By Sean Melia – First Published by AmateurGolf.com
Coaching a college golf team is a different beast than other college coaching jobs. A basketball coach can look down the bench and make a substitution when a team needs a boost, a football coach can dial up the perfect play on a pivotal third down, a baseball coach can call in the lefty from the bullpen.
A college golf coach is nearly powerless once the game begins. Golf’s competitive arena is huge, players are spread out across multiple holes, acres of land can separate a coach from a moment in the match that could make a difference.
What a college coach can control is how they help motivate and prepare players. In some ways, they have to be type-A, while also understanding there will be hours on a golf course when they have no control, they simply have to trust their student-athletes. There are no substitutions or on-the-fly tactical changes.
What is true about college golf coaches is they have to be organized and thoughtful and patient and curious and caring.
Over the last decade, the role of a college golf coach has evolved. The popularity of the sport has brought more talent into the game while increased technological breakthroughs have transformed how golfers play, practice, and compete. New rules around amateur status have changed the mindsets of some student-athletes and forced coaches to learn new compliance rules.
“Coaching is evolving under our noses,” said Stanford men’s coach Conrad Ray, who is in his 18th season guiding the Cardinal. “The student-athlete and the way we approach the game has changed a bunch.
“The old image of the coach chewing on a cigar sitting on the tee watching kids hit balls just doesn’t happen anymore,” Ray said with a laugh.
How much has it really changed? What are the new challenges? We spoke to college coaches to find out.
Communication: CEOs, entrepreneurs, and orchestra members
In college golf’s power five programs, many freshmen arrive on campus with a team of adults already working with them on their swing, mental game, and physical training. The college coach has to be like water and flow into the open spaces available to them.
Part of that means constant communication.
“I’m on the phone all day,” Stanford women’s coach Anne Walker said. “You’re not just communicating with the player, you’re spending time on the phone with swing coaches or strength coaches,” Walker said.
Coaches have to understand how to manage and communicate with student-athletes who are simultaneously part of a team while they also compete individually. They have to walk the line of helping players improve without interfering with the processes and philosophies that their support system put in place during a golfer’s junior career.
“Some of them work with consultants, so you’re checking in with them. We want to make sure we’re all pulling in the same direction,” Walker said.
During conversations with various college coaches, they compared themselves to CEOs, entrepreneurs, and even members of an orchestra. All slightly different perspectives on how they view their roles as managers, leaders, and team members.
“You’re not necessarily going to be the conductor of the orchestra, but you’re going to be a player in the orchestra,” Walker said. “What kind of player you are in the orchestra depends on the type of student-athlete you’re helping and what kind of team they already have around them.”
All the coaches recognized the support they receive from their colleges. Assistant coaches are now the norm. That wasn’t the case 15 years ago. Many college coaches were on their own, managing the entire operation. Now, they have help. Some even have a director of operations to help with the administrative aspects of running a golf program.
Television and the game’s larger audience
In the college athletic sphere, golf has grown quickly and become not just a sport but a product. The Golf Channel is airing nine tournaments during the 2021-22 season, including the Darius Rucker Collegiate, the first women’s regular season event to be carried by the network. Expanded national coverage is a showcase for colleges and universities and also for the players themselves.
“There are a lot more eyeballs on our sport. Our presence within the sphere of the game has grown. In the past, it didn’t have as much weight and now there certainly is a lot of weight,” Walker said. “I think we see that on both sides. The men with PGA Tour University and the women putting players straight onto the LPGA that have become household names.”
Ray echoed that sentiment.
“Younger players finding success on the PGA Tour has made college golf a bigger deal,” he said. “The lights are a little brighter now.”
Mike Small, now in his 21st year as the head coach at Illinois, has seen college golf grow from a regional sport to something that gets national and global attention.
“Playing on TV helps them grow as players,” said Small, who was a standout player for the Illini in the late 1980s. “It’s been a huge advent for college golf. When alumni and administrators see teams on TV, then they want their teams on TV. And then when you get on TV, you have a bigger brand and more people notice you.”
Small appreciates the door TV has opened for his players.
“I think it’s helped the brand of college coaches and helped the brand of student-athletes. When they turn professional, more people are aware of them,” Small said.
Student-Athletes as small scale celebrities
The coaches have all noticed an uptick in the talent pool across college golf. From the international players arriving on the scene to the more seasoned American players who have learned to win on junior tours and the AJGA.
“Some of them are small scale celebrities when they arrive on campus,” said Walker, who has the No. 1 and No. 3 female amateurs in the world on her roster in Rose Zhang and Rachel Heck, with Megha Ganne, who contended at last year’s U.S. Women’s Open, headed to the Farm in the fall of 2022.
