It’s been a summer to remember for Cordillera Ranch’s Director of Instruction
By Robert Rodriguez :: Photography by Kelsey Guzman
It’s 95 degrees outside on a bright Saturday afternoon, and Director of Instruction Bryan Gathright is all smiles. A group of juniors at his advanced-level junior golf camp just arrived at the practice chipping green, and now it was time for his star pupils — Mitchell Meissner, McClure “Mac” Meissner and Levi Valadez — to shine.
The juniors are instantly amazed at how Mac and Valadez can make their golf balls dance and stop on a dime next to the pin with ease. It’s one of the reasons why those two are standout college golfers at Southern Methodist University and Sam Houston State, respectively.
Then Gathright summoned everyone to the bunker, and after the juniors practiced escaping out of the sand, he asked Mitchell to take a turn. Only, Gathright was standing on the lip of the bunker and in the direct line of Mitchell’s target. Some juniors were in awe, others were grimacing as Mitchell opened the clubface and clipped ball after ball out of the bunker and over Gathright’s head with ease.
The lesson for the juniors: Trust the shot and reap the rewards. The lesson for Mitchell and Gathright: Trust in each other and reap the rewards.
“Mitchell is the only person I will allow to do that,” Gathright later jokes as sweat drips from his forehead, presumably from the heat, not the white-knuckle moment at the bunker.
It takes a lot of faith in someone to allow them to buzz Titleists over your head. One mis-hit could result in a lengthy stay on the disabled list, a scenario especially debilitating for an instructor as desirable as Gathright. Yet for Mitchell, it took a lot of trust in Gathright to go along with a suggestion that would radically transform his golf game, and his passion for the sport.
Heading into 2018, Mitchell was a senior on the Rice University golf team and struggling mightily on the greens. His putting was so bad, in one event he hit 49 out of 54 greens in regulation and shot 4-over par … and that was without making a double-bogey or worse on a hole.
Gathright and Mitchell’s dad, Kurt, were on the way to Dallas when the two began discussing how to alleviate Mitchell’s putting woes. That’s when Gathright suggested that the right-handed Mitchell putt left-handed. A drastic measure, but not something new for Gathright. In the late 1990s, one of Gathright’s pupils was Notah Begay III, a Tour pro who hit the ball right-handed and putted left-handed on certain putts.
When Gathright first approached Mitchell about this novel concept, there was a little apprehension. “I knew [right-handed] golfers putted left-handed as a drill, and I putted left-handed some during practice and it actually felt good,” Mitchell says. “But I didn’t think I would go through with it when Bryan first brought it up, especially in competition. Figured it was only a temporary band-aid and we would go right back to work on putting right-handed. Yet, Bryan convinced me to stick with it and I trusted his wisdom. It gave me a lot of confidence on the greens and it made golf fun again.”
The switch to southpaw on the greens made his final season at Rice University a memorable one, as Mitchell won two tournaments including the Conference USA championship, and finished tied for eighth at the NCAA Regionals in Bryan.
His strong play continued in the summer, as Mitchell won the Greater San Antonio Match Play Championship. Things were clicking on all cylinders for Mitchell heading into the Texas State Amateur at Whispering Pines Golf Club; however, he wasn’t feeling it during the practice rounds and struggled. The same could not be said for Mitchell’s younger brother or Valadez.
“I was playing pretty good heading into that week at Whispering Pines,” Mac says. “I was struggling a bit with my putting, but Bryan and I worked on it a lot leading up to the Texas State Amateur. It wasn’t bad enough to where I had to putt left-handed, but overall my game was pretty solid.”
“For some reason, I felt very confident heading into the Texas State Amateur,” Valadez added. “My swing was finally coming together, I knew the golf course really well — I knew I was going to have a great week.”
The Texas State Amateur is one of the most prestigious tournaments in the Lone Star State. Past champions include former Masters champions Charles Coody and Ben Crenshaw, PGA Championship winner Mark Brooks, Bruce Lietzke, and Scott Verplank.
Grouped with good friend Valadez in the last group during the final round, Mitchell made five birdies over the final 11 holes to finish with a 6-under 282 over four rounds and win the Texas State Amateur. Valadez was second — three shots back — and runner-up in the event for the second straight year. Mac finished tied for third at even-par 288.
According to the Texas Golf Association, organizers of the Texas State Amateur, the 1-2-3 finish by Gathright’s students marks the first time in any of their top events where an instructor had pupils all finish in the top-3. Other state golf organizations also couldn’t recall a major amateur tournament where one instructor accomplished such an incredible feat.
“An instructor friend of mine in Colorado told me that would be a great accomplishment in Rhode Island, but in Texas that is unbelievable,” Gathright says. “It’s not an accomplishment for me — it’s about three high school teammates who work hard and push one another to be the best.”
Right after the Texas State Amateur, Mitchell finished runner-up at the prestigious North-South Amateur at Pinehurst. He also shared medalist honors at the U.S. Amateur sectional qualifier at Oak Hills Country Club with his brother.
The Meissners and Valadez are just the latest in a long line of golfers who have found success under the watchful eye of Gathright. In addition to Begay III, Gathright also taught Jimmy Walker throughout his amateur and early professional days. Another star pupil, Toni Hakula, won the PGA TOUR Latinoamerica’s Bupa Match Play Championship earlier this year. In all, Gathright has taught numerous other PGA, Champions and LPGA Tour professionals, and over 200 high school golfers who have gone on to play collegiate golf.
A GOLF Magazine “Top 100 Teacher in America” for the past 18 years, Gathright came to Cordillera Ranch in 2016 from Oak Hills. He is quick to point out that working at Cordillera Ranch has done wonders for his instructional programs and students. That was evident at his recent camp, where on that hot Saturday afternoon juniors were learning more than just chips and trusting their bunker shots. Several stations featuring professionals from around the nation were scattered around the Cordillera Ranch practice range covering all facets of the game, including fitness and the mental aspect.
“Two students from Alabama said this was the best camp they’ve ever attended,” Gathright says. “Every student was attentive and absorbing all the lessons they received from the instructors and the advice the college golfers gave them about balancing golf and life. And the members who helped with the camp and the membership who allowed us to conduct a camp like this at the Club, I can’t thank them enough.”
Yet, for all the lessons Gathright has given his pupils over the years either on the range or on the course, it’s what he’s taught them about life that has been so impactful. McClure was the San Antonio Express-News Boys Golf Player of the Year a year ago. More importantly, he finished his freshman year at SMU with a 4.0 GPA.
“It’s not just about the golf instruction; it’s about being a great kid and being a role model for the younger players,” Gathright says. “That’s what I try to instill in my juniors.”
Gathright could not recall a year where his students have had this much success, or when he’s been this happy with his work. That’s saying something given all his incredible accomplishments throughout his teaching tenure. Yet, that also speaks volumes on the amount of belief each student has in Gathright to help them succeed on and off the golf course.
“Bryan is the most underrated teacher in golf,” says Valadez, who was a sixth-grader when he first met Bryan at The First Tee of San Antonio. “He’s the best at what he does — a Class A pro on everything that he teaches — and someone you can trust.”
Bryan Gathright is the Director of Instruction at The Clubs of Cordillera Ranch. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.