A week behind the scenes with two college golf powerhouses
The Coody brothers deprived the golf world of a potentially electrifying storyline when they committed to the University of Texas.
Parker and Pierceson, twins from Plano, Texas, had narrowed their college choices to Texas and Oklahoma State. Their father, Kyle Coody, who played golf at Texas (their grandfather is 1971 Masters champion Charles Coody), encouraged the boys to go their own directions, even separately. After a long back-and-forth recruiting process, Kyle asked them to write their selected school on pieces of paper—neither knew who the other had chosen. Kyle turned the papers over: Texas.
In an alternate future, Texas and Oklahoma State, a Coody on each team, might have faced each other in the NCAA finals—a strong possibility given the recent history and perennial prominence of each program. It would not be inconceivable to imagine the national championship coming down to a match between brother and brother.
I mention this fantastic situation to Parker while he practices on the range, crushing the same 7-iron shot over and over into the distance. “Yeah,” he says, acknowledging the scenario. “But it would be a lot better to win one with him.”
That nearly happened the previous spring when Texas lost to Stanford in the 2019 NCAA finals, 3-2, with Parker and Pierceson splitting their respective matches. Coach John Fields’ Longhorn team this year senses another opportunity and came into the 2019-’20 college season ranked No. 1, though the season’s first tournament, the Fighting Illini Invitational at Olympia Fields outside Chicago, is still a few days away.
But at 6 a.m., in a strength-and-conditioning room deep inside the north end zone of Darrell K. Royal Texas Memorial Stadium, there’s other work to do. Here, the 12 teammates—a star-filled, albeit bed-headed cross section of some of the amateur game’s most accomplished players, wearing versions of Nike gray, white and burnt orange activewear—repose in different stages of consciousness on a large green mat, waiting to commence their biweekly session of mobility, core and endurance training.
Golf-specific strength programs have grown more diverse and sophisticated during the past decade, but all tend to illuminate the sport’s peculiar demands that allow different physiques to excel. Alpha athletes like the Coodys (who, as coach Fields says, look like wrestlers) and freshman Travis Vick from Houston, the country’s No. 2-ranked player for the high school class of 2019, come from multisport backgrounds and epitomize golf’s new breed of speed and power. Others, like freshman Will Thomson and junior Christoffer Bring, who could pass as a defender on one of his native Danish Superliga soccer teams, clearly know their way around a gym.
Cole Hammer, meanwhile, better resembles a tempo swinger from a previous era, tall and lithe but with extraordinary hands and pop. The Houston native, who eagled the first hole of the first tournament he ever played—at age 5—and committed to Texas in the eighth grade, entered the season the top-ranked amateur in the world and had only days before returned to Austin from England, where he played on the victorious U.S. Walker Cup team.
After the workout (and a few morning naps), the young men disperse across campus. Unlike football or basketball players, college golfers have few problems blending in, but the realities of the student-athlete life are specialized and can be summarized in two words: time management. After a full schedule of classes, the players drive about 30 minutes west of Austin to the University of Texas Golf Club. Coaches are allowed only 20 hours a week with the team, so much of the practice is individual. Most nationally ranked players have swing instructors elsewhere (and college coaches are deferential to those relationships), so they generally know what they need to work on, and how.
‘Qualifying here is ridiculously hard. I’ve shot even par a couple times, and I’m T-6. These guys take it deep every single time.’ —Texas freshman Travis Vick
The team also plays recurring qualifier rounds, intra-squad competitions to determine one or more of the five available spots starting at upcoming tournaments. Because of strict time constraints, qualifiers are about the only time coaches see their team on the course. They become teaching opportunities with profound outcomes because some earn travel status, and the rest stay home.
Fields is one of the deans of college golf. Now in his 23rd year at Texas, and 33rd overall as a head coach, he runs the program with the wise, dispassionate confidence of a second-term president. He can be stern but warm, and a grin spreads across his face during a satisfying reminiscence, like the 2012 national championship team, or recruiting Jordan Spieth, or playing with the Byrum brothers, Curt and Tom, at New Mexico.
“I’m a big believer in qualifying,” Fields says. “The way we do it, you have to earn it. That reduces the drama on our team.” Picking teams by fiat, what he calls the “point method” (pointing to you, and you, and you), leads to dissension.
“Qualifying here is ridiculously hard,” Vick, the freshman, says. “I’ve shot even par a couple times, and I’m T-6 in the standings. These guys take it deep every single time.”
