(The latest in an occasional series on the sporting life in Orange County.)
Larry “Trey” Deal III remembers swinging a golf club at a Wiffle ball when he was 3 years old. From the beginning, he loved the game and showed real talent.
“The little coaching I did get was from my dad,” Deal said. “He used to say, ‘Keep your eye on the ball and swing as hard as you can. We will worry about hitting it straight later.”
It was good advice for a young player with a natural flair for the game. At 9, the Martinsville native won the Henry County tournament for players age 10 and under. He had many more victories ahead of him.
Deal, 35, cheerfully discussed his early years as a golfer during an interview at Woodberry Forest School on a breezy Saturday morning. Sitting at a picnic table near the school’s golf course, where he is a member and plays on a regular basis, he said much of his childhood revolved around golf.
He was an only child, and his participation in golf was a family project. Throughout his youth, his parents spent many a weekend driving him to junior tournaments. It helped a lot that both of them also loved the sport. His father had played Division I golf at Virginia Tech, and his mother picked up the game while Trey was growing up.
As a senior at Martinsville High School, he won the 2001 Virginia High School League golf tournament. Held in Abingdon that year, it was “the coldest golf tournament I ever played in,” Deal recalled with a grin. “It was a lot of fun.”
Fighting the brutal weather, he scored a 75 each day and won the two-day tournament by a single stroke.
“That tournament really got me thinking I could make something of this as a career,” he said of the signature win.
Based on his early success, he earned a four-year golf scholarship to Longwood University and joined the team coached by Kevin Fillman.
“He was a tough kid who found a way to get things done every single day,” Fillman recalled. “So many people get caught up if they’re not playing well. None of that stuff ever bothered Trey; he would just do it.”
During Deal’s senior year, he achieved the lowest average score among Division I college golfers in a statistic called “greens in regulation” (GIR). When you reach the green in two strokes fewer than par for the hole, that qualifies as GIR.
Fillman said having one of his players best in the nation at anything was “incredible for Longwood.” The 2005 division plaque naming Deal tops in GIR hangs in the coach’s office, where he looks at it every day.
Deal majored in economics and finance at Longwood. After graduation, he decided to pour his energies into achieving his dream of playing professional golf. To get a cleated shoe in the door, he took a job at Ray’s Golf Shop in Danville and made connections with people in the golf industry.
As a promising young pro golfer, his presence brought luster to the shop. In return, the job gave him the flexibility to travel to tournaments, and golf companies offered him samples of their equipment, in hopes that “if one day I made it, I’d be drawn to their brand.”
For several years, he played in small tournaments in the Professional Golfers’ Association (PGA) system in Virginia and the Carolinas. At these events, he had some top 10 scores, though no wins. His best performances earned him checks in the range of $5,000 to $10,000.
“I made some good money,” he said, “but I was spending it all just to travel to play.”
He discovered that being a professional golfer requires a lot of money up front. Even golfers making big money at major PGA tournaments, he observed, are often in debt to backers who invested in them early in their careers.
After a couple of years, Deal realized “decision time” had arrived. “There was a time when I had to sit down and self-evaluate and say, ‘Am I really going to make it? Am I going to make it to a tour where financially it was going to make sense?’”
The realities of minor-league golf were sinking in. He wondered what would happen if he did not break through to the upper levels of the sport that had absorbed his time and attention for practically his whole life. Drawing on his knowledge of business and finance, he began to make practical calculations.
“There’s no retirement plan for a traveling golfer. There’s no health insurance,” he said. “I started looking at some of the folks that were getting in their 40s, and I asked myself, is that what I want to do when I’m 40? Do I still want to be grinding it out, week to week? And I didn’t want to do that.”
Still, he was not quite done. It was only after giving pro golf his all for another six months that he bowed out. Although he said “it felt terrible” to make that move, he knew it was the right thing to do.
“I was always going to be good at golf; I was never going to be great,” he said. “It was a difficult decision. It didn’t feel good to know your dreams are getting ready to go through your fingertips.
“But it was nice to know that I gave it a shot. I tried. I got to experience things most people don’t get to experience. I got to travel places most people don’t get to go. I was able to meet folks that I have lifetime relationships with now. I can pass on knowledge to a younger generation coming up.”
His pro golfing days officially behind him, he took a job with Enterprise Rent-a-Car. At a conference in Washington, D.C., he met his future wife, Rose, who at the time worked for the same company. “We literally sat down, started talking, had a meal, and it was like it was meant to be. There was never any conversation about going on a date or doing anything else.”
Deal said meeting Rose, who is now the assistant in Orange County’s Office of Economic Development, made it easier to leave professional golf behind. “I was ready to get married and have a family and move on. Not that that’s not possible being a traveling golfer, but it is certainly difficult because you just never know where you’re going to be any given week.”
An account manager for Coca-Cola, Deal and his wife lived in northern Virginia early in their marriage. The traffic and fast pace did not suit them. In 2015, when Rose got her job with the county, they were happy to move here, closer to Louisa, where she grew up. Deal said Orange is somewhat similar to his hometown of Martinsville, and he likes the friendly atmosphere.
The proximity of their home to Woodberry Forest is a decided bonus, since Deal regularly plays the school’s beautifully manicured nine-hole course. Last year, he and Brian Sprinkle won the member-guest tournament.
With a wealth of knowledge about golf, Deal has insights that few other recreational players have. Asked to distinguish between a good golfer and a great one, he responded with certainty.
“The big difference would be, a good golfer has the physical ability to play the golf course. I think a great golfer has the physical and mental ability to finish an entire round. A lot of people can have 16 good holes in a round. It’s different to have 18. You’ve really got to finish all 18 holes. Every shot counts.”
For those who aspire to success as professional golfers, consistency is even more important. “One thing I really learned trying to play professional, there’s a lot of people that can shoot 65 any given day. There’s not many people that can shoot 70 four times in a row.”
He has taught golf lessons in the past and would like to do so again. One might expect someone of his ability to seek out advanced students, but that is not the case. “I’d be open to anything. But really, I think that 10 and under is where it’s really important. Because once you get above that, whatever habits you have, it’s going to be hard to break them.”
Rose Deal has a set of golf clubs and has been known to play a round, but the other member of the Deal household who shares Trey’s boundless enthusiasm for the game is their daughter, McKenna, a kindergartner at Orange Elementary School.
With delight, Deal said of his daughter, “There’s nothing she would rather do than walk the golf course and hit shots. She’s got a really good swing. We’re working on her putting right now. She took to it—I didn’t actually have to teach her how to stand or hold a golf club.
“Soon as she picked it up, she actually was standing correctly; she was holding the club right. I don’t know if that was from watching me or just natural talent.”
In either case, young McKenna has a built-in golf buddy—as does Deal.
Looking back on his transition from pro golf to a career he enjoys and a family he loves, he said, “It’s funny how it works.”
His game still works, too. Positioning himself at the tee on the first hole at Woodberry, he took a mighty swing just like his father had taught him to do long ago.
With a crack, the ball sailed high and straight down the fairway. Deal followed it with his eyes and then, with characteristic determination, set out to chase it down.