By Pete Schlehr
A spot on someone’s college ice hockey team was a sure thing for Towson University junior Joe Gunerman, but he spurned those invitations to accept Tiger golf coach Brian Yaniger’s offer to walk-on with the Tigers.
It was the only golf offer on the table.
Gunerman grabbed it quickly just in case Yaniger had second thoughts. Since then, Gunerman has erased any skepticism. He’s played his way to the top of the Towson men’s golf leaderboard.
“I watched him play a junior event,” says Yaniger. “He played most of the holes well, but hit four or five balls in the water on a par 3. I liked how he handled himself and seemed like a fine young man. I offered him a spot and he has worked his butt off to become a good player.”
In the fall portion of the Tigers’ 2012-13 schedule, Gunerman was Towson’s medalist in all four stroke play tournaments. He averaged a team best 74.4 in 11 rounds with one top 10 finish, a ninth place at the Binghamton Fall Invitational.
In the year’s opening event, the STX Match Play Tournament at Towson Golf & Country Club, Gunerman’s heroics propelled the Tigers to the team title while his own confidence skyrocketed. He rolled in a 50-foot birdie putt on the final hole to push the Tigers past Rutgers, 4-3. In the second round he sank a five-foot birdie putt on the first playoff hole to give Towson a 4-3 semifinal win over Fairfield. Towson downed George Mason 4-3 in the championship round. He continued to lead Towson’s charge throughout the fall.
“It’s been a fun ride from my freshman year to now,” Gunerman says.
In his freshman year at Towson he competed in just one event – the Towson Invitational (every Tiger played), carding a 54-hole total of 239 to finish 61st in a field of 92. He watched the other 11 tournaments that year from the gallery.
“When I was a freshman, coach Yaniger and I sat down and talked about all the things I needed to work on and it was a lot,” Gunerman recalled with a smile. “I spent that first semester just practicing without having to worry about putting a decent round together in a tournament. We made some swing changes. And I learned a lot from the older guys, especially John Duthie and Nash (Nyasha Mauchaza). I spent tons of time the following summer working on my game. It’s really cool to see the improvement, all these things come together and to see it all pay off.”
In his youth Gunerman played two sports – ice hockey and golf. He laced up his first pair of skates when he was four-years-old. Six years later he took his first swing at a golf ball.
“My dad, who has been playing golf since high school, introduced me to the game,” says Gunerman. “He taught me how to hold the club and how to stand. From there I kind of figured the rest out on my own. I didn’t take any lessons until I was senior in high school. Even up until now I really haven’t had many lessons at all. I’m kind of a homegrown golfer.”
By his junior year at Holy Ghost Prep in Philadelphia, Gunerman knew he had to make a choice.
“Going into my junior year of high school is when I made the decision that if I was going to play a sport in college it would be golf,” he says. “Up to that point I’d played ice hockey my entire life but it got to the point where I had to choose between the two because I couldn’t play both in college. It was also too expensive trying to get recognition so I picked golf. Also, in terms of longevity, I could play golf most of my life. I thought I had the tools to get better in golf.”
As a defenseman for Holy Ghost, Gunerman was being encouraged to attend one of those boarding schools in Massachusetts, Connecticut and Maine that breed college hockey players.
“The thing I wasn’t too crazy about in ice hockey is its lifestyle,” Gunerman says. “You’re on the road all the time. There’s the physical nature of the game too. I love the golf lifestyle.”
While there was plenty of interest from hockey recruiters, there was little to none from the golf world.
“I sent out a lot of letters and got mostly no’s back,” Gunerman recalls. “Actually, I didn’t get a lot of responses to many of those letters. Coach Yaniger was one of the very few who actually responded to my e-mail. He was the only Division I coach willing to give me a shot. He told me I could come and walk-on. I took a shot in the dark. I really liked Towson as a school and it was where I wanted to attend college anyway. The fact I was going to be given a chance to make the team made the whole thing really exciting. You always hope it works out and it certainly has for me.”
The Tigers recently concluded the fall portion of their 2012-13 schedule, competing in the Wendy’s Kiawah Classic where the competition was formidable. Gunerman was Towson’s top finisher, tying for 49th in a field of 135.
“The fall was particularly tough for us because we had a lot of freshmen,” Gunerman says. “College golf is such an adjustment. It’s different when you get to the range and look around. You see talented golfers, you’re playing on big golf courses and there’s a lot on the line. Our guys are young and talented but they’re still in transition. As a freshman you feel as though you’re in a bit over your head. Having been through it I think I can help them understand what college golf is all about. They’re going to struggle early, but they’re going to improve. It’s something everyone experiences.”
For the next couple of weeks, Gunerman plans to keep the clubs in his bag and concentrate on his academic work. Then, as long as the weather holds up, he’ll get back on the course to work on all the things that didn’t go right in the fall. Near the end of the winter break he and a number of his teammates will find a way to spend a couple of weeks in Florida or South Carolina working on improving their games.
“The key for the offseason is you’ve got to look at what you did in the fall and figure out exactly what it was that hurt you the most,” he says. “Find out what were the weakest parts of your game and work on those things. You make changes in the winter – you don’t want to keep playing and practicing the same way.”
Despite the personal success, Gunerman’s main objective for the next year and a half is to help the Tigers win tournaments, most notably another Colonial Athletic Association championship.
“Above all else I want to see this team win tournaments,” says the political science major. “We want to contend and win another conference championship.”
Thus far the ride has been a fun one for Gunerman, and it isn’t over yet.