Staff file photo by Patrick MacCoon / Baylor's Sheldon McKnight is all smiles after winning the individual TSSAA Division II state golf championship last year at the WillowBrook Golf Club in Manchester on Oct. 13, 2020.

Sheldon McKnight has been a special talent since joining the factory that is the Baylor School golf program.

However, the path to stardom with the Red Raiders came as a surprise to the defending TSSAA Division II-AA individual state champion who is stronger both mentally and physically as he enters his senior season.

McKnight did not start golfing until sixth grade after he hit range balls in the backyard at a friend's house one day after soccer practice. In seventh grade he birdied his final six holes to win a playoff in his first ever tournament, which was in Kentucky.

"I still remember Coach (Gary Patrick) calling my parents and telling them, 'We are super interested in your son,'" McKnight said. "I had always wanted to go to Baylor, but we could never make that happen. Then all of a sudden I started playing golf and was really good at it. Within four days of him calling my parents I was playing in the Baylor Preview as an eighth grader. That was a dream come true for me."

Playing for a program with lofty standards has not phased the fierce competitor who wants to join Luke List as the only golfer in program history to win multiple state titles.

List is one of four former Red Raiders who are currently competing on the PGA Tour. Harris English has blossomed into a top-10 star in the sport while Stephan Jaeger and Keith Mitchell are also considered to be in the top 150 players by the Official World Golf Ranking. They have combined to play in The Masters five times.

"This year's Baylor team could very well have five Division I signees on it," said McKnight, who committed to Middle Tennessee State University in July. "We opened the season with our best performance in the Baylor Preview since 2008. I always tell my teammates that we have the chance to add to the list of PGA Tour members from Baylor one day if we stay motivated and keep working hard. That's honestly my dream.

"I really look up to those guys, especially Jaeger who has played with me a couple of times and is really encouraging."

McKnight, whose nickname is 'Birdie', looks in line for quite a senior season if history repeats itself.

As an eighth grader he placed top 20 in the state tournament. He has finished 1-over-par and 2-under in the last two state tournaments at the WillowBrook Golf Club where he showed extreme poise winning a one-hole playoff for the 2020 state title. On Par 5's at the Manchester course he shot 5-under to become Baylor's seventh boys' state champion since 1995.

"Sheldon is extremely talented but what helps separate him is how he takes that talent and works at the game has much as anybody I've been around in this program," Patrick said. "I haven't seen a stage where he's been intimidated. The tougher the opponent or the course, the more he likes it. That makes him special.

"He doesn't play the game safe either. He's confident enough to go for low numbers. I think he has a chance, because of how hard he works, to make a career out of the game."

On his home course last Monday he was the low medalist for the second time ever at the Baylor Preview held at Council Fire. McKnight shot 7-under over the two rounds to help the defending state champion Red Raiders steamroll its competition with second-place Ensworth finishing 22 strokes behind in a loaded field.

"Golf can be one of the most disappointing sports, but it's the most rewarding one I've ever played as well. I love the sport because it allows you to go out there and see what you are made of every time," McKnight said. "When you pour your time, heart and energy into it and see the success pay off it's amazing. I won't stop working because I want to do this my whole life and play at the highest level."

Contact Patrick MacCoon at Follow him on Twitter @PMacCoon.