Wake Forest Alumni Alex Smalley Tees Off In The PGA Tour

Smalley, who graduated in 2015 and played golf on scholarship at Duke, played in 2023 Players Championship


Editor’s Note:

In the Players Championship that concluded Sunday, March 12, Smalley was tied at 65th place with 289 total strokes and a +1 score. He scored 10 birdies and a hole in one (see video highlight). His strokes for all four rounds were 71-75-69-74 

When it comes to Wake Forest High School and athletic prowess, football is the only sport that most people think of. Other well-known sports like soccer, basketball and baseball may also come to mind. 

What if I told you that one of the most successful athletes that came from our school, making millions of dollars a year, is a professional golfer?

That golf player is Alex Smalley, a 26-year-old graduate of Duke University, who tees off alongside some of the best golf players in the world. 

As a high school junior, Smalley was the Conference Champion and Player of the Year, a high accomplishment for his age. He graduated from Wake Forest in 2015. He later went on to receive a four-year scholarship from Duke University and graduated in 2019 with a degree in Environmental Science. 

I had the chance to interview Smalley along with his high school coach, Dr. Justin Richards, to learn more about his accomplishments and his rise to the professional level.

Smalley has been interested in golf ever since he was four years old. His grandmother got him a plastic club and a rubber ball to practice with, and he has been engrossed in the sport ever since. Smalley tells us that his parents have been his biggest supporters throughout his career.

“They made so many sacrifices for me to be able to play. My parents came to every junior tournament I had, and they tried to make it to most college events that I played in, unless they were too far away for them to travel to. My whole family has been extremely supportive,” Smalley said. “My sister has also come to a number of tournaments over my career, so having the support of my whole family has really helped me get to where I am today.”

Smalley would meet Dr. Richards as an eighth grader, and he later played under his leadership at Wake Forest. Dr. Richards has been at Wake Forest for about two decades. He coached Smalley for all four of his high school years and reflected on him with admiration, offering high praise.

“Alex was the greatest human being ever. I mean he really is. He was like…always ‘yes sir, no sir,’ very respectful at all times. Really valued the guys on the team, valued friendships, valued relationships. Always respected authority, whoever he was talking to, at all times. Teachers, coaches, any kind of adult he engaged with. He was just very affable, and just a really, really incredible person overall,” Dr. Richards said.

Smalley practiced constantly during his time at Wake Forest, always putting forth his best effort. He might have been practicing a little too hard in his early years. Dr. Richards told us how he tried to teach Smalley the balance between hard work and fun.

“There’s a chance to have fun and also play the game, and I think that’s probably what, now that he’s a professional, it’s probably similar too. It’s a career, it’s a business, it’s how he makes a living, but at the same time it’s a game. It was probably just the early stages of that. You just gotta find that sweet spot in that area and just kind of remind yourself that this is a thing, this is a game, this is supposed to be fun, competition is supposed to be fun, and as soon as he embraced that that’s when I really feel like he took off,” Dr. Richards said.

Smalley first qualified to play in the NCHSAA 4A golf tournament as a sophomore and finished second in states as a junior. He was described as incredibly persistent by his coach, and this strength of his contributed to his success. People noticed his abilities, and it all paid off when Smalley was offered a full ride to attend Duke. He recalls being overjoyed upon learning of the scholarship.

“It felt incredible! I was recruited by a number of universities and was fortunate enough to kind of choose where I wanted to go to college. I cut my list down to three schools, and I ended up choosing Duke because I felt like it best fit what I wanted in a university and in a golf program, and it could help me get to where I wanted to go after I graduated from college,” Smalley said, in an email

Smalley continued to play after college, now with a prestigious university behind him. He qualified for the U.S. Open in 2017, a moment he states is a defining moment in his career. Smalley sees similarities between himself in high school and college, and claims that he gained a lot of confidence at both levels.

“As a freshman in both high school and college, I felt a little nervous starting out because everyone was older than me and competing against older people was new to me starting in high school. In college, the dynamic was a little different because everyone on the team was very good, and we would have to compete against each other in order to determine who would travel and play, but at the end of the day, we were still a team,” Smalley said. “After the first few events in high school and college, I started to become more comfortable and accustomed to competing against the same names, and when I started to beat people that I followed for a few years, I started to feel like I belonged and that I could compete against the best of the best.”

After graduating from Duke, Smalley went on to compete in the 2021 Wyndham Championship, where he birdied the last four holes. This allowed him to play in the Korn Ferry Tour Finals for a PGA Tour card, which he earned. He now plays in a variety of professional matches, making up to hundreds of thousands of dollars per game. Smalley still continues to improve his golfing skills and aim for higher goals.

“There’s always something to learn and something to get better at. The one tournament I want to play in the most is The Masters. I’ve watched that tournament on TV for as long as I can remember, so having the chance to play in that tournament one day would be the cherry on top,” Smalley said.

Throughout his life, Smalley has always been passionate about golf. He continues to enjoy the sport, and Dr. Richards doesn’t expect that to change anytime soon.

“I don’t think he’s the type that’s gonna say ‘I need a career change.’” Dr. Richards said. “I see him staying, and golf is the kind of thing you can do that. You can have a great career and play into your fifties, and then you can transition and go into the senior circuit if you want to. I would say that more than likely he’s a lifer, because he was about the game. He was very passionate about it. Hearing him talk about it and the way he approached the game, it was really impressive. If you knew him, and you saw the way he operates this isn’t surprising whatsoever.”