Ex-Jaguar hopes to overcome setbacks

Former Augusta State golf star Major Manning will compete in the Nationwide Tour's Athens Classic this week at the University of Georgia Golf Course.

ATHENS, Ga. --- The "personal" section of most media guides are often filled with useless tidbits like someone's favorite actor or food.


Major Manning's is more revealing.

"Says he's starting to become a redneck," reads the first line.

In what way is this trend manifesting itself in the former Augusta State All-American golfer?

"Well, with the first few checks I made I went and bought a few guns," he said, one of them a Beretta 12-gauge shotgun that is camouflaged for his forays into bird hunting.

There's also his girlfriend's father, Eddie Michael, a pro fisherman who runs River North Fly Fishing up in Clarkesville, Ga.

"He sounds a lot like Larry the Cable Guy," Manning said, laughing.

Truth be told, Manning was pretty much born to be a "redneck." He grew up in Clarkesville but was born in Daytona Beach, Fla., and his uncle is Jim France -- of the NASCAR Frances. It explains why the logo on his golf shirt is for the NASCAR Nationwide Series. Not a bad financial backer to have.

"I was born and raised around racing," Manning said. "My dad raced everything but NASCAR. My cousin races Porsche. It's in my blood so it's very fortunate for me to have him helping me do this."

Naturally his peers have caught on to Manning's inner redneck. At a recent event, fellow pro Gavin Cole hollered "What's up NASCAR?" The label stuck.

"I guess it's my new name," Manning said. "It could be worse."

Manning is trying to make a name for himself in golf. After leaving Augusta State in 2007 with two All-America titles and a fourth place individual finish in the NCAAs as a sophomore, his pro career got off to a somewhat rocky start.

After finishing second in a mini-tour event in Miami, Manning returned to Augusta during Masters Week in 2008 to celebrate. An annual tradition had been to hang out at The Country Club Dance Hall & Saloon in Washington Square Shopping Center. Part of the fun was riding a mechanical bull.

"Third straight year I got on just like every other time and thrown off just like every other time," Manning said. "But what had happened was it wasn't inflated enough and I hit a support beam. I couldn't walk or drive or put my clothes on for like two weeks."

An MRI revealed he nicked a disk in his lower back. The injury sidelined him for three months and he still occasionally suffers from it and treats it with regular therapy and daily electronic stimulation.

"I think I'm retired," he said of the mechanical bull riding. "If I go back I'm going to steer clear of the bull. It set me back a little while but I came back with a victory the next year on the Hooters Tour."

He's lifted his game since then, reaching the final stage of the PGA Tour's Qualifying School two consecutive years, earning his full card on the developmental Nationwide Tour both times. His rookie season in 2009 was a learning experience. He made just three cuts in 16 starts as he tried to learn the courses and the rhythm of life on the road.

"Since I was 8 years old I've always competed and done very well," he said. "For me to step out my first year to as high a level as this and not have any success is very humbling. But you've got to take what you can from it and learn.

"Now this year I can focus more on my game and my life instead of rush, rush, rush to every venue," he said as he prepared to compete in the Stadion Athens Classic this week at the University of Georgia Golf Course.

Part of Manning's comfort level this year is having a friend carry his bag. Former ASU player Tarik Can approached Manning last year after a pro-am in Pennsylvania about changing his own career goals to become a caddie. The two Augusta State guys teamed up well at Q-School and made it a full-time arrangement this season.

"Just having somebody who is comfortable to be with helps a lot," Manning said. "The only thing is he doesn't know the courses, so next year will be better."

Can is getting used to being a caddie instead of a player.

"You can't look at it through your eyes anymore," he said.

If all goes well, Manning could take the next step to the PGA Tour where he might get to the chance to play with one of the member's of his dream foursome, Phil Mickelson.

"He's a good person and very caring with his family," Manning said of the reigning Masters champion. "I just respect him as the people's player."

He's not all redneck yet. If he keeps trending that direction, he'll join Boo Weekley's fan club instead.