Brad McMakin, Arkansas
Listen to the McMakin, in his sixth year at Arkansas, talk about his Razorbacks squad, and you wonder just how much coaching he's really doing. After winning four times in 2010-11 but having a disappointing 15th-place finish at the NCAA Championship a year ago, McMakin and assistant Barrett Lais met with the team and tried to boost its spirits by expressing to their young squad (four starters were underclassmen) that it was still a good year. In return, the players chortled "No, it wasn't."
"They told each other they can be better and began to talk about doing their job during the summer, working hard, and getting back this fall and winning," McMakin recalled.
Sure enough, the Razorbacks lived up to their words, winning four of their five starts and going from being unranked in the Golf World/Nike Golf preseason poll to a top-five spot. Returning starters Ethan Tracy, Sebastian Cappelen, Austin Cook and Josh Eure have all finished at least third individual in one of their fall tournaments (Cappelen winning the Cabo Collegiate), and freshman Kolton Crawford stepped into the No. 5 spot and posted two top-11finishes.
"They were the ones that take the ownership," McMakin said. "That's when you know you've got something special. We don't have to push them as hard. They realize where we can go. So this year when we came in the first meeting, we're going to win every tournament we play in. You coach for a long time and sometimes you find that special group of kids that really bond together and have that good chemistry."
Of course, that chemistry doesn't happen without somebody creating an environment to make it happen. As he did at Lamar before coming to Fayetteville, McMakin has done a nice job of finding complementary players and creating a competitive environment on campus where the players push each other yet don't repel from one another. McMakin's golf knowledge also has helped shore up the players short games in order to make incremental improvements.
The internal competition might even be getting tougher come January. McMakin said that he's hoping to add one more player to his roster, a friend of Cappelen's from Denmark who could fight for a starting spot immediate.
"The guys know he's coming and they embrace that," McMakin said. "They know it's going to make us better in the long run. We've had a great fall. But if we want to achieve our goals, we need to keep working, and I think everybody here is ready to do that."
John Fields, Texas
Having talented players on his roster is nothing new for the Longhorns top man but getting them to play to their potential isn't as easy as it looks. Fields brought in the year's top recruit, Jordan Spieth, and watched him gel with All-American Dylan Frittelli to form an impressive 1-2 punch on the top-ranked team in the country. But it's Fields' ability to get improvement from Julio Vegas (stroke average dropping from 74.71 last season to 72.17 this fall) and continue the development of Toni Hakula and Cody Gribble that has him doing arguably his best job since arriving in Austin.
Alan Bratton, Oklahoma State
Three months does not a career make, and nobody knows that more than Bratton himself. Still it's hard not to be impressed with Bratton's first impression as a head coach. The Cowgirls had an amazing comeback in the final round to win their first fall start at the Dale McNamara, then backed it up with a victory at the Windy City. Two fifth-place showings to close out the fall left the team happy but hungry.
During my podcast with him earlier this fall, Bratton noted how well the "get to know me" stage seemed to go with his players during the summer. That helps explain, at least in part, the smooth transition. What also helps explain it though is the unassuming demeanor that Bratton carries. There is a calming reassurance from him that appears to have rubbed off well on his players, most notably Jayde Panos and Kelsey Vines. (The irony is that Bratton's mentor when he was posting All-American seasons at OSU in the 1990s was Mike Holder, whose coaching style included far more intimidation than Bratton's. If anything, it would seem Bratton more likely reflects the style of Oklahoma State men's coach, Mike McGraw, who Bratton worked for the past few seasons.)
Just how good are the Cowgirls? That's still to be determined as they're a young team still trying to find its way. But they're much better than many figured last August.
Kim Evans, Auburn
The Tigers have remained a perennial power but the past few years have been lean ones when compared to seasons' past. Yet Evans quietly has assembled a team ready to make a dark-horse run at the nation's elite. Four top-three finishes don't include a team title, but junior Carlie Yadloczky and sophomore Marta Sanz have both won individually, becoming the first Auburn players not named Cydney Clanton to claim titles since 2006.