However, a player’s success in junior golf cuts both ways. With the plethora of opportunities for competition out there for juniors, some players arrive on campus with a false sense of how easy it will be to step into college and, down the road, into the professional ranks. So there is a bit of expectation management that is required.
While most of the coaches said that the expectations players have are no different than they were ten or twenty years ago; there’s more extrinsic motivation to play golf in some coaches eyes. That can come from “likes” and follows on social media and also striving to make the adults in their life happy.
“College coaches are sometimes the only agnostic person in the room,” one coach said.
Coach Small sees part of his job as managing expectations and helping his student-athletes see things from a healthy perspective.
“These guys have more nowadays in college golf provided for them than I did when I was on the PGA Tour.”
Small would know, he spent five years on the PGA Tour in the 1990s.
“The travel is easier, the equipment support is better, the golf courses are better, the teaching is better. That’s a positive thing. We just have to monitor the situation and keep it all in perspective.”
Fundraising and relationship building
Helping players improve and navigate life on campus as a student-athlete isn’t the only thing on a coach’s to-do list; that’s because golf, like plenty of other college sports, is a non-revenue sport. That means when coaches aren’t on the course with their team, they are trying to raise money for their programs.
“We’re the only sport without a sideline,” Ray said. “But golf is a connection to our alumni base because our alumni love to play golf.”
Sam Puryear Jr. launched the men’s and women’s team at Howard University amidst the pandemic.
“I’ll spend a chunk of the day calling and following up with donors,” Puryear Jr. said. “I have the added challenge that I have no former golf team members to tap into.”
Puryear’s situation is different from many coaches. He can’t make a call to a former player and ask for money, those alumni literally don’t exist yet, so Puryear Jr. has to be creative and find other avenues to raise money. If anyone is suited to work on a shoestring budget and build a program, it’s Puryear Jr. who restructured the East Lake Junior Golf Academy, then coached at Michigan State and Stanford. He’s seen it all, and he understands the value of building a program with golfers who will bring a return on investment.
In an interview with The Undefeated he said, “We need to get a solid golf program. Because getting that program means that we’re going to have some stellar student-athletes, and then those athletes will go out and do some special things in the world. And those things in the world will be able to allow and bring resources to the table that will help the university prosper.”
Alan Murray is in his sixth season at the University of Washington after a long run at the University of Alabama-Birmingham; he is grateful for the donors he has access to and the groundwork his predecessors laid out before he arrived in Seattle.
“Fundraising is an essential part of our program. I’ve improved in that skill because I’ve had to,” Murray said. “But it’s a fun part of the job.”
“The alumni you have. The former players. The fans in the town or city where your school is located. People are really passionate about their universities,” Murray continued. “They want to give back. College golf programs really benefit from that. It’s awesome that our guys get to benefit as a result.”
Ray mentioned that golf doesn’t have a sideline, there’s little opportunity for people to head over on a Saturday afternoon and take in a golf tournament on campus. So tapping into the pipelines that improve facilities and provide chances to travel to bigger events is vital to helping draw, and retain, players.
Small doesn’t view himself as a fundraiser, per se. He’s focused on building relationships. The end result of that process is fundraising.
“We bring people into the program and have them share in what we do. I enjoy building relationships with people and then the fundraising follows,” Small said.
Small would know how to build a program based on relationships. He has been pivotal in transforming the program’s facilities. In 2008, Illinois opened a much need indoor facility that Small credits for his team’s incredible consistency in the face of challenging winter months. More recently, the Atkins Golf Club at the University of Illinois has undergone a renovation with major improvements; it is set to open this spring.
Lifelong learning and curiosity
It’s common for a new stream of ideas and technology to flood the education space, however, the last five years have forced coaches to gain literacy in data that didn’t perviously exist. Teams use launch monitors regularly for their practice, they track their shots to calculate strokes gained so they can be more precise and confident in their decisions on the course.
Ludvig Aberg, a junior at Texas Tech, said on the AmateurGolf.com Podcast that he has to track his stats for both his college team and for his Swedish national team. Coaches have to help their players analyze those numbers and understand what they mean for the larger team goals they have set while also helping each player improve as an individual, too.
These new nuggets of information are where golf coaches can help their players while they compete. There are no time-outs to call once a round starts; ensuring players understand their own tendencies is important, and coaches have to learn alongside each player so they can make the right decisions on their own.
“It’s less about hitting seven-irons on the driving range or working on your putting,” Ray said.
