Golf: East Rowan grad Terrell helped build a champion
Business is booming at the Dustin Johnson Golf School in Myrtle Beach, S.C., where phones ring off the hook.
Callers aren’t just registering for tees times at TPC Myrtle Beach, they’re signing up for lessons and camps.
“Well, we all got a lot smarter when Dustin won the U.S. Open,” chuckles Allen Terrell, whose official title at the golf school is Director of Coaching.
Terrell, 42, regards the 32-year-old Johnson as “a little brother,” and while he’s not looking to take any credit, Terrell played a serious role in Johnson’s rise to the top.
Terrell is an East Rowan High graduate, and it’s a small world. When you connect all the dots over a 25-year period, former East coaches such as W.A. Cline and Aaron Neely had something to do with Johnson winning the U.S. Open.
You have to start back at East Rowan in the early 1990s. The record book says Terrell was a good high school football player for the Mustangs — the All-Rowan County punter in 1991 and 1992 and all-county on the defensive line in 1991.
“At the time, I thought I was pretty good, but looking back on it now, I was average,” Terrell said. “Actually, it might be arrogant to say I was average.”
Terrell played on a good 1991 East team as a junior. Cline, the head coach, and Neely, the defensive coordinator, were in their second tenures with the Mustangs. As young coaches, they’d also guided East’s glory days from 1968-70.
There was a pretty amazing, 35-34, overtime win against Statesville in the first round of the 1991 state playoffs. There also was a 61-0 loss to Concord two weeks later in the third round. Terrell remembers both games well.
“We weren’t as talented as teams like Concord and A.L. Brown,” Terrell said. “I can remember bouncing off (Concord running back) Jay Graham and looking up and seeing him already 30 yards down the field. But our coaches always did a great job of preparing us to play every game.”
Terrell’s basketball career ended with the East jayvees, but he learned some things there, too.
“In football and basketball, our coaches made practices tougher than the competition,” Terrell said. “Games were the fun part. The practices were tough, but they prepared us. The sport I played at East where the competition was tougher than practice was golf. That’s one of the things I took with me into my coaching and teaching career in golf. I tried to make my golf practices more like a football and basketball. You’re going to run into some adversity on the golf course, and you’ve got to be prepared to deal with it.”
Terrell’s father, Richard, got him started in golf, and he played for East golf coach Gilbert Sprinkle.
“In those days, golf wasn’t necessarily a cool sport to play, especially for a football guy,” Terrell said. “I was looked at as kind of an oddball, and I wasn’t all that good at golf. But I hate not being good at something. That motivated me to study and find ways to get better.”
Terrell didn’t have a lot of college options. To be precise, he had one. The lone school that thought he could play football for them was Methodist College in Fayetteville.
“Methodist was the only one recruiting me, but they showed me a lot of love,” Terrell said. “I learned some things from being recruited. You learn how to make a kid feel special.”
Football didn’t work out for Terrell in Fayetteville. He punted well when he was healthy, but he was only healthy for three games his freshman season. He’d been hurt some in high school, and those injuries were compounded by fresh hamstring and Achilles tendon injuries.
He was done with football after a year, but he was fortunate. Methodist was one of the handful of colleges in the country to offer a golf management degree, and Terrell was in the right place at the right time.
In high school, the classes Terrell had been interested in had been his science classes. He was fascinated by human physiology.
His golf classes built on that interest, and he found his calling in understanding golf swings. He’d become a solid golfer at that point, but he never played on the Methodist team because there were 200-plus golf management students on campus, including All-Americans. But understanding the physiology and psychology of golf became his passion.
Terrell had found what he wanted to do with his life, and he also was proficient in his business classes. He graduated with a degree in business administration with an emphasis in professional golf management.
“I was just lucky,” Terrell said. “It’s not like I went to college to study golf. Some little things added up, and golf became the vehicle for me having what success I’ve had in life. A lot of doors opened up at Methodist, and that led to things like meeting Dustin Johnson.”
