NEWINGTON - Mike Strong had committed his life to baseball. From Little League to AAU and eventually the Newington High School team, Strong played his sophomore campaign with the Indians with the expectation that he would eventually play at the collegiate level.
That’s why not even a year later, when Strong approached his parents to tell them he was walking away from the diamond and hitting the links to play golf for Newington, they were puzzled, to say the least.
“Michael was an excellent baseball player,” Mike’s father Jim Strong said. “He always compared himself to Derek Jeter with his competitiveness and drive to win. But it got to a point where he didn’t want to play baseball anymore. It was a shock to me and his mother.”
Perhaps the greater shock was the sport Strong would be replacing baseball with. He always seemed to enjoy golf, but aside from a round or two a month with Jim and Mike’s grandfather, Strong’s experience with the sport was minimal. But the ultra-competitive Strong had switched gears, and decided it was time to have fun again.
“I was at the point where baseball felt more like a job to me,” Strong said. “It didn’t feel like something I enjoyed doing every day. I was looking to go to college and play baseball somewhere, and I didn’t want to spend the next six years not enjoying what I was doing. I always liked playing golf, so I switched. I took the approach of wanting to enjoy what I was doing, even if I wasn’t as good at it.”
Fast forward six years, and Strong is finishing up his senior season with Division-III Springfield College, having claimed two First Team all-conference honors, a singles conference championship and two team conference championships.
The Newington native lifted his golf game from leisure to award-winning in just a few short years, and is finishing his collegiate career as one of the top golfers in the NECC.
How did it happen so quickly? Well, that competitive nature from baseball eventually carried over to the golf course.
Despite seeing limited time on the Newington boys golf team in his junior year of high school, Strong worked his way to the team’s No. 2 golfer as a senior, and will soon graduate Springfield College as a decorated golfer in a sport he casually decided to try competitively in his latter years of high school.
“If you told me as a junior in high school, I would think there was no way I would have been doing what I’m doing now,” Strong said. “I didn’t even go to the state tournament my junior year of high school. We had a top-five program in the state, so we were a great team to begin with. I wasn’t a top-five player in my own town my junior year. I would have never expected to be playing at the collegiate level. But now, knowing how much work I’ve put in, I’m not as surprised.”
Strong’s game opened eyes during his senior year, leading him to a spot with Springfield, but it took off after his sophomore season with the Pride, when he dedicated all of his time to the sport. He would call out of work to get in nine or 18 more holes, sacrificing a paycheck for a lower round score. Whatever it took, Strong wanted to see how far he could take what started as a hobby.
“I wanted to get better and knew I had the potential,” Strong said. “So I gave everything I had to it.”
Strong began working on his swing through the winter with the help of Austin Rakiec, a former pro at Stanley Golf Course in New Britain.
After losing the individual conference title to teammate Jake Rachaile on the final hole his junior year, he took home the award as a senior and now prepares to say goodbye to his college career before beginning a new one in sports management.
His likely next stop? An internship at the Valero Open in San Antonio, working in the volunteer department while sticking around the game he quickly grew to love.
“It didn’t really kick in until the last couple holes at my last tournament at the cape,” Strong said of his decorated career coming to a close. “It didn’t set in that it would be my last go at it. But those last few holes I was just appreciative of the moment and taking it in. I was thinking about how far I’ve come the last four years and the relationships I’ve made.”
Strong’s journey included a steep and rapid climb up the competitive ranks, and more importantly, unlike his baseball experience at Newington, it’s never felt like a day of work.
“I don’t look at it like I have to do it,” Strong said. “I want to do it. You can’t play golf if you don’t want to. There’s just no way around it.”
Ryan Chichester can be reached at (860) 801-5094 or email@example.com