster. Girona ended up qualifying for the team’s first tournament in the fall at The Farm Golf Club for the Carpet Capital Collegiate.
If this were a Hollywood blockbuster, there would be dramatic music leading up to a crucial putt on the 18th hole for the win.
But this was not a Hollywood blockbuster.
He struggled throughout the weekend along with the rest of the team as he finished 11 strokes over par for a 65th-place finish.
Deacon walked with Girona for his last 18 holes at the Carpet Capital Collegiate, watching and observing Girona’s play. Girona remembers that he only missed two fairways that day but was killed by his putting en route to a 75.
The coach noticed that the tempo and swing on his putting was off. When the team returned to Gainesville, the two used a device called Blast Motion in Girona’s putter to measure the timing of his swing. As expected, the pace of his putting was significantly off, leading to changes in his swing.
The work behind the scenes paid off immediately for Girona after qualifying as an individual for the Trinity Forest Invitational. He saw his best tournament of the fall with scores of 70, 71 and 70 and a 19th-place finish.
He found himself back in the Gators’ lineup at their next tournament at the Nike Collegiate and struggled again after a strong first round to fall to a 45th-place finish. He also narrowly missed qualifying for the Tavistock Collegiate to close out the fall season.
But the fall season is to help golfers put in the work needed to prepare themselves for the spring season when it counts. The general mood around the entire team is that it has put in the work to be a high-caliber team, but the results just haven’t matched their level of work and effort.
And that rings true for Girona, too. Deacon and the rest of the team have lauded his hard work throughout the fall.
“He loves the game… he’s always excited to be at the course and to play and to work at it and get better,” Deacon said. “When you got a guy who loves it and really tries hard, they’re just going to get better, especially when he’s here and using all of the resources that we have.”
“I’m very proud of the way [he] has kind of vaulted his way up the lineup,” senior Gordon Neale said. “He redshirted last year and now he’s becoming very, very solid part of our team and he’s playing well for us.
“The way he’s really progressed, especially over the summer and then the early part of this fall has been huge compared to how he was playing last year and he’s really going to help our team this spring.”
The men’s golf roster is at a crossroads. Neale is the only senior on the team, and beyond him, the only non-freshman who regularly played in the lineup was sophomore John Axelsen. It also endured a brutal fall season in which the team only had one top-four finish and just four individual top-10 finishes.
Girona, along with freshmen Aden Ye and Eugene Hong, represent the next competitive core for the team moving forward. But as Deacon points out, that future might come sooner than later.
“We don’t have as much depth this year and we need a huge contribution from all of our guys, really.
“Manny’s got the capabilities to be a really good player, and we need him to step up and do it.”
For the kid from the Canary Islands who has hustled since he was a seventh grader trying to make the high-school varsity team for a small private school, it is more likely than not that he’ll figure it out.
Follow Brendan Farrell on Twitter @Bfarrell727 or contact him at [email protected].