SMU's tear-jerking story line from this year's NCAA Championship comes to an end
Courtesy of SMU athletics
Crying is something that has become all too common for Jason Enloe over the last 16 months. The men’s golf coach at SMU has been through the emotional tumult of finding out his wife, Katie, had leukemia, then thinking she was in remission only to learn that the cancer was back, spreading and ultimately would take her life last July.
On Monday, there were more tears for Enloe, only these were gratefully born from happiness rather than heartbreak.
The Mustangs had spent the day at Blessings Golf Club trying to keep their 2018-’19 college season from coming to an end. Eyeing the eighth and final spot into the match-play bracket, SMU battled through the final stroke-play qualifying round with Clemson. At times it looked like Enloe’s guys were safely in, at others it looked like they were headed back to Dallas.
When they wound up tied at the end of regulation, it was time to jump on the gut-wrenching roller coaster once more in a playoff, only this time they managed to come out on top.
“My kids just hung in there, played for each other,” Enloe said. “Just played so hard today. I felt bad for them. This course was so brutal. They amazed me again today."
Through the tears, Enloe added: “I think there’s a little destiny on our side this year.”
The happiness on Monday was tempered a day later, when top-ranked Oklahoma State, empathetic to Enloe’s plight but not ready to give up its dream of winning a second-straight NCAA title, bounced the Mustangs in the quarterfinals, 4-1. Still, the memories of the season finale was something Enloe will store away for later, a sign he can lean on that shows you can move forward through the pain.
Throughout all the struggles with Katie’s health, Enloe, the now-widowed father of 6-year-old Emma and 4-year-old Maddie, always has his team to fall back on, a saving grace in an otherwise chaotic, lonesome period of personal loss.
“It’s been a crazy year,” Enloe said. “These guys are just so awesome, a great group of kids. I’m so proud of them and so proud to be their coach.”
When Enloe returned to coaching last fall, the Mustangs looked like a squad capable of making a run at NCAAs. Enloe could rely on former U.S. Junior Amateur champion Noah Goodwin and senior Mac Meissner for consistent scores and hoped freshman Ben Wong and Ollie Osborne would quickly find their way and contribute to an impressive starting five, rounded out this spring by junior Jackson Markham.
But then in April, SMU’s postseason hopes looked damaged after a fluke finish at one of their last regular-season tournament in California. During the final round of The Goodwin, Wong had signed for a 70 when he shot a 71, and was disqualified as an individual. Because the team was only playing with four players after Noah Goodwin had withdrawn after the first round with of an injury, the Mustangs were DQ’d as a team as well. The finish proved to be an anchor on SMU’s ranking, which was 16th in the country starting the event, sinking them some 20-plus spots.
The good thing was that SMU still had a winning head-to-head record for the season, so they remained eligible for an at-large bid into NCAA Regionals. And they earned one when the 81 postseason squads were revealed, grabbing literally the last spot into the postseason.
Knowing the team’s potential was better than their ranking now reflected, the Mustangs proved a dark horse, finishing fourth at the Athens Regional and returning to nationals for the first time since 2015.
“They’ve made the journey bearable,” Enloe said after Regionals. “It’s tough, but when they do well and when I see them happy and when I see them have success on a day like today–it makes everything worthwhile.”
“Everything happens for a reason, and what happened this year made us tougher and closer,” Meissner said. “We grinded through it [to get to match play], like we’ve done that all season. We’ve come together as brothers and to make match play is an incredible accomplishment.”
No, there would be no storybook NCAA victory to cap the season, but Enloe didn’t necessarily need that. He walked off the course on Tuesday not crying but smiling. His team had fought as hard as it could, and so had he.