Ray shared a humorous memory of his training regime from his playing days. His team would go to the gym and use a step-machine for cardio. That was the extent of their workouts.
“When I was in school you didn’t work out because it would ruin your golf swing. And now if you don’t work out you’re going to ruin your golf swing,” Ray said.
NIL and amateur status
The cutting edge isn’t just about tech and fitness. College athletics is in the midst of its most transformative time in its history with student-athletes now having the opportunity to make money by selling their name, image and likeness (NIL). Shortly after the first of the year, Rachel Heck of Stanford announced her NIL partnership with Stifel. More of the top golfers will surely follow suit.
While NIL is still a burgeoning reality in golf for most programs, it has required coaches to learn a new set of rules and regulations to ensure their players can compete and avoid any sort of suspension for individuals or an entire team. In some respects, the NIL has created a perfect storm for golfers because the sport has found its way into the mainstream at the exact moment that financial opportunities arrived.
Amateur status rules and regulations have loosened a bit, too. Players can receive cash payments up to $1000 now but coaches and student-athletes have two dance partners: the NCAA and USGA.
While speaking with Puryear Jr. he was awaiting a ruling to see if his players could receive money for an event they played in.
“I tell my players to do their homework and make sure they ask a lawyer before they do anything regarding NIL or prize money,” Puryear Jr. said.
Another hot button issue across all college sports right now is the transfer portal. The transfer portal rules allow a college player one opportunity to transfer to a new school without missing a year of competition. In the past, student-athletes would have to sit out a season before playing for their new school.
The power dynamic has shifted due to these new transfer rules. For some, that shift is a positive.
“I love it,” Puryear Jr. said. “It allowed me to build my men’s and women’s programs. Kids should have the opportunity to find a place they want to be. They shouldn’t be stuck. The portal offers them a second chance.”
Murray echoed that sentiment. It’s hard not to when RJ Manke transferred to his Huskies from Pepperdine this summer for his final year of eligibility as a graduate student. Even without landing a top star like Manke, Murray sees the value in giving kids a chance to find the right program.
For some coaches, the fluidity of the transfer portal is worrying. It allows students to seek alternative routes as soon as an obstacle appears on their path to success. This fall, a college coach shared a story about a player that entered the transfer portal the morning after a team trip to an exclusive course. It’s a disheartening story that the cynic can read as a selfish maneuver by a student-athlete to get exactly what he wanted. A day of dream golf followed by a trip through the transfer portal to a new school.
The transfer portal has been a busy place in many college sports. According to an article by Lou Pavlovich Jr. for Baseballnews.com, 2,000 Division I college baseball players entered the transfer portal in 2021.
The combination of instant gratification and a lack of accountability for the student-athletes can make it challenging for any coach to feel like they know what they are getting when they recruit an athlete.
Puryear Jr. sees the portal a bit differently.
“I think it keeps the schools accountable to the kids.”
Other coaches felt comfortable in their program’s ability to provide exactly what they promised during the recruiting process. Some argue that it might keep coaches in all sports from selling a bill of goods that they can’t deliver during while recruiting.
Ultimately, the portal is there for student-athletes to have a second opportunity for any reason they choose. Over the years, programs will likely feel the joy of landing a player and the pain of losing one, too.
A deep passion for helping college athletes develop
What stood out most in the conversations with the college coaches, both over the phone and at the GCAA convention this past December is that college coaches have had to evolve quite a bit over the last 20 years. They have learned a wealth of new information and used it to improve their programs and their student-athletes.
They also care deeply about setting up all of their players for success in whatever they choose to do when they graduate. They understand the weight of responsibility that rests on their shoulders and they don’t take it lightly. Like most jobs, there are things that they wish they could change or eliminate.
But overall, they love what they do.
“I love helping young people develop,” Puryear Jr. said.
“I love learning what’s inside of my players in the face of adversity and in the face of competition. I love being on the golf course, competing alongside them,” Small said.
At its core, the job hasn’t changed all that much.
“A lot of what we do is try and develop opportunities for our guys. We want them to have as much opportunity and possibilities for growth, whether it’s on the course or off the course,” Murray said. “Fortunately there is a lot of that. I always want them to be able to take advantage of those chances.”
“The golf is fun. But I love watching them grow up and become independent, positive, and accountable young men,” Small said.
“You have to help them bloom where they’re planted. You have to care for them individually,” Walker said.
So while there might be less cigar chewing on the tee box or stairmaster aerobics in the gym, college coaches are still doing their best to help student-athletes grow in whatever way they can.