There's little risk in even the most casual college observer confusing last week's Memphis Intercollegiate tournament with the NCAA Championship. And typically a seventh-place finish in such a modest, 15-team event doesn't produce fist pumps and high fives. Yet when you're part of a group of golfing refugees trying desperately to resume simply being student-athletes, the first step on the journey can be the most satisfying even when it's not the most difficult.
"We're all so relieved we finally played an event," said Tulane junior Michael Thompson, the top player on the men's golf team, via his cell phone during the squad's 8½-hour van ride back to their temporary home in Dallas. "We wanted to go show everybody what we're made of and that we're still going. Tulane is moving along."
Suffice it to say, it was no small feat. In the nearly six weeks since Thompson and his teammates joined the thousands displaced from New Orleans when Hurricane Katrina tore through the Gulf Coast, and the three weeks since they began taking classes at SMU for the fall semester, the Green Wave have scheduled three different tournaments as their season opener. Complications surrounding Katrina's aftermath stymied the first while the second was scrapped when Hurricane Rita made its unwanted appearance in the region.
The instant reaction to Tulane teeing it up in a honest-to-goodness tournament is to say life is beginning to return to normal, but such analysis is somewhat misleading.
"We're not really sure what 'normal' is right now or what it's going to be," confides coach Tom Shaw, whose wife, Sherri, and two kids are back living in New Orleans (their house was spared major damage) while he stays in a tiny garage apartment 440 miles away to oversee his charges.
It was, however, a move in the right direction, an uplifting occasion experienced a week earlier by Tulane's women's team when it played in the Mason Rudolph Championship outside Nashville, finishing 10th among 15 teams. Ordinarily Green Wave women's coach Sue Bower holds a qualifying tournament to pick her starting five, but the process was different for her squad's first fall start.
"If you had your golf clubs, you made the trip," said Bower, cracking up as she tells the story. "Only five of my seven [players] grabbed their clubs before they evacuated."
The laughs are more frequent these days as the two teams go about doing what all New Orleanians have tried to do of late: make sense of a senseless disaster. "I've been going on gut instinct," said Bower, a psychology major who never imagined the training would be used in this way. "I've just tried to be somebody the kids can lean on, and thankfully they've let me lean on them, too."
While the flooding forced university officials to close Tulane's campus for the fall semester, school president Scott Cowen insisted the athletic teams play on, providing a public face for the school during such a trying time. The catch: Team budgets were slashed to zero.
Such constrictions were particularly tough for the women's squad, coming off its first appearance in the NCAA Championship last May and returning All-American candidates Liliana Alvarez and Alison Walshe on a two-time Conference USA champion team ranked 17th in the Golf World preseason poll. Bower, the longest tenured coach at Tulane, had spent 14 years building her program to finally get in a position to contend with the nation's elite, only to see the effort submerged by the storm's unsettling wake.
"I had a who's who of [high school] recruits set to visit campus this fall," Bower said. "Now I've got a who's nobody. [But] I tell the players what the school president has been telling us. If we don't embrace this, we have no chance."
If there's a silver lining to be found in their nomadic existence, it's that both squads have witnessed first hand how compassionate people can truly be. Several Dallas area courses have opened their fairways for the teams to play and practice; the Golden Bear Golf Center in Carrolton becoming a home away from home (away from home) with the unlimited access it's offered. Bridgestone and Tommy Hilfiger, too, were quick to replace equipment and clothes destroyed by flood waters