The last phase of Terrell’s formal education was an internship with Duke’s golf coaches, and that helped him get started professionally. After working with the Duke people, his goal became coaching college golf.
His first job was a good one. At 22, he became the assistant pro at Wade Hampton Golf Club in the North Carolina mountains. It had been started by Augusta National folks as a place to escape the Georgia humidity. Among other duties, Terrell gave lessons and he found out what did and didn’t work.
“And I learned to be very detail oriented,” Terrell said.
Next, Terrell was an assistant coach at Methodist, and then at Duke. The Duke women he helped coach won the national championship in 1999.
In 2000, he was named as the head men’s golf coach at Coastal Carolina. He inherited a men’s team that had been ranked No. 224 in the country the season before he arrived , but he quickly built it into a perennial conference champion and national contender.
In 2003, Terrell recruited Johnson, who took off his sophomore season. He would become Coastal Carolina’s first All-American and a three-time Big South Player of the Year.
Johnson had led a 2002 state-championship high school team in South Carolina, but he’d been out of school a year when Terrell recruited him for Coastal Carolina.
“He’d had a gap year, so Dustin’s path wasn’t the traditional golf path,” Terrell said. “He didn’t have a lot of college options either, so we had that in common.”
While Johnson became a superstar at Coastal and led the team to fifth place in the nation his senior year, it wasn’t always smooth sailing.
“At first, Dustin didn’t have an easy time learning to be part of a program,” Terrell said. “He had to adjust to being at practice on time and to being in class on time, but those are adjustments a lot of college freshmen have to make. What I did was provide him with some structure and some guidance at a time when he needed those things. I made him accountable, tried to give him some of the same things that my coaches at East Rowan gave me. Coastal gave Dustin an opportunity, and everyone can see now what he’s doing with that opportunity.”
Johnson is a great athlete, a strong and long guy, who also is flexible. He can power 360-foot drives.
“Dustin is going to be very good at anything that involves eye-hand coordination,” Terrell said. “Plus, he’s competitive. He wants to beat you even if it’s Ping Pong.”
Johnson handled the rigorous Qualifying School on his first try and has been on the PGA Tour since 2008.
In 2010, he came close in two majors and he was part of the Ryder Cup team. Terrell was with Johnson for that Ryder Cup and calls it one of his proudest moments in coaching.
Besides coaching, Terrell has operated Terrell Golf Performance for many years. Terrell and Johnson teamed in 2013 to form the Dustin Johnson Golf School. Terrell is now a full-time instructor. He’s also a fitness trainer and is an expert in strength and conditioning as it relates specifically to golfers.
Terrell spends 60 hours a week teaching and coaching and works six-day weeks. He’s off on Mondays.
Most of Terrell’s work with Johnson now involves preparation in the preseason.
“I try to get to a few tournaments each season, but not the majors, because the majors are a full week, and I can’t take that much time away from our camps and from lessons,” Terrell said.
While Johnson is by far his most famous pupil, Terrell has been instrumental in helping many careers. At Coastal Carolina, he coached a Swede, Sebastian Soderberg, who also played at Oakmont.
Terrell gets a bit emotional talking about Rowan County. White his parents still live in Rockwell, he doesn’t have a chance to get back often.
“I think I’m like a lot of people, when you’re growing up in Rowan County, you can’t wait to leave,” Terrell said. “But years later, you realize that you came from a good place full of honest, hard-working people. I guess it’s boring, but as I get older, I like boring more and more.”
Terrell finished his teaching duties in time to watch Johnson play the last five holes of the U.S. Open on television. That wasn’t boring, as Johnson overcame USGA controversy as well as one of the most challenging courses in the world.
Terrell watched Johnson hoist the trophy, and feelings of relief, joy and pride washed over him.
“Watching the fulfillment of what Dustin can do, and then watching him pick up his son and hug him after he won, that was beautiful,” Terrell said. “Watching one of your guys win a major, that’s the perfect dream for a coach.”