How Iowa men’s golfer Mac McClear went from a freshman struggling to crack the starting lineup to the program’s first two-time conference champ

The senior from Hinsdale, Illinois, became the first Hawkeye to win two individual conference crowns on Sunday. He is also the first Iowa men’s player to win five individual college titles since 1976.


Emily Nyberg

Iowa’s Mac McClear takes a shot during the Hawkeye invitational at Finkbine Golf Course in Iowa City on Saturday, April 15, 2023. The Hawkeyes lead after all three rounds of the two-day tournament and took both the team and individual sweepstakes with Iowa’s Mac McClear taking the individual title.

Through 17 holes of the second round at the Big Ten Championships at Galloway National Golf Club in Galloway, New Jersey, on Saturday, Iowa men’s golfer Mac McClear hadn’t missed a single green.

But on his approach shot from the fairway on the 18th hole, a 430-yard par-4, he hit what he called his only bad shot of the day.

“I think I had 114 [yards] in and I just straight-up thin-blocked my 50-degree [wedge] into the bunker and had to get up and down for par,” McClear said.

With that par, a short 3-foot tap-in putt after a good bunker shot, McClear completed a bogey-free 5-under-par round of 66 to become the first player in Iowa program history to win two individual Big Ten Championships.

Through two rounds, McClear was 3-under-par, tied atop the individual leaderboard with Northwestern’s Daniel Svard.

The Hawkeyes’ best player was through nine holes of the final round Sunday before play was suspended for the second time of the day because of rain. The round was eventually nullified, crowning him co-champion along with Svard.

McClear previously won the 2021 conference crown at Crooked Stick Golf Club in Carmel, Indiana. He said that he wasn’t surprised when the third round was canceled.

“It wasn’t crazy that today’s round got canceled, so I was definitely feeling it down the stretch today,” McClear told The Daily Iowan in a phone call Sunday night. “Knowing, ‘If I get in the lead here, there’s a possibility we don’t play tomorrow.’ So, I realized pretty quickly. Once they called it, [assistant coach Charlie Hoyle] came over to me and said it was official, and then right there, it kind of set in that I did it again.”

McClear said Saturday’s round was stress-free and one of the top 10 ball-striking days of his life, but he was quick to point out that soft conditions from rain on Friday allowed him more control over his ball.

Iowa head coach Tyler Stith, who walked with McClear for the majority of the second round, said he knew his No. 1 player was “in the zone” early in the round.

“It’s a difficult golf course and requires you to be able to execute shots,” Stith said. “He was hitting the ball beautifully … I was just doing my best to give him information on the par-3s and par-5s and just kind of trying to help him out and stay out of his way because I knew that he was in the zone, and I knew he was gonna put up a good number if he could roll in some putts.”

The Hawkeye senior’s co-victory marked the fifth time an Iowa player had won an individual crown at the Big Ten Championships. Along with McClear’s 2021 title, John Jacobs claimed victory in 1946, Brad Klapprott won in 1992, and Carson Schaake was victorious in 2015.

McClear’s five individual wins — the 2021 and 2023 Big Ten Championships, the 2023 Hawkeye Invitational, the 2022 Iowa Fall Classic, and the 2021 Spartan Collegiate — are the most by an Iowa player since Lonnie Nielsen won six titles from 1974-76.

Along with being the only Hawkeye to win two Big Ten individual trophies, McClear is only the fifth multiple-time Big Ten champion since 1980. Steve Stricker won it three times at Illinois in 1986, 88, and 89, Luke Donald won it twice at Northwestern between 2000-01, and Luke Guthrie and Nick Hardy each won twice as a member of the Illini in 2011 and 2012, and 2015 and 2018, respectively.

All four of those players made it to the PGA Tour. Stricker won 12 times on the PGA Tour, Donald collected five trophies and was ranked world No. 1 for a time, and Hardy won his first PGA Tour event on April 23, 2023, at the Zurich Classic along with Davis Riley.

“In the modern era, say the last 40 years, only four people [excluding McClear] have won multiple Big Ten Championships,” Stith said. “The rarity of the accomplishment, it speaks for itself … You can’t fake it and get on that list.”

McClear is pleased with all the historic lists he has put his name on as a Hawkeye so far, but he is continuing to look forward to finishing out this spring season strong at the NCAA Regionals in mid-May. He said he wants to further cement himself as a Hawkeye golfing great and will use his fifth and final year of athletic eligibility next season and return to Iowa City.

“It’s pretty cool,” McClear said. “Definitely something that I didn’t ever really dream about coming into school four years ago. I definitely wanted to make my mark on this program, hopefully, I’ve done that so far, but I still have time to do so. I got another start at regionals here, a whole next year, so, hopefully, I’ve made a good impact but I hope I can make it even better.”

That forward-looking mindset has allowed McClear to go from a freshman who struggled to crack the Hawkeyes’ starting lineup in 2019 to one of the top players in the history of Iowa men’s golf.

Never content

During the first part of his first fall season on campus in 2019, both McClear and Stith agreed that McClear wasn’t playing good golf. He wasn’t even playing well enough to qualify to be in the Hawkeyes’ tournament lineup, and Stith was toying with the idea of redshirting the three-time Illinois high school team champion.

As Stith tells it, McClear got wind of the possible redshirt and did not like the idea.

“He didn’t play the first couple of events, and we were kicking around the idea of redshirting him and I became aware that Mac wasn’t too keen on that idea,” Stith said. “He thought he should be competing; I didn’t think he was ready.”

McClear made it through the team’s next tournament qualifier and tied for 23rd individually in his first college tournament, finishing at 1-over-par at the Notre Dame Fighting Irish Classic in South Bend. On the par-71 Warren Golf Course, McClear carded a first-round 74 and a final-round 73, but what caught the eye of the Iowa coaches was his second round of 4-under-par 67.

“Hoyle walked with him, and this was before he had made some swing changes and was hitting the ball better,” Stith said. “But he shot 67, and Charlie said that he hit it all over the place, but he managed it extremely well, what you don’t see for a freshman. When he got out of position, he’d get it to the front of the green, got up and down. He got a lot out of his game. He figured out a way to shoot 67.”

“In the 13 years that I’ve coached, any time a freshman breaks 70, it’s usually a pretty good indicator of future success,” Stith continued. “All my best players at some point broke 70 in their freshman year. And so, when he did that in his first tournament, in a round where he kind of hit it all over the place, that told me that okay, ‘this kid’s got something.’”

Although McClear qualified to play in three of the Hawkeyes’ next four events before the season was canceled due to COVID-19 precautions, he didn’t crack the top 60 in any of those events.

But McClear said he never lost belief in himself. Instead, he took advantage of the COVID-19-induced hiatus and went to work with the help of former Hawkeye men’s golfer Jeff Schmid, who won three individual titles in the late 1980s and early ‘90s. Schmid is now a volunteer assistant coach for the Iowa women’s golf team.

“I wasn’t playing very good golf at the time, but I guess I knew how bad I was playing,” McClear said of his freshman season. “You know, I knew I had the potential in me. I just wasn’t seeing it right there. And then Jeff kind of gave me the foundation I needed to kind of get to the next level.”

McClear was largely self-taught all the way through high school, so the feel that he developed while learning the game without an instructor paired with Schmid’s coaching proved to be the perfect recipe.

“I never really had a coach growing up, I just kind of did everything on my own, so I kind of did things not by the book, maybe not the most technically sound way,” McClear said. “I was able to learn a lot about how to hit shots or maneuver things around the trees in the bad conditions, that’s something I feel like I’m really good at. And then Jeff gave me the foundation, kind of the technical side to allow me to be consistent, you know, play these championship-style courses.”

With Schmid’s help, McClear’s stroke average dropped by more than four shots between his freshman and sophomore seasons — from 75.75 to 71.38. As a sophomore, McClear won his first two college tournaments and was named a unanimous All-Big Ten first teamer.

McClear did not win during the 2021-22 school year and his stroke average rose to 72.2. But this year, he has added three trophies to his case and is back under 72 at 71.81. Seventeen of his 32 tournament rounds this season have been at or below par — 10 more than anyone else on the Hawkeyes’ roster this season.

“He’s certainly the most improved player I’ve ever coached,” Stith said. “I think it’s boiled down to the type of person that he is. He’s a relentless worker. He’s got tons of confidence in himself and he’s just … he’s never content. You know, even now, he’s won five times now and I’m sure he’s already looking as his next tournament. You know, and thinking ahead about next season.”

McClear said he has always been a forward-thinking person and his goal-oriented mindset keeps him motivated for the next challenge.

“I feel like that’s kind of the way my mind works,” McClear said. “You know, I set out, I have a goal in mind, a task, once I complete that task, check the box off, and then move on to the next one. I’ve never believed in being stationary. I’m always trying to set the bar higher once I reach it. I feel like that’s the best way to go about it.”

McClear’s next task is NCAA Regionals in Las Vegas, Nevada, from May 15-17. He has played in regionals the past two seasons, tying for 19th in Cle Elum, Washington, as a sophomore and 14th in Norman, Oklahoma, last May.