The Loop

College golf is still important

February 27, 2007

I’ve been asked the question a number of times in the past couple weeks, most recently this morning when I was a guest on Peter Kessler’s radio program “Making the Turn” on XM Radio’s PGA Tour Network: So what do you think of the Hank Haney article in Golf Digest trashing college golf? OK, so it’s not always that blunt, but that’s usually what’s implied, the questioner curious about my take presumably because I cover college golf and also because I work for the Golf Digest Companies.

The short answer to the query is simple: I don’t agree with Haney’s premise that if you want to be one of the best golfers in the world, you should bypass college golf. I take exception to some of the arguments he makes in stating his case, which I’ll go into later.

The more convoluted answer, however, is one that doesn’t seem to be addressed by those who have been critical of Haney’s article. There is a dearth of American golfers in their 20s who have had success on the pro level, particularly on the PGA Tour. The inference with this is that college programs have declined or no longer offer the benefits they once did. While I don’t think that’s true, that doesn’t mean college golf can’t improve in the way it develops players. More on that later too.

In the tradition of any good English class, lets explore Haney’s prose. The former SMU men’s golf coach contends that “fewer players in their 20s who crack the top echelon will have come out of college programs.” To Haney’s credit, he’s probably right here, but that has more to do with the fact that the development programs in other countries (U.K., Sweden and particularly Australia) have improved exponentially over time, providing outlets to junior golfers around the world to advance their skills to the highest level. As a result, there is increased competition globally to be the best golfer in the world with international players now have the fundamental training platforms at their disposal to get to the top that previously seemed only available in the U.S. To my thinking, that makes college golf an even greater necessity than before. If American kids started skipping college and jumping into the pro ranks, they will not have the benefit of a structured environment college golf provides to grow their game, PLUS they’ll be facing international players who have gone through similarly structured environments in their home countries.

Haney goes on to cite that many of the best young players among the top 15 in the world never went to college. Here he is emphasizing young as much as anything else. To his point, though, look at the entire top 25 in the World Golf Ranking that was released yesterday, only 12 have played some form of college golf in their lives (__Tiger Woods,____Jim Furyk,__Phil Mickelson, Adam Scott, Luke Donald, Paul Casey, Charles Howell III, Davis Love III, David Toms, Colin Montgomerie, Chris DiMarco, Stewart Cink).

But is that the only way to define the best golfers in the world? Another way would be to say PGA Tour winners are some of the best golfers in the world. If that’s the case, consider that of the 48 PGA Tour events played last year, 36 were won by men who played college golf. Taking into account multiple winners, of the 36 individuals to win on the PGA Tour last year, 26 played college golf (for list, see below).

Yet another way to define the best golfers in the world is by how many majors they’ve won. If that’s the case, consider that since the 2000 Masters, of the last 28 major championships that have been contested, 21 have been won by men who played college golf. Taking into account multiple winners, of the 15 individuals to win majors since the Masters in 2000, 10 played college golf (for list, see below).

All this doesn’t take away from the fact that Europe has shellacked the U.S. in the Ryder Cup in recent history and that there are only two Americans younger than 30 (Howell, Lucas Glover) in the top 50 on the World ranking. It just means that those aren’t the only two measures by which to judge success, and by looking at other measures, perhaps those who have gone through the college system aren’t fairing so poorly.

Where Haney’s argument also is tough for me to swallow is when he suggests that loyalty to a school and the pressure to shoot the lowest possible scores have coaches and players delaying important swing changes needed before young players turns pro. I clearly disagree with this. There are many instances where players have made the necessary swing changes early in their college careers, sacrificing low scores in the short run for a more consistent swing in the long run. It happened to Howell when he was at Oklahoma State, where he went on to win an NCAA Championship. It happened to Rhys Davies, a senior this spring at East Tennessee State, who has gone on to win eight times and been named a first-team All-American and played for the Great Britain & Ireland Walker Cup team.

Haney goes on to say that the scoring format and playing fields in college golf impede a players progress because a player having a bad round might get in the habit of packing it in rather than battling. This argument, too, is quite specious. I won’t say it never happens, but when it does, the player has to answer to his or her coach and teammates, who won’t be satisfied with the excuse, “Well you guys were all playing well, my score wasn’t going to count anyway.” If you want to stay in the line-up and keep getting playing time, packing it in when you’re having a bad round isn’t the way to do it.

What Haney doesn’t do well enough—and what I think frankly would have helped his case overall—is note the fact there is a substantial difference between college and professional golf, one that can’t be replicated except in the most elite college events, such as the NCAA Championship. In my 10 years covering college golf, I have yet to meet a player, male or female, who has turned pro and hasn’t said that the only way to get truly adjusted to the pro game is to play in pro events. When they do, they learn that the value of each shot is greater, that making a bogey will drop you down the leader board much quicker, that a 72 in a pro event is more like a 75 or 76 in a college tournament. Even for the best college golfers out there, upon turning pro you’re likely to get your head beat in a little as you experience the step up in the level of competition. If this is the case, than it would behoove players to get as much experience in pro tournaments as they can, as early as they can. That to me is the best pitch you can make for a player to skip college or leave early: My game is ready to play against professionals and it’s time for me to start getting beat up so I'll get through the transition more quickly.

But that IS NOT the case for 99.9 percent of the men and women playing college golf right now. For them, the benefits of going to school, having the security of playing for a team rather than facing the cold hard reality of playing for pay on your own, learning how to handle yourself on and off the course, those are the advantages you get by enrolling as a student-athlete. Contrary to Haney’s belief, college golf is very relevant if you want to be the best golfer in the world, but it is incumbent upon coaches and administrators to make sure that remains the case and that college golf continues to provide young men and women an avenue to grow as golfers and individuals.

Rather than complain about folks such as Haney who take shots at college golf, be proactive to make sure his argument never actually becomes the reality. Explore ways to make the college tournament experience better for players (are 36-hole days really the best format?). Explore ways to give players more life skills (consider offering classes on all the things a pro golfer needs to know off the golf course … how to find an apartment, how to open a bank account, etc.). Explore ways to make it obvious that college golf is the best alternative for any junior golfer, regardless of how talented they are.

If you don’t agree with Haney’s words, that’s fine. I don’t either. But that doesn’t mean you shouldn't pay attention to the fact that the man is speaking.

2006 PGA Tour winners (bold names played college golf):

Stuart Appleby, David Toms,Chad Campbell,Tiger Woods,J.B. Holmes,Arron Oberholser,Rory Sabbatini,Kirk Triplett, Geoff Ogilvy,Luke Donald, Rod Pampling, Stephen Ames,Phil Mickelson, Aaron Baddeley,Chris Couch,Jim Furyk,Brett Wetterich,Tim Herron,Jeff Maggert,Carl Pettersson, Vijay Singh,Ben Curtis,J.J. Henry, Trevor Immelman, John Senden,John Rollins,Corey Pavin,Dean Wilson, Will MacKenzie,Eric Axley,D.J. Trahan,Davis Love III,Troy Matteson,Joe Durant, K.J. Choi,Adam Scott.

Major champions since 2000 (bold names played college golf):

Vijay Singh, Tiger Woods, Retief Goosen,David Duval,David Toms, Ernie Els,Rich Beem,Mike Weir,Jim Furyk,Ben Curtis,Shaun Micheel,Phil Mickelson,Todd Hamilton, Michael Campbell, Geoff Ogilvy.