Joey Vrzich, a shortstop by trade, was on the pitching mound. He reached back to fire a fastball.
As he released the pitch, he felt a pop under his shoulder. A searing pain followed.
“I couldn’t throw anything after that,” Vrzich said. “And then I thought, ‘I have to find something else to do.’”
Later that summer, when the Vrzich family, who lived in San Diego County, was at its Tahoe house in Incline, Joey was bored. So, his grandmother – Granny Linda, he called her – asked if he wanted to go to the golf course. Joey had been on a golf course before, but he’d never played a full round. Until that day.
A few weeks before officially becoming a high school student, Vrzich played his first round of golf, doing so with grandma at Incline Village’s Championship course. Less than six years later – and after nearly giving up the game at one point – Vrzich, now a sophomore playing for the Nevada Wolf Pack, is one of college’s best golfers.
“It’s challenging, it’s hard, you can’t perfect it,” Vrzich said when asked why he loves golf. “It makes you want to be better at it and try to be perfect, which you can’t because it changes every day.”
Vrzich has nearly gotten off to a nearly perfect start this season. He won Nevada’s first tournament of the fall, tying a course record at the Badger Invitational in the process. He finished second in the Wolf Pack’s second event. And he won the team’s third tournament last week. Those two victories are already tied for the most in a single season in recorded program history (dating to 1993), and GolfStat ranks Vrzich as the No. 6 player in the nation.
“I don’t think anybody can ever anticipate that hot of a start,” Nevada golf coach Jacob Wilner said. “Joey had a pretty solid year last year. I think he might have been overshadowed a little bit by Grant (Booth), but we knew it was there. We knew it was in him. When he came back after the summer, he had really tightened up his driving and he’s putting it really well. Putting has been the huge difference for him.”
Vrzich has replaced the departed Booth, a senior who graduated following a record-setting career, as the Wolf Pack’s rock. As a freshman last season, Vrzich averaged 72.84 strokes per round, the third best on the team. This season, he’s averaging 68.78 strokes per round, the third lowest in the nation. Through nine rounds over three tournaments, Vrzich has shot 26 under par.
“He was a good player last year,” Wilner said. “Now he’s turning into a great player.”
Not bad for a guy who said, “I was not good until senior year of high school."
Vrzich was shooting in the high 70s as a freshman and sophomore, a great score for most golfers but a frustrating one for Vrzich. He was so perturbed he was done with golf after his sophomore season. He took a 5-month break from the game during his junior season while focusing on playing basketball. He re-joined the golf team that junior season before he found something his senior year.
“I got into a regular game plan,” Vrzich said. “I only played golf four times a week, I had a lesson once a week and I worked out twice a week. Following that made me progress into being a better player.”
That routine included less golf than he had previously played, but it worked for him. He's stuck to it at Nevada. Vrzich isn’t a golf nerd. He changed putters before this season, which he credits with his improved play on the greens, but he doesn’t even know the exact model he uses. He doesn’t know what shafts his clubs have. He doesn't like the driving range. He keeps things simple. As a result, Vrzich doesn’t see himself as a leader.
“Grant led the team last season because he knew a lot about golf,” Vrzich said. “He was very into the swing, into the angles and all of that stuff. To me, I’m not really focused on that, so I’m not really a leader in that sense. I just try to make everyone more positive. I’m big on positivity. I do get some negativity in my game, which I don’t like. That harms my game. But I’m big on being positive. I’m not big on talking about swing and stuff like that, so I don’t think I can help other guys on that like Grant did.”
Wilner affectionately called Vrzich a “goofball,” a term Joey agreed with. After Nevada earned an at-large spot in the NCAA Tournament last season, Vrzich pulled off an impromptu back-flip on live television during the Wolf Pack’s watch party. He’s a fun-loving guy who doesn’t feel pressure on the golf course. Vrzich has played in two U.S. Amateurs, reaching the round of 16 the summer prior to joining Nevada. That’s the most pressure-packed non-pro event of the year, but Vrzich stayed calm.
“It’s not life or death out there," Vrzich said. "I see it more like I’m out there to have fun and whatever I shoot, I’m still playing golf.”
Given his late start in golf, Vrzich wasn’t highly recruited. Wilner was tipped off about him by Chris Smeal, a well-known, San Diego-based instructor. Wilner traveled to Tempe, Ariz., to watch Vrzich in a tournament and saw excellent athleticism that the coach believed could become something special.
“He’s an incredible athlete,” said Wilner, Nevada’s ninth-year head coach. “You throw any ball at him and he’ll figure out what to do with it, just his body type. He’s quick and fast and extremely athletic.”
Vrzich picked Nevada over San Diego State, Colorado and Colorado State. His family has owned that Incline house Joey’s entire life and would vacation there around four times a year. Vrzich loved going to Tahoe as a kid and felt so comfortable in Northern Nevada he wanted to play for the Wolf Pack.
He came to Nevada with great potential, which Wilner said is a dangerous word, but he’s certainly fulfilled it early in his career. Vrzich entered the season wanting to be an All-American and he’s played like one through Nevada's first three tournaments.
Truly, it’s amazing Vrzich is even alive given his father’s backstory. On July 4, 1989, Vrzich’s dad, Michael, then 28, was driving his motor home through the desert when its 85-gallon propane tank exploded, flames engulfing his RV. Severe burns covered more than 95 percent of his body. He was given 24 hours to live. But the man who burn specialists called “miracle boy” survived and a decade later welcomed Joey, the third of four boys with wife, Nicol.
Until last week, Michael thought he was a bit of a curse to his son. Joey never played his best golf when his dad was in attendance, a coincidence more than anything else. But with Michael at last week’s Nick Watney Invitational near Fresno, Vrzich blitzed the course, winning the event by shooting 14-under par. The Wolf Pack also took the team title by a stroke over BYU, thanks in large part to Vzrich.
“When I finally won at Fresno with him there, my dad said, ‘I guess I’m not a curse. I can be here,’” Joey joked.
Michael could follow his son to NCAA Championship this season if Vrzich continues his stellar play. Joey's on course to have the best season ever for a Wolf Pack golfer. His confidence is at an all-time high.
“I feel really good," Vrzich said. "I know I can still do better. Everybody knows they can. That’s what I’ve been working on, eliminating more shots. But it feels good that I’m finally playing to what I think is good for me.”
Sports columnist Chris Murray provides insight on Northern Nevada sports. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter @MurrayNSN.