Under Fields’ system, wins and top-10s earn tournament starts, as does winning a qualifier, and anyone who played in the U.S. Amateur was automatically exempt for the Fighting Illini Invitational. Five made it: Hammer, the Coodys, Thomson and Vick—two rookies with his three super sophomores.
I asked assistant coach Jean-Paul Hebert, a former Longhorn player, if the freshmen were ready.
“They think they are,” he says, noting that playing American Junior Golf Association tournaments nationwide helps prepare them. But, he says, “college golf is an adjustment. College is an adjustment. You’re dealing with managing your time, you’re part of a team, you’re away from your parents, you want to prove it to the world. You’re just at that age, you know?”
Thomson, who looks like a young Roger Federer, echoes this. “It’s like we go to class, we drive [to the club], then we have a locker room to hang out in with a TV and Ping-Pong, and we get to eat,” he says. “We’re out there all day.”
He was sitting in the Texas Athletics Nutrition Center grabbing lunch in the upscale cafeteria before heading out for the all-day thing. Pierceson Coody joined the table with a plate, as did Fields and Hebert. Talking about his transition to college golf the previous year, Pierceson remembered how he arrived in the fall with his game and classwork on form before contracting mono over the holidays. Coach Fields interjected and reminded him that he’d struggled early with a severe case of the rights. They jab back and forth in a rapport only possible on teams with players who genuinely like one another.
COODY: I didn’t come in hitting it sideways.
FIELDS: I’m confusing the two of you?
COODY: I think a little bit.
FIELDS: For the first semester, how many times did I confuse the two of you?
COODY: It took a while. I won our first qualifier, and you’re trying to tell me I’m hitting it sideways. I’m pretty sure my brother was. [Laughter.]
Someone jokes about the way most young people get mono.
FIELDS: [Grinning.] He’s most young people.
COODY: [Disgusted.] I missed the Hawaii trip because of it.
FIELDS: [Crying voice.] He was the saddest guy on the planet.
COODY: My phone—every time I woke up, I’d have 10 new messages, saying, ‘Look at this!’ Thanks, guys.
Everyone pushes back from the table. It’s off to the practice bay and the range and iPhone videos of their swings, to the ear buds and internal dialogues, to the place where time slows down. Home.
On a steamy Saturday morning at the Vanderbilt Legends Club, 20 minutes south of downtown Nashville, the Vanderbilt men’s team is in the midst of a qualifier, the fourth in a five-round mini-event to determine starters for its second tournament.
The season did not begin well for the Commodores, finishing eighth out of eight at the Carmel Cup at Pebble Beach. In fairness, they were without John Augenstein, the lone senior, who was away winning the Walker Cup with Hammer. Augenstein is an intense competitor, and his brilliant match-play record reflects his focus and ferocity. His presence in California would have helped.
Now he was back in the qualifier. But given Augenstein’s importance to the team and late-summer play, including a runner-up finish at the U.S. Amateur (which comes with an invitation to next April’s Masters), a malpractice inquiry would be opened if coach Scott Limbaugh didn’t essentially exempt him from every tournament on the schedule.
Limbaugh knows Augenstein’s importance. “John loves this team,” he says. “He’s shaping his game right now to be the best professional he can be, but this is his team. He’s the guy.” Limbaugh and I are on the course, following the players. “You can tell dudes,” Limbaugh says. “Watch when John hits his tee shot. Watch the environment around him. It’s different.”
This might be Augenstein’s team, but it’s Limbaugh’s show. Since arriving in 2012, Limbaugh has transformed Vanderbilt into a national power (the Commodores, too, lost to Stanford at the 2019 NCAAs, 3-2, in the semifinals) and created a culture in his image, which is to say vocal, emotional and infused with harmonic invocations of love and accountability. He broadcasts encouragement continuously, outlining every moment: “Can the freshman make this putt and punch our ticket to the SEC semis?”
Watching elite college athletes smash 6-irons and launch drives on gravity-defying lines is a mystifying experience.
During a fervid short-game practice, with the band Greta Van Fleet blasting from speakers, Limbaugh exhorts the team with a jaunty Alabama cadence. “Aim small, miss small,” he yells. “When you’ve got a team that can putt, you can beat anybody, and we’ve got a team that can putt!”
To freshman William Moll, from Houston, who sags after misplaying a shot: “Don’t sell to that man,” invoking some hypothetical opponent. “He’ll eat you for lunch. Dinner, too. Don’t sell him anything!”
Far from hypothetical, qualifying is a dramatization of the college journey, modulating among the spectacular, the mundane, the tragic and comedic. Harrison Ott, a junior from Wisconsin who embodies every positive assumption about the personable Midwesterner, opens with a birdie. Moll zombie-walks after three-putting from 15 feet. “That’s something we’re working on,” whispers Gator Todd, Limbaugh’s assistant coach. Body language? Composure? “How to be a bad-ass.”
Reid Davenport, who grew up 10 minutes from downtown Austin, started strong but bogeys 7 and doubles 8. He’s in trouble, and everyone knows it, because they can hear him cursing himself. Ott pours in two more birdies while teammates in the second group—including Mason Greenberg and freshman Matthew Riedel, also from Houston (What’s going on in Houston?)—persevere through the swings of fate we all suffer in golf. “These double bogeys are really going to hurt my game with John,” Greenberg announces, regarding a side game. His chances of making the next event, too.
Augenstein, a sniper with the wedge, is assaulting pins with the same hissing checker he used to dissect the Pinehurst greens at the Amateur. Ott calls him “the Nip King.”
I eavesdrop on Ott, who will eventually finish with eight birdies, and Davenport, mounting a late rally. They’re talking about Augenstein’s stubble, which is, technically, not allowed. “He’s walking the line,” says Ott, who days earlier had to explain to Limbaugh how his own splotchy shave was because his secondary razor doesn’t work as well. “But I don’t really grow lip hair,” he says. “That’s a plus for me, I feel like.”
It comes up that Greenberg keeps a razor in his locker.
“That’s so smart,” Davenport says. “That is so smart.” With an effortless motion, Davenport hits soaring rifle-shot irons that land like warm dumplings. Watching elite college athletes smash 6-irons and launch drives on gravity-defying lines is a mystifying experience. The speed, sound and sense of compression seem to defy physics. Most elite Division I players arrive on campus with all of this figured out, their swings more or less grooved to the current technology and requirements of modern tournament golf. They come to places like Vanderbilt and Texas because they want to compete and win titles, but also because they know the coaches there can help them realize their dream—a professional career—which is on the mind of virtually every college player, at least initially. They choose programs because there’s evidence of this, rosters of former players on the PGA Tour. The job of Limbaugh, Fields and their brethren, therefore, is to help these kids round out their games, to develop their competitive character and situational awareness. College coaching is largely, on a fundamental level, teaching course management and honing instincts beyond shooting yardages and firing at pins, which is what all exceptional 17-year-olds do.
This is the topic of discussion after the morning round when Limbaugh gathers the team inside their tastefully designed golf house.
“Parts of us are really young,” he says, “so all we think matters is the score. ‘I made this, so it worked.’ No. No. No. The score is not the only indicator of what we’re doing.”
At the head of a long conference table, with Augenstein seated to his right, Limbaugh queries the players on specific entanglements.
“The fifth hole,” Limbaugh says, “who in here looked at their pin sheet before they hit their tee ball? I wanna know, raise your hand high.”
Of the eight players, three hands go up. Limbaugh asks Augenstein, who of course read the pin sheet, to go through his process, which he does, describing the wind, fairway width, and why he hit 3-iron off the tee to get a correct lay-up yardage to a tight front pin so he could hit his 52-degree to a foot. At points during the meeting, Limbaugh seeks input from his senior, an acknowledgment that certain information coming from John carries more weight than if it came from him.
Augenstein takes the opportunity to point out a troublesome decision by Moll, a prodigious talent who is capable of shooting 68 in the opening round of a tournament, and raw enough to shoot 78 the final day. Augenstein sees a lot of himself in the freshman. “He will be great,” he says, but it’s a process, and it was only beginning.
“This,” Limbaugh says, meaning everything they’ve been analyzing for the past 20 minutes, “is the difference between playing in match play at the end [of the NCAA Championship], or getting to go home. It’s not who shot 65. It’s who’s tough enough when they don’t have their stuff to get the job done. That’s who’s gonna play for us, you can believe that.”
“John, do you have anything to add?”
Before leaving Nashville, I wanted to see how the players lived. I’d heard that Augenstein and Greenberg had an Odd Couple living arrangement, John the organized, structured Felix to Mason’s cluttered Oscar. When I entered their apartment, however, it was nice but unremarkable—no pizza boxes, cans of Coke or beer, no stray Xbox controllers or socks. I suspected they’d cleaned up. Greenberg and Ott, who lives down the hall, sat on a small sofa watching Sunday Night Football. An original Golden Tee arcade cabinet from the 1990s stood behind them under a poster of Tiger Woods. All three admitted no one can touch Greenberg (it was his father’s game).
‘You can tell dudes. Watch when John [Augenstein] hits his tee shot. Watch the environment around him. It’s different.’ —Vanderbilt coach Scott Limbaugh
Augenstein was slouched in a deep chair with what appeared to be a dark Snuggie pulled up to his neck. A hoodie covered his head so only his face was exposed, and he was eating from a bag of pork rinds. As they commented on the dreary play of the Philadelphia Eagles, I watched John and surmised this must be the other side of excellence, what immeasurable drive looks like off-duty. Just as the Texas team personifies the cool chill of Cole Hammer and the Coodys, Vanderbilt, this year, is guided by Augenstein’s determination, a fever he would have to sometimes turn off.
“All I want to do is be able to help the guys that want to be helped,” he had told me earlier on the range, pausing from a routine of thumping long irons that flew like clays shot from a trap thrower. “There are things I didn’t do very well when I was their age, and if they can be better at it sooner, then they’re going to be better players.” He mentioned the team’s potential, and the words “national champions” slipped. He stopped. “For that to happen, I’ve got to do a lot better job of leading this team and preparing my game not just for the end of this season, but for my professional career.” It seemed such an uncompromising expectation to consider, much less live up to, and maybe the only way a person could is to sometimes kick back in a Snuggie with a bag of pork rinds.
We talked for a little while before I wished them luck on the year. On the way out, something caught my eye in the kitchen, a large black-and-white object sitting alone atop the cabinets over the microwave. It was Augenstein’s Walker Cup golf bag.
On the way to the airport, in the passenger seat of a black Suburban, John Fields spoke about his expectations for the tournament outside of Chicago. “I really want to see if performance can approach our talent level. As coaches, we’ll get something out of this, but these guys, they’re coming to win. For them, fun is that moment when they win.” Then, looking through the window, “It’s one of my favorite tournaments.”
That grin: “The golf course.”
The team was flying to Olympia Fields privately, something it does for select tournaments. The nine-seat Falcon 50 felt like a lobby bar at a legendary midtown hotel with leather swivel seats and hi-gloss mahogany paneling. Laughter and chatter from the boys filled the back of the plane, but 30 minutes after wheels up, it went silent. All five players were asleep.
They looked like children, and it occurred to me that college golf is like a superhero academy, a society of innocents born with astonishing, almost otherworldly gifts they were only learning to control. Also, they were kids—college kids figuring it out, spreading around the profits of enlightenment that graced them each new day, sharing things like Chapstick and backup razors, girl gossip and Instagram photos, confiding about the things they keep out of view of elders, those things that stay, and should stay, within the realm of the young. For now.
One observation I’ve heard about high-level college golf is that the players no longer have fun. Because there’s so much pressure to perform, there’s no room for joy. That’s true in some cases, but it’s not what I felt. What I sensed was desire, excitement, a purity of optimism. J-P Hebert said it best, about this team and others: “You don’t have to motivate these guys. They’re pretty self-motivated. They love this stuff.” On the range, as the Longhorns warm up, players from other schools begin arriving. It’s like the first day of class, and the young men, many who’ve known and competed against each other since they were adolescents, hug, catch up and talk about who traveled and who stayed behind while lofting perfectly flighted shots into the blue sky. Wilson Furr, a talkative junior at Alabama, greets Thomson and Hammer.
FURR: Did y’all go to the Texas-LSU game? I gotta tell you, I was pulling for your team.
THOMSON: I was there. It was crazy.
HAMMER: I was at the Walker Cup. [Pause.] But I wish I could have been there.
Soon it’s off to the first tee for the practice round, where the players and coaches explore the golf course and talk strategy, pin placements and, as Fields says, “make this feel like our home course.”
Pierceson Coody steps in first and tees his ball, then eviscerates a drive that, when it finally lands, bounces and disappears over a ripple in the fairway some 315 yards away. Someone utters an onomatopoeia.
Coody turns around and smiles. “Welcome to the game, boys.”