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Why a Hall of Fame college golf coach is staking his legacy on the dream of a permanent NCAA Championship site

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John Fields (left) has been an instrumental figure in an effort to establish a permanent site for the NCAA men's and women's golf championships. (Photo courtesy of Texas Athletics)

May 13, 2024

CARLSBAD, Calif. — On a Thursday in mid-April, University of Texas men’s golf coach John Fields arrived at the Omni La Costa Resort & Spa with a small entourage in tow. Fields’ Longhorns wrapped up play the day before in a college tournament at Pasatiempo, and on the school’s private jet, Fields and his group made the quick flight down to McClellan-Palomar Airport on the northern San Diego coast.

This was to be a gratifying and meaningful occasion for the man who has led his squads to two national team championships and nurtured the talents of UT standouts Scottie Scheffler and Jordan Spieth among others. That day, members of the media were seeing the architect partners Gil Hanse and Jim Wagner’s complete redo of the La Costa North Course that Fields and his cohorts have lauded as the potential permanent site for the NCAA Division I Men’s and Women’s Golf Championships.

It was a family affair, and by Fields’ side as he motored around the course in a golf cart, showing off and fussing over the land as if it were his new homestead, were his wife, Pearl, his daughter, April Workman, and—we kid you not—Fields’ pastor from Kerville, Texas, Bert Wimberly. The preacher, whose dad, Herb, fittingly is a member of the PGA of America Hall of Fame, wasn’t just there for the gourmet pizza and sandwiches served at the turn. Divine intervention is welcomed for a project on which Fields has staked some of his own legacy.

“That’s why I’m bringing my minister,” Fields said over the phone with a laugh just a couple of weeks before the trip. “I’m not joking. We’re praying that this thing comes off the way we think it’s going to.”

Prayers, blood, sweat and hand wringing have all been a part of what could easily be considered the biggest challenge of Fields’ career since he took over a struggling golf program in 1998 and turned it into a perennial powerhouse.

In a plan hatched by Fields, Texas Athletic Director Chris Del Conte, legendary former Oklahoma State golf coach and AD Mike Holder, and the Texas-based Rowling family that owns Omni Hotels & Resorts, they conceived the idea of a “Road to Omni La Costa” for men’s and women’s golf. It would mimic college baseball’s now-74-year-old “Road to Omaha” for its World Series, and the Women’s College World Series for softball that has been held in Oklahoma City, Okla., in all but one year since 1990.

The first discussions about the idea occurred more than four years ago, “and my mind has been racing ever since,” said Fields, who estimates he’s made 15 trips to La Costa over the past couple years.

Why does the Texas coach care so much about putting the NCAAs permanently in Southern California? San Diego State originally was negotiating to host the championships at La Costa, but as soon as the Aztecs found out that they wouldn’t be allowed to play the course at any other time—a new requirement for any host—they opted out. That’s when Texas decided to take the reins with its influence and money.

Currently, Omni La Costa is tabbed to host the championships in 2024, 2025 and 2026, with that duty beginning this week when the women start competing on Friday. The individual winner will be crowned after 72 holes on May 20 and the match-play team champions identified on May 22. The men follow with their tournament, May 24-29.

La Costa has additionally applied to the NCAA for two more years to hold five straight championships, with the goal of hosting into the foreseeable future.

At the core of having a permanent site is the idea that each year athletes, teams and fans can look forward to the tournaments being played on a familiar course that will eventually build a history of famous shots and memorable victories that will stir anticipation the way famous PGA Tour venues and some major championships such as the Masters do. The hope is that junior golfers also would come to identify La Costa as a place they want to reach in their college careers. “The trickle-down to amateur golf and high schools could be unreal,” said Fields, who was inducted into the Golf Coaches’ Association of America Hall of Fame in 2012. “These are the two strongest amateur tournaments in the world.”

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An overhead view of the Omni La Costa Resort & Spa in California.

The idea would certainly seem to be appealing to Golf Channel, which has been regularly televising the championships, because it would have a comfortable venue, consistent stories to tell and, most importantly, a coveted primetime slot for East Coast viewers.

As for the Omni La Costa Resort, which held a PGA Tour for decades until 2006, it invested several hundred million dollars renovating rooms and amenities. Indicative of the commitment to golf, the price tag for the changes to the North Course and driving range is approaching $25 million—much of that money dedicated specifically because of the college golf dream. In a first for the NCAAs, the 30 teams in each championship will stay on-site in a luxury resort that doesn’t require the team to commute by van to the course; the opportunity to putt or hit balls will be a few minutes walk away.

“I think it’s going to be like playing in a [PGA] Tour event at Torrey Pines,” said Ryan Donovan, men’s coach at San Diego State for the last two decades, who was among a small group of coaches who consulted with Hanse on the course work. “You’re going to have good hospitality and a great experience.”

Of no small consequence is the predictable San Diego weather, with a near lock that there won’t be any dreaded delays, even if the coast might be shrouded in “May Gray” overcast. Virtually anywhere else in the country this time of year, there could be concerns about losing time due to cold or thunderstorms. Nor is too much sunshine a potential problem, something that arose at Grayhawk in Scottsdale, Ariz., which struggled with temperatures sometimes reaching triple digits when it hosted NCAAs in 2021, 2022 and 2023. “Our fans were frying like eggs on the cart paths,” said Fields, whose team overcame host Arizona State to win in 2022 men’s title.

Of course, it’s the course that could make or break how everyone feels about La Costa. Fields and the Omni folks wooed Hanse thanks to his growing stature in the game—and his work designing the Rio de Janiero course for men and women that hosted golf’s return to the Olympics in 2016. Hanse and Wagner were given carte blanche to see out their vision, and they’ve delivered what would seem, at first blush, to be an interesting and strategic test, with swaths of native grass and barrancas that can be tipped out at 7,500 yards while offering plenty of teeing options for both genders.

That variety is a big plus to coaches such as Donovan, who noted that Grayhawk almost completely took drivers out of the players’ hands. “I watched [now PGA Tour star] Ludvig Aberg, and I don’t think he could hit any drivers,” Donovan said.

“I think it’s going to be a significant challenge; it’s going to be difficult,” Fields said of La Costa North. “We might not have as much rough this first year as we would like, but those green complexes being firm and fast will make up for it. … As firm as they are, being brand new, they are going to present all kinds of challenges and hold these kids accountable.” The coach called some of the deep native grass areas around the greens “diabolical.”

The new greens, which frequently created bouncy rejections on the no-spin approach shots from mid-handicappers during media day, could truly become a focus of concern this first year should they not hold approaches with mid- and even short irons. Though that may be solvable with some extra water, there are some coaches who have expressed concern that the championships potentially have been “rushed” to La Costa this year, when another season of grow-in would have been more prudent. The San Diego area endured an unusually cool winter and spring, which weren’t the most favorable conditions to grow Bermuda in a hurry.

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The first hole on La Costa North is indicative of how architect Gil Hanse's altered the green complexes with large runoff areas.

Fields’ passion for the project aside, there are some coaches who have mixed feelings about the permanent-site concept. Alabama men’s coach Jay Seawell, whose Crimson Tide won back-to-back team titles in 2013 and ’14, told Golf Digest recently that if a poll was taken, he believes a majority likely would say they want the championships moved to different regions to challenge players with different grasses and conditions rather than stay at one site. “La Costa is going to be a great place. It’s going to be a great test, and let’s keep it in the rotation,” Seawell said. “But there is some feeling that we should be regional and move this thing around.”

Seawell did offer his own counter, however, saying, “I’m not against [La Costa] being the only host. The tradition would be huge. Scores matter. It would give you a chance to judge generational players. That’s what makes Augusta so great. Ben Hogan shot 274 there, and it’s still relevant.”

SDSU’s Donovan said, “Teams might complain about going there every year, but it’s not going to be the same guys, and it will be a new experience for them. And if you do go every year for four straight years, some guys are going to be very happy about having that experience going in.”

Stanford women’s coach Anne Walker, whose Cardinal won team titles in 2015 and 2022, said she can see both sides of the debate, though she thinks that “over time there is more upside than downside” to one site.

“I think we’re the fastest growing sport on the women’s side,” Walker said, “and with the traction that college golf has gotten … our average fans still find it hard to keep track of where we’re going to be and other nuances. We can benefit from the idea of a ‘Road to La Costa.’”

Walker recalled her own childhood in which her family spent Christmas vacation traveling to various notable courses they had seen on TV. “There’s that little girl or boy who can sit at home and watch the championships and visualize one day playing in them,” she said. “That’s an excitement for the game we haven’t yet capitalized on.”

At the same time, Walker offered, “We have coaches who don’t like the idea. Sometimes change is hard. I’m certainly willing to give this a go and evaluate it after the fact.”

Fields is moving forward as if the “Road to Omni La Costa” is nearly a foregone conclusion. In this process, he has led the establishment of the College World Golf Championships Foundation Inc., the first non-profit created to financially support the two weeks of the NCAA D-I championships. Fields believes that current high-profile (and financially well off) tour players should want to support the system that produced them. He also believes that other significant golf entities, such as the PGA Tour, USGA, PGA of America and First Tee, will support and see the value in the foundation’s development.

Donovan, for one, said he believes Fields is the man to take college golf to the next level.

“John is a smart guy,” he said, “and he’s one of the most respected people in college golf. He’s someone I would trust to do what’s best for everybody.” Donovan chuckled and added, “There are probably some younger coaches who need to be reminded of that.”