Photo by Chris Stanford
December always brings about year-in-review packages form magazines/media outlets and at Golf World, we're no exception. Working on our annual Newsmakers issue, I got to revisit Augusta State's improbable victory at last June's NCAA Championship.
I interviewed Jaguar coach Josh Gregory and his five upstarts (above left to right), Patrick Reed,Carter Newman,Henrik Norlander,Taylor Floyd and Mitch Krywulycz (along with a handful of other interested followers) to ask about their memories now that they're six months removed from that fateful week at The Honors Course outside Chattanooga, which culminated with the Jaguars defeating top-ranked Oklahoma State in the championship match, 3-1-1.
Here is a link to a very condensed version of the piece; you've got to get the magazine for the full 1,300-word piece.
In reporting and writing the story, I came away with a couple of interesting impressions, some of them obvious when you read the story.
1) The victory wasn't just a triumph for the Augusta State golf program, but for an entire community.
Maybe it shouldn't be a surprise how much the folks in Augusta, Ga., appreciated golf considering the town does host the Masters each April. Still, when the Jaguars claimed the NCAA title, it was celebrated by more than simply the five guys who won it on the course.
"We had literally thousands of people in Augusta who were hovered over their computer and who were getting updates on Golfstat literally by the second," recalled Dean Newman, president of the team's booster group, the Augusta State Birdie Club (and father of Carter). "And as soon as Golfstat showed we had won that third match, Augusta just went crazy."
It continued later that night with more than 200 fans greeting the team when it arrived back on campus at nearly midnight at the J. Fleming Norvell Golf House. (Check out this You Tube video of that moment.)
"I don't think any of us really had a grasp of how many fans we actually had [until that night]," Floyd said. "You can't really see it on a day-to-day basis, especially in a sport like golf. I don't think any of us realized how much they cared."
And that didn't include the numerous supporters who made the drive to The Honors Course to watch it in person. Each day the Jaguars' crowds grew by a few dozen people, as Augustans decided to make the four-hour ride to make sure they were a part of history.
Impressively, the celebrations continued well into the summer. The team was honored with a golf-cart parade through downtown Augusta and received a proclamation from the mayor's office. Billy Payne invited them to victory round at Augusta National GC. The Augusta Museum of History unveiled an exhibit dedicated to the team. And the Birdie Club hosted a championship banquet that drew more than 1,100 supporters.
"Playing at nationals and having people experience what we went through, they became part of it that week. Seeing those people again, and talking to them again, hearing what they had to say about how special that week was for them, I guess that's the thing that stands out the most from the banquet," says Krywulycz. "Many of those people there experienced what we experienced and went through what we went through, so they feel part of it. That was really cool. I really like talking to them about it and listening to their perspective on what was happening, what they saw and what we didn't get to see."
2) The victory had a true impact on the Augusta State program.
An NCAA title obviously can help boost the profile of any team and school, but when you win one in the only sport that you compete at the Division I level in, that boost gets magnified even more.
"This has always been a program that's searched for that respect, that recognition," Gregory said. "This has kind of validated the success that the former coaches and players have had."
"There is more awareness of our program nationally," added Dean Newman. "It's definitely given us more credibility."
Newman can measure this financially: the championship banquet raised more than $100,000 that will be used to supplement the tiny $29,700 annual budget Gregory has available to him, as well has assist the school's women's program.
Recently the Birdie Club began selling national championship merchandise online, opening a small but symbolic revenue stream.
Gregory, meanwhile, can point to the signing of Cody Schafer, a high school senior from just outside of Augusta, who was being wooed by SEC and ACC schools. "For Cody ... to stay home was very prideful for myself but this means the world for this program," Gregory said. "Somebody has finally seen the light. Hopefully it will mean bigger and better things for us in recruiting."
3) All five guys contributed to the victory.
As I wrote in the story, the entire Jaguar squad came up big in Tennessee. Newman, who struggled in stroke play qualifying, won critical matches in the team's quarterfinal victory over Georgia Tech and semifinal defeat of Florida State. Reed and Norlander went 3-0 in match play, trouncing Oklahoma State All-Americans Peter Uihlein and Morgan Hoffman, respectively, in the championship match. Krywulycz secured the winning point over the Cowboys when he beat Kevin Tway on the 19th hole after being 4 down in their match through 11 holes. And Floyd overcame flu-like symptoms that nearly caused him to have to sit out the semifinals and finals, only to go 1-0-1 in his matches.
"People understand it's a small program and we don't have football but we have a great facility, great coach," Norlander said. "We really proved we can win. It doesn't matter the budget, private jets and all that. It doesn't really matter. If you work hard, you have all the things you need here to be successful. And with the title, I think we showed that."
Critics of the switch to match play make a lot of valid points, but what the format does do is require that an entire team be playing well to win the title. Using strictly stroke play, you could ride the momentum of a hot golfer who posts four low scores. Not so in match play.
4) Two points of serendipity
There are so many nuances/quirks/lucky twists to Augusta State's triumph it's hard to say if this one thing or this one thing didn't happen, the ending comes out differently. However, there are two moments that might go forgotten down the road that perhaps shouldn't.
- After the first round of the NCAA Southwest Regional, where Augusta shot a 15-over 303, the team was in eighth place with only the top five schools getting a chance to advance. Slow starts were a trademark for the Jaguars in 2009-10, but this one could have become a huge issue had it not been for the team shooting a second-round two-under 286 that jumped them on the right side of the bubble before eventually finishing second to Oregon.
"If we don't shoot the low round of the day and move up to the top three, we're sitting at home watching nationals on the computer," Gregory said.
- During the quarterfinals versus Georgia Tech, Reed held a 1 up lead on Chesson Hadley as the two played the par-4 18th hole. Augusta State had already lost two matches to this point and so Reed's full point was critical. It looked as if it wasn't going to happen, however, as Hadley rolled in a 35-foot birdie putt, letting out an emotional roar when the putt dropped. Reed then proceeded to make a 15-foot birdie try of his own, along with similar theatrics when the ball disappeared.
With Reed's win secured, Augusta State went on to beat the Yellow Jackets 3-2 after Norlander knocked off J.T. Griffin on the 18th hole as well.
"I didn't know how I felt about [match play]," Gregory said afterward, "but that's the most fun, most nervous, more exciting, most paranoid I've ever been on the golf course."
5) Gregory deserves praise for keeping everyone calm
I thought this quote from Floyd was telling, and it was the last one I had to cut from my original piece. It speaks to how Gregory handled the situation with his players, keeping them relaxed in a pressure packed situation.
"I give Josh a lot of credit. He never really said, 'Alright boys, this is huge. Hunker down.' He just said, 'Enjoy the hell out of it. Don't necessarily worry about the outcome. You've got four other guys behind you that can play golf.' I think we all took that to heart and it paid off for us."
The irony is that Gregory, 35, wasn't far removed from being at a career crossroads. He had applied for the Duke men's job when it opened in late 2008 but was passed over for the job. Gregory admitted he thought that he had lost out on a dream opportunity. "To think that a year later, there was a reason why I was supposed to be here, that's pretty amazing," Gregory said. "Obviously, I wouldn't trade this for anything."
And how has winning the title changed things for Gregory?
"All of a sudden my opinion seems to matter a lot more now. I seem to be a lot smarter," Gregory joked. "I've told everybody, 'I'm the exact same coach. I'll never changed. I just had better players last year that played well at the right time.' "