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March Halftime Report - The Jennings Family

Kim Gendron, Social Media Coordinator

It has taken countless hours of training, discipline and sacrifice, but seniors Annie and Walker Jennings ‘22 crossed a big goal off their lists this past fall. In November, the two sat side by side and signed their letters of intent to play Division I collegiate athletics - tennis for Annie and golf for Walker - both at the University of South Carolina. As the famous saying goes, “it takes a village” and the Jennings twins certainly had the benefit of a family who understands both the process and what it takes to meet their athletic aspirations.
 
Their parents, Clayton and Mahaley Jennings, are both former D1 athletes who played tennis (and met) at Furman University. They wanted their kids to make their own decisions about the sports they wanted to pursue and intentionally exposed them to a variety of options. Annie started hitting tennis balls in the playroom very early on and progressed from there. Walker was “accidentally” introduced to golf when he was given a plastic hockey stick at the age of 2. Clayton and Mahaley recall Walker and his younger brother, William ‘24, creating golf courses throughout the house before moving to the backyard with holes and flags. Eventually they introduced the two boys to a real golf course and according to their parents, “it was love at first sight.” With their youngest, Heyward ‘29, also setting his sights on golf, Clayton and Mahaley share, “It’s fun to see our kids play lifelong sports and our hope is that they will enjoy tennis and golf forever.”
 
From the moment he was handed that plastic hockey stick, Walker knew he wanted to play golf, but he officially made the decision to put his sole focus on the sport when he was 12. His training schedule includes golf seven days a week, either for school or for personal practice. At CCES, Walker has been a member of the Varsity Boys Golf team since the 7th grade and has won four state titles. He calls those championships some of his favorite memories, sharing, “Winning as a team and getting to share that experience with others is really rewarding.” Outside of Cavalier Golf, Walker travels extensively throughout the school year and during the summer, estimating that he competes in about 10-12 tournaments each year. He also cherishes those memories of traveling with his parents and playing with friends in individual tournaments.
 
For Annie, she can’t really remember a time when tennis wasn’t a part of her life and has fond memories of going to clinics in the summers and the lasting friendships she has formed through the sport. While she tried her hand at a wide range of sports, she made the decision to commit to tennis at the age of 12. Her training schedule over the years has involved at least three hours of tennis plus strength and conditioning each weekday and more on the weekends. Up until her senior year, she played both on the school team, cherishing her state championship memories and having a team experience in an otherwise very individualized sport. She calls it “difficult” to balance her heavy workload at school with the time required to be the best on the tennis court, but it’s all been worth it. She competes in countless tournaments outside of school, calling them “both fun and demanding, physically and mentally” but “great opportunities to compete and grow as a player.”
 
Both Walker and Annie had their sights set on Division I collegiate athletics, but the road to USC was not necessarily easy. Walker knew he wanted to play golf in a big conference and once he narrowed down his desire to stay in the South, USC became his clear top choice. He calls the coaching staff “very personable,” and their ability to develop players had a big impact on his final decision. While Annie looked at a number of schools, she always had a clear picture of what she wanted — experienced coaches and a team with high energy as well as the opportunity to be pushed in the classroom. She calls it “the best of both worlds as a student-athlete” — getting to compete in the SEC and being accepted in the USC Honors College.
 
Being twins who compete in their respective sports at the highest level could be cause for rivalry, but Annie and Walker are big sources of encouragement and motivation for one another. Annie calls Walker “the hardest working person” she knows and says, “Watching his consistent dedication and love for golf has inspired me and played a role in the work ethic I have today.” Walker notes their friendly competition in the classroom, but reflects that their sports of choice and individual careers have been fairly different, which allows them to support each other’s ambitions. He says, “Watching Annie pursue a similar goal has really helped push me.” Clayton and Mahaley are “thrilled” that Annie and Walker’s individual paths happened to “collide” as they both chose USC. They share, “These two have watched each other experience highs and lows, which truly gives them the ability to rally behind one another and encourage each other to both ride out the storms and also to celebrate the victories.”
 
While Annie has helped motivate and support him in his overall goals, Walker also has his younger brother William to push him to be his best on the golf course. William, just two years younger than Walker, took up golf at a young age, initially because he wanted to be like his brother. He also marks the age of 12 as his shift to taking golf seriously and committing to intense hours of practice to get better. His practice style has changed a lot over the years, and he now feels more efficient in his ability to accomplish more with less time. He estimates spending 4-6 hours on the course each day during the school year and up to 10 hours a day in the summers. Like Walker, William has been a member of the CCES golf team since the 7th grade and has won two state titles. He calls those championship seasons “special” and also cherishes finishing as the individual state champion last spring. William is considered one of the best golfers in the country for his age, having been considered as high as 13th in the US for all of junior golf, as high as number one in the country for the Class of 2024, and is currently the top of his class for South Carolina. He has also competed in countless tournaments over his career thus far with memorable ones including wins at the Carolina’s Junior and The Blade as well as top ten finishes in major events for junior golf last year. William was recently invited to play in the Junior Invitational, which many consider the biggest junior golf event in the world.
 
Naturally, Walker and William can get pretty competitive on the golf course. However, both are quick to say playing with and against one another has shaped them individually into better golfers. Walker calls William “very impactful” on his golf career, sharing that they hold a lot of mutual respect for one another and are constantly pushing each other to be better. He says, “I don’t think I would be at the level I am today without William. Even though he is younger than me, he is such a good player and I try to learn as much as I can from him.” William shares that through golf, he and Walker have developed a “close bond.” They are both quick to lend and receive advice from one another on the course. They have had the opportunity to be teammates for several years at CCES, forming a formidable duo in the lineup.
“It’s an awesome feeling to win events like State on the same team as your brother,” Walker says, “And there is no one I would rather have as a partner in an important match [than William].”
 
For Clayton and Mahaley, they have loved watching the two walk through this journey together. “Walker and William’s friendship is an amazing gift and we believe has contributed to their success on the golf course. They are competitive but also have a built-in support system in one another.”
 
William has his sights set on Division I golf as well and is looking forward to the process starting soon. While he knows it can be stressful, watching his two older siblings go through recruiting has allowed him to already be contemplating would constitute the “best fit” for him and has helped him to relax as he thinks about everything that is coming next.
 
Heyward, while only in fifth grade, already has big aspirations when it comes to golf. He also started playing when he was young, motivated by a desire to be like his brothers. But he quickly developed a love for the sport and calls competing “really fun.” Because William and Walker are quite a bit older, Heyward doesn’t yet play on the same tees, so competing all together is different right now. However, he notes that one day, sooner rather than later, he’s confident he will be able to beat them on an even playing field. He notes that both of his brothers have taught him a lot — demonstrating different techniques, how to approach certain shots, and teaching him how to develop a better swing. For as long as he can remember, Heyward has been traveling to watch one of his siblings compete and believes those trips have made them very close as a family. He loves watching his siblings win tournaments and says, “I want to do the same thing.” Heyward is currently trying to golf as much as he can and has similar goals to his brothers — Division I golf, amateur tournaments, and one day, the PGA.
 
As Clayton and Mahaley reflect on this chapter of life, they acknowledge how much everyone has had to sacrifice for all the different schedules, but they wouldn’t have it any other way. They often spend much of their current free time apart, dividing and conquering on various courses and courts. But from the beginning, especially with their backgrounds in collegiate athletics, they knew they wanted to support and encourage their children in whatever ways they needed or desired. They share, “We stress to them we will always be their biggest cheerleaders, but it’s completely up to them how much time and energy they want to put into their prospective sport.” They strongly believe in all the life lessons athletics can provide at any level, and they want each of their children to create his or her own journey.
 
As Annie and Walker reflect back on their high school careers before heading off to COLA in the fall, they both are quick to recognize those lessons their parents often talk about. Walker says, “Golf is hard, and life is hard.” He points out how lonely a golf course can be, especially when things aren’t going well, and notes that in golf, you often lose more than you win. Those two aspects of golf are constantly reminding him about perseverance and the ability to get through the lows, both on the course and in life. Annie says “I 100 percent believe tennis has taught me lessons that I would not have gained anywhere else in life.” The sport has taught her the importance of hard work, but also that it does not always guarantee success. It has also taught her ownership of dealing with losses. She says, “On the tennis court, there is no one else on whom to place blame. I have had to learn to make adjustments on my own.”
 
While Annie and Walker will soon graduate, and a new chapter will begin in the Jennings family, they will cherish these final months with everyone at CCES together and with Walker and William set on defending eight straight state titles for Cavalier golf. Each of the four Jennings siblings has big dreams, but with their family behind them to give continual love and support, the sky's the limit.
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