Trying to rebuild a dynasty
With their one-stroke victory over Baylor March 7 at the Louisiana Classics, combined with wins at the Club de Golf Santa Anita/North Texas Classic in Mexico Feb. 20 and All-American Intercollegiate in Houston Feb. 28, the University of Houston men has won three straight tournament titles. Of course, there was a time once when such an occurrence was hardly cause to pause and ponder. According to results compiled in Houston’s media guide, the Cougars played in 171 events from 1956 to 1974, of which they won 163. If you really want to blow you mind, consider that U of H went from 1955 to 1980—almost 26 years—never going three events without winning at least one tournament, a stretch where the school finished worse than second only eight times.
Yet after a three-plus decade run, college golf’s most successful dynasty—16 national championships remains the gold standard—began to show its age, a problem that only worsened in recent years when the Cougars failed to even get a bid to the NCAA regionals the past three seasons. The reasons are varied, as I chronicled in a feature story last May in Golf World magazine (“Hard Act to Follow”).
I’d love to tell you that while sitting in Houston coach Vince Jarrett’s office about this time a year ago to discuss the direction of the program I had a vibe that the Cougars were prepared to start the turn-around sooner than later. (Patricia Arquette’s character in NBC’s Medium I’m not.) The 63-year-old U of H alumni had won a national championship while coaching at Division II Abilene Christian, but his low-key approach didn’t seem to be the manner that would inspire the Cougars to roar once again.
As it turns out, Jarrett’s tactics appear to be working. Rather than pump them up with motivational jargon, waking up the echoes of past (my apologizes ND fans), Jarrett has fought to keep history in the rear view mirror. It’s only the present they can control anyway.
“I think after winning a couple times last year they felt like they should have gotten some type of bid to regionals,” Jarrett told me on the phone this week. “They year, regionals right now are not even in our mind. Our mind is we’re going to play every golf tournament we can to the best of our ability, and in the end if we can get that opportunity, that’s just going to be icing on the cake.”
Of course, it helps to have your players stepping up in big situations. Five different Cougars have already posted top-five finishes individually, most notably junior Pablo Acuna, who claimed medalist honors in Mexico. (Junior Ricky Romano was second at the Louisiana Classics; senior Zach Mowbray was T-4 in Mexico; senior Kevin Newman was T-5 at the Del Walker Intercollegiate; and sophomore Jordan Irwin was T-5 at the Del Walker.)
Jarrett says that despite failing to take home any trophies in the fall, the team did have three top-four performances in four starts. Disappointed with the way they closed out events, they were encouraged by the position they were putting themselves in. Most importantly, the team believed things were about to go their way.
“I think right now, they feel like they belong playing in these events,” Jarrett says. “Maybe in the past they weren’t so sure. They’re just growing up. It’s just maturing.”
You can’t consider the Cougars a lock to break through and grab their first bid to regionals since 2002 just yet, particularly when you look at their up-coming schedule. Houston tries to make it four wins in row when it plays at the Palmetto Intercollegiate in South Carolina March 13, then returns to Texas to play in the Border Olympics March 17-18. A week later, the team is in Little Rock, Ark., for UALR Collegiate Classic. After playing in the Courtyard by Marriott Intercollegiate the first week of April comes the Conference USA Championship.
For those not counting at home, that’s five events in 38 days. Too much golf still has to be played to do anything more than focus on the present. So it is that Jarrett hopes his players won’t stumble upon the fact that the last time Houston won three straight tournaments was in the fall of 1985. What's more important is that they make it four in a row.