Getting ready to order breakfast in the drive-through of an Einstein Bros. Bagels, University of Tennessee men’s golf coach Brennan Webb received a call that would change his program.
“I probably scared the guy in the drive-through window with my excitement,” Webb said.
That was when Caleb Surratt, by some accounts the No. 1 junior in the country at the time, told his new coach that he was coming to Knoxville to play for the Volunteers.
For multiple reasons, it was a moment that didn’t seem possible not long before that.
Surratt, of Indian Trail, North Carolina, in suburban Charlotte, originally committed to play for North Carolina State, doing so early in his high school career. The Wolfpack gave Surratt his first offer, and his verbal commitment lasted for two years.
During that time, Surratt went from a respectable prospect to one of the top juniors in his class.
As his trajectory changed, Surratt had a change of heart.
“I just found myself in a different spot of life,” Surratt told Global Golf Post. “I just didn't know if it was the best fit for me or for (N.C. State) anymore. It didn’t feel like it was where I was being led to go.”
Surratt reached out to Webb and a few other coaches, looking to find the proper fit. He knew a couple of the guys who committed to Tennessee and figured it was worth a shot to do further research on the program. The process occurred throughout the meat of the pandemic, so there were no in-person visits allowed. Webb, like all college coaches at the time, wasn’t allowed on the road to recruit. Surratt and Webb communicated only through FaceTime and phone calls. Webb knew what kind of player Surratt was, and despite a lack of in-person interaction, there was a palpable chemistry between the two.
At the core of that relationship, Surratt sensed a program on the rise.
“He has such a professional outlook at 18 years old. I know I’ve never seen that from an 18-year-old before.”
Brennan Webb, Tennessee head coach
Tennessee had long been a middle-of-the-road contender in the highly competitive Southeastern Conference, a program with just three conference team titles in 86 seasons and a modest golf alumni list headlined by Jim Gallagher Jr. and the late Mason Rudolph. It was the type of program that would have little chance at landing an elite talent such as Surratt, but Webb had injected some much-needed life into the Big Orange.
After taking the job in 2018, he immediately led the Vols to a program-record three tournament titles. And when the team finished No. 20 in the rankings for the 2021-22 campaign, it was the program’s best final ranking in 13 years.
In his climb to college golf’s upper stratosphere, Surratt wanted to be a legacy player held accountable by a demanding coach who wouldn’t simply acquiesce to a star.
“I didn't want to go to a school where I felt like I was just going to be another guy,” Surratt said. “I wanted to go to a school that's never really had anybody big come out of there. I wanted to make it my goal to be the next Tennessee golfer on tour one day.”
With each tournament since Surratt’s verbal commitment in March of 2021, he has looked only more impressive. It was the summer of 2021 – after his junior year of high school at Union Academy – when he really started to cook with wins at the Terra Cotta Invitational, Western Junior Championship, Junior PGA Championship and Bobby Chapman Invitational on his way to making the U.S. Junior Ryder Cup squad.
In 2022, he won the Junior Invitational at Sage Valley, the Terra Cotta Invitational (again) and the points race for the Elite Amateur Golf Series. That came when Surratt registered five consecutive top-10s in some of the biggest amateur events of the summer, all before finishing runner-up in the U.S. Junior Amateur.
“I didn’t really get to know him until the U.S. Junior last summer, and he was disappointed he lost in the finals, but I told him after that I gained so much respect for him,” Webb said. “And not because of the way he played golf but just his habits and how he just did the right thing every moment of every day. That's what separates Caleb. It’s not that he’s been blessed with all of these physical skills or anything like that; it’s that his habits day-to-day are elite.
By July of 2022, Data Golf had Surratt ranked as its No. 1 amateur in the world – junior golfer or otherwise. And in his very first college start that fall, Surratt lived up to the hype by shooting 64-63-65 to win the Maui Jim Intercollegiate, a performance breaking the 54-hole school scoring record.
His play in the Elite Amateur Golf Series gave him a PGA Tour exemption, and he made the cut in the Butterfield Bermuda Championship (learning a valuable lesson when he shot 64 in the second round and then imploded with an 85 in the third round). Surratt soon would gain more tour experience in early 2023, getting a sponsor’s exemption into the American Express and Monday qualifying into the Farmers Insurance Open. Leading into those starts, where he missed the cut, he finished one stroke short of a playoff at the prestigious Jones Cup Invitational.
Then came this spring when he authored three consecutive top-six college finishes before dominating the field with a six-stroke victory in the SEC Championship. He was the first freshman to win the individual conference title since Alabama’s Justin Thomas in 2012.
Surratt’s Tennessee team is now up to No. 12 in the country as it competes in NCAA regionals this week. The newly minted SEC Freshman of the Year is No. 12 in the Golfstat individual collegiate rankings and No. 7 in the World Amateur Golf Ranking. He is favored to make what figures to be a historically youthful American Walker Cup team set to compete at St. Andrews in September. (Surratt is so passionate about the team, he called it his “biggest goal” and said he has battled the trap of making it his “life purpose” every day.)
While it’s easy to get carried away with results, the overwhelming sentiment around Surratt is that he is extremely polished for his age, on and off the golf course.
His golf journey began when his father, Brent, was a professional long driver traveling around the country competing in RE/MAX long-drive competitions.
“As I was growing up, I would see all of the tall drivers in our garage,” Surratt said. “And that's kind of how I got dragged into the game. Those drivers were taller than me, but I wanted to go hit them. My dad taught me everything from scratch, and I was off and running at a young age.”
His paternal grandfather, Brad Surratt, would drive his grandson all around North Carolina to tournaments for more than 10 years. In one instance, “Pop” drove Surratt seven hours each way to Lexington, Kentucky, to see him win the Junior PGA Championship.
The eldest Surratt had to do a lot of the driving as Brent worked weekends in real estate. Brent and his wife, Lisa, raised four athletic children involved in four different sports – they did everything possible to be at every event to support their kids, although it wasn’t easy.
“I have three other siblings, so we have a six-person family and finances are always tight,” Surratt said, adding that he is the only one of his siblings who plays golf. “I’ll never know the true pain and pressure of being a father for a really long time, but I really feel like my dad and granddad gave me every opportunity I possibly could have. And looking back, that definitely has been the biggest difference in my development and shaping me as a person as well.”
That comes across in how he talks, how he acts and how he plays the game. It’s a lofty comparison, but Surratt is reminiscent of Collin Morikawa in his meticulous, confident and precocious nature. Related to that, he feels like a poster child for how professional the amateur game has become. He has had Callaway and Adidas on his clothes for many years – they are sponsors that feel more like family, Surratt said – to go along with an important NIL deal with Transcend Capital. His personal website has a heartfelt note from Brent, along with Venmo and PayPal links, asking for financial assistance so that his son can chase his dream. On the course, Surratt possesses a calculating and detail-oriented game, rarely leaving him out of position. Webb says everything about Surratt’s physical abilities are tour-quality except for some elements of his wedge game inside 100 yards.
When asked about his progress in the past few years, Surratt attributes it to maturation. On multiple occasions, he talks about how being in certain “seasons of life” can change someone’s golf.
The season he is in right now is one of learning and evaluation.
“I felt like I was just becoming a true student of the game,” Surratt said. “I ended up moving to Tennessee on June 10 last summer, which was before (the Elite Amateur Golf Series). I was doing summer school, so I was living in a dorm and I was here every day at our facility. One of my best buddies on the team, Bryce Lewis, we were playing together every day, and honestly I felt like I just got really, really comfortable in my own shoes.”
Surratt said he spent last summer traveling to tournaments with his Tennessee teammates nearly every weekend. His dad didn’t see him play one event all summer. Surratt took even more ownership over his game, and his life.
“One of the bad things of playing so well last summer is that I kind of started to believe that that’s how it’s going to be all the time."
He played well the majority of the summer and came into college with his hair on fire. But Surratt was knocked down a few pegs when he struggled at times over his ensuing college starts before the recent rally this spring.
He had to reset his expectations, learning from players such as Will Zalatoris and Jon Rahm who imparted wisdom to Surratt during tour practice rounds.
“One of the bad things of playing so well last summer is that I kind of started to believe that that’s how it’s going to be all the time,” Surratt said. “Jon Rahm seems to be playing pretty amazingly consistent golf right now, but it’s just not the case for everybody all the time.”
That mindset is at the core of who Surratt has become. It’s a matter of perspective.
He puts his faith above golf every day, saying “one of those things is eternal, right? It's never going to end. But nobody takes golf clubs to the grave. … I will never let golf and the results that come with it define who I am as a person.”
He lives those words. Each Wednesday night, Surratt volunteers at a local church youth group, spending 1½ hours with 20 sixth-graders. They don’t really know Surratt as a golfer who could be on the PGA Tour one day. He’s simply a mentor. Golf never enters his conversations with the kids.
Earlier this year when Surratt earned his way into the Farmers Insurance Open, he couldn’t volunteer that week.
“The message he sent the sixth-graders was, ‘Sorry I can’t be there tonight. I got caught up in some golf stuff,’ ” Webb said. “And everybody else in that situation – probably myself, included – wouldn’t wait to tell the kids that he is going to play a PGA Tour event tomorrow. But to Caleb, that’s not what his relationship with these kids is about. It’s not what is important to him.”
It’s a sign of a young man with more to give than his golf – and his golf is pretty good.
Top: Caleb Surratt makes immediate impression at Tennessee as SEC Freshman of the Year.
TODD DREXLER, COURTESY UNIVERISTY OF TENNESSEE