WESTERLY — Former Westerly High basketball sharpshooter Austin Cilley has traded his talent of hitting 3s on the court for shooting threes (birdies) on the golf course.
Cilley, 24, who went to Rhode Island College with the intention of playing basketball while dabbling in golf at the Division III school, is now setting his sights on becoming a professional golfer.
Such a notion appeared to be a pipe dream when Cilley shot an average in the mid 80s as an RIC freshman five years ago. But Cilley has improved over the years, especially in what has been a spectacular summer of play, to the point where he regularly shoots at or well below a par of 71.
Just on Sunday, Cilley tied the course record of 64 at Winnapaug Country Club. That gem came on the heels of a pair of 72s to tie for 15th overall as the low amateur at the prestigious Rhode Island Open earlier this month.
"I've been playing great the last two months," Cilley said. "I am recovering from a broken wrist. I had been compensating for the pain and got into bad habits with my swing. I've overcome that this summer and am playing the best golf of my life."
Cilley fired a 66 to earn medalist honors last month at the Norwich (Conn.) Invite. He's been shooting plenty of golf threes ever since. His email of ACilley3 now stands for birdies, not the 3-point baskets that once signified his status as Westerly's career leader in 3s (his 233 now rank second) and one-time career scoring leader (his 1,523 points now rank third).
"I'm a very big dreamer," Cilley said. "I go after what I want and what I think I can achieve. I have aspirations to become a pro golfer."
Cilley realizes he must stretch his brilliant summer of golf into a span of a couple years to even consider what some might term a "silly" goal.
"Before college, I'd say I had played about four rounds of competitive golf," Cilley said. "Other competitors had about 10 years of experience playing in tournaments as kids. Now I've had to cram 10 years of play into the last four years."
It hasn't been as easy as Cilley has made it look recently — his 64 on Sunday at Winnapaug, which tied Lee Bishop for the club record, included eight birdies and 10 pars.
After averaging nine points a game for the RIC basketball team as a freshman shooting guard, Cilley suffered a back injury, thus ending his basketball playing career at the college level. He struggled after he came back to play golf at RIC, shooting in the 80s regularly.
"I had a rocky start for sure," Cilley said. "Competitive college golf is a different animal than what I was used to playing nine holes in high school."
Cilley took a year to recover from his back injury. Once he returned, Cilley made the most of his three remaining years of eligibility, lowering his stroke average gradually to shoot in the 70s regularly. He won the Lake of Isles club championship in 2017 as well as shooting as RIC's No. 1 golfer.
But then Cilley inflamed a previous wrist injury late in 2019 — a condition that could require surgery if Cilley chooses. That option might affect his swing even more, however.
"I got into bad habits with my swing to compensate for the wrist pain," he said. "My game suffered a lot until this summer as my swing became quirky. But I have learned ways to compensate for the wrist with my swing."
Cilley has fun comparing the similarities and differences between basketball and golf.
"I equate putting to shooting free throws," Cilley said. "The biggest difference is mental. I hyped myself up for basketball, whereas in golf I calm down and regulate my breathing. In basketball, I believed the work and practice I put in for my game would eventually show that I was the best out there. I'm starting to get that feeling in golf."
Jeff Beaupre, Winnapaug's club pro, believes Cilley has the right combination of physical and mental talent to excel as a golfer.
"I hope he doesn't rush his attempt to go pro, but he is a great athlete, has all of the shots and a great temperament," Beaupre said. "He has the ability to tune in and tune out when needed."
As an amateur, Cilley didn't win any money at the Rhode Island Open nor did he benefit financially from his Winnapaug course-tying record. This weekend he will vie for the club championship at Lake of Isles, where he is a member.
But he hopes to be on his way to the big time.
"It's going to be a grind," Cilley said. "There are numerous tournaments you can enter to qualify for exemptions. It's very competitive, but at least I've put myself in a position to think about it.
"I'm an old soul. I get along better with older people than those of my age," he said. "I go to bed early, get up early and am dedicated to what I have to do to succeed."