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Swing for swing: Southeast grad Cleary traded baseball bat for golf clubs, found success at DSC | Local Sports

Golf wasn’t always the game for Matthew Cleary.

Baseball was the sport of choice growing up for the Dalton native and Southeast Whitfield High School graduate.

But when a middle school arm injury — one he still feels the effects of a decade later — left him with a limited ability to throw a baseball as hard as he would like, Cleary decided to try swinging a golf club instead of a baseball bat.

“I grew up my entire life playing baseball, and I loved the sport more than life,” Cleary said. “I still to this day can’t throw a baseball as hard as I want to. I wanted to find something else to do, so I went to my dad and told him I wanted to play golf.”

The problem? Tryouts for the middle school team were the next day.

“I ended up going to tryouts for sixth grade with his clubs and shot a 43 on nine holes the first time I ever played golf,” Cleary said. “From then on I was hooked.”

He rode the game of golf to success at Southeast Whitfield and then to a standout career at Dalton State College, one he just wrapped up by being named a first-team NAIA All-American and the Southern States Athletic Conference golfer of the year for his senior season.

That middle school arm injury changed Cleary’s life, but he’s grateful to have found

“Golf has opened a tremendous amount of doors for me,” Cleary said. “It’s changed my life and made me a better person.”

After that initial success at his first golf tryout, Cleary said he was glued to the golf course trying to improve.

“In the summer, I would be on the golf course from the time the sun came up until it went down,” he said.

He became the first male golfer from Southeast Whitfield to qualify as an individual for the Georgia High School Association state championship. He also set a record for the lowest score for a round in a Georgia Junior Golf event, shooting a 64 shortly after graduating from Southeast. That’s a score that would be his best round until he matched it at a record-matching round at the NAIA national championships with Dalton State just last month.

Cleary attended Valdosta State University out of high school, but stayed for just one year, returning to Dalton State to play for the Roadrunners and head coach Ben Rickett.

“His goal is not just to prepare us for tournaments but prepare us for life,” Cleary said of Rickett. “We walk in there as a bunch of 18-year-olds, and by the time we leave we’re ready for the real world.”

Cleary was part of two SSAC championships in his first three seasons as a Roadrunner, and his junior season in 2021 culminated in a NAIA national championship, the first for the Roadrunners.

Headed into the 2021-22 season with dreams of repeating to end his college career, Cleary knew he’d have to step up his game to help replace an integral part of that championship squad: Ben Rebne, the winner of the Jack Nicklaus Award — which goes to the top player in the country.

“We lost Ben, which was a big hit to our program, being the Jack Nicklaus Award winner, so I knew somebody needed to step up,” Cleary said. “I knew if I took care of me, it would help the team.”

Cleary and the Roadrunners began another strong year and cruised into the SSAC championships in April looking for what would have been the seventh straight conference title.

The Roadrunners stumbled, finishing fourth in the conference after a six-year reign atop it.

“We had a chance for seven in a row and lost it, but that was a blessing in disguise, really,” Cleary said. “Going into nationals, I think that humbled us a little bit. We were able to play free.”

Despite finishing fourth in the conference, at the NAIA national championships last month the Roadrunners returned to the form that helped them win the national title the year before.

After closing the first round at the tournament in Silvis, Illinois, in 11th place, the Roadrunners rocketed to the top of the leaderboard after the second of the tournament’s four rounds thanks to a record-round from Cleary and Dalton State.

Clearly matched that junior record with a 64, his best round in college and one that tied for the best individual round ever at the NAIA championships. Cleary’s round led the Roadrunners to a total score of 273, beating the tournament’s record for an 18-round score by one stroke.

“When one of us gets hot, we all get hot,” Cleary said.

That round kept hopes of a repeat alive, and Dalton State never left the top two on the leaderboard in the final two rounds. Dalton State just couldn’t keep pace with Keizer University, the national champion.

Dalton State finished three strokes back of Keiser, settling for runners-up. The two teams blew away the rest of the competition. The third place finisher, Bellevue, was 15 strokes behind Dalton State.

“That team was supposed to blister everybody, and we almost walked away with it,” Cleary said of Keizer. “It was a phenomenal week for the whole team.”

Cleary closed his final of four seasons with the Roadrunners just short of a national title, but Cleary, even just a few weeks out from the end of his Dalton State golfing career, is already looking back with fondness.

“That was hands down the biggest blessing of my life,” Cleary said. “I give Dalton State and coach Rickett get all of the credit for where I am today.”

Where is he today? Looking forward to his next challenge.

A decade after finding the game because of an injury, Clearly plans to try to make a career in professional golf.

“I truly believe that I’m ready for the next step,” Cleary said.

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