In some ways, Joey Garber is just like any other college guy.
He sports a beard and his long brown hair flows out from underneath his Georgia hat.
But when he steps on a golf course, he is the No. 1 golfer in the NCAA, according to Golfstat.com.
Garber‚Äôs 70.5 adjusted average score is the best in the nation. He leads the Georgia men‚Äôs golf team into the Southeastern Conference championships this weekend as the fifth-ranked team in the country.
The senior‚Äôs ascent has been neither swift nor direct.
He transferred to Georgia after his freshman year at Michigan, and is less than 18 months out from potentially career-ending surgery.
A native of Petoskey, Mich., Garber said the cold weather encouraged him to migrate south.
‚ÄúI just felt like I needed to be at a school that enabled me to play all year long, and I felt like I needed that to get everything I could out of my game,‚Äù he said. ‚ÄúGeorgia just ended up being a great fit. I love my coaches, I love my team, so I couldn‚Äôt be happier.‚Äù
Georgia coach Chris Haack offered Garber a spot on the team after traveling to Kalamazoo, Mich., to watch him play in a tournament.
Haack said Garber‚Äôs mentality on the course makes him a fantastic player.
‚ÄúHe‚Äôs got a lot of creativity. He‚Äôs a player, not a swinger,‚Äù Haack said. ‚ÄúIn other words, he plays the game with imagination. He doesn‚Äôt just worry about his golf swing, and I think there‚Äôs a big difference in that.‚Äù
Garber played well after joining the Bulldogs, averaging a score of 73.3 and earning two top-10 finishes in 10 events. Midway through his junior season on Dec. 16, 2012, he underwent surgery to repair a torn rotator cuff tendon in his left shoulder which had nagged him for nearly four years. Five days a week of rehab helped him heal two months earlier than projected, and he returned to help Georgia reach the NCAA finals the following May.
‚ÄúIt just became enough of a nuisance that it was inhibiting me from playing my best golf, and so after that I decided to have surgery,‚Äù Garber said. ‚ÄúNow I‚Äôm fully healed and back to 100 percent.‚Äù
Since the surgery, he leads the Bulldogs with an average score of 70.3, and he has six top-10 finishes in 10 events. Those post-surgery stats include his first collegiate victory at The Invitational at The Ocean Course.
During his time off, Garber watched the Bulldogs practice and play in tournaments, and sophomore teammate Lee McCoy said he thinks Garber‚Äôs time on the sideline actually turned out to be a positive.
‚ÄúHe was able to see from watching us really clearly the mental mistakes that we would make and things like that,‚Äù McCoy said. ‚ÄúHe would just see how guys would hit the ball to spots they just shouldn‚Äôt, and I think he improved his game a lot from learning from our mistakes.‚Äù
While his senior year may be nearing an end, his golf career is far from over. He said he hopes to turn professional after nationals, which is at the end of May. Haack said he thinks Garber has the talent to be successful at the professional level.
‚ÄúHe can putt, he can chip,‚Äù Haack said. ‚ÄúIt‚Äôs just a matter of getting comfortable and doing it on a consistent basis.‚Äù
The PGA tour features several former Georgia golfers, including Russell Henley, Harris English and two-time Masters champion Bubba Watson. Garber said he has reached out to Henley and English to get advice about transitioning from college to the pros.
‚Äú(They‚Äôve said) just to surround yourself with a team that you‚Äôre comfortable with, live in a place that you‚Äôre comfortable with, and just do everything that is going to make you happy and make golf as easy as it can be,‚Äù Garber said.
With that advice in mind, his goal before the end of his final season is to win a national championship. After college he hopes not only to get on the PGA tour, but to be a winner on the PGA tour.
‚ÄúI‚Äôd say my dream is to play the Masters,‚Äù Garber said. ‚ÄúBeing in Athens, being close to Augusta even though I‚Äôm not from here, I‚Äôve grown to appreciate how special that event is and how cool it would be to play there and potentially compete.‚Äù
The SEC Championships at a glance
When: Today through Sunday
Where: Sea Island Golf Club on St. Simons Island
Briefly: Eight SEC teams are in the Golf Digest top 25 including Alabama (1), Georgia (5), Texas A&M (12), Vanderbilt (14), Arkansas (19), LSU (21), Auburn (22) and South Carolina (24). … In addition to Garber at No. 1, Lee McCoy is ranked 18th, Michael Cromie 45th, Nicholas Reach 78th and Keith Mitchell 91st in the country, according to Golfstat.com.
The Grady Sports Bureau is a part of the sports media program at the University of Georgia‚Äôs Grady College of Journalism and Mass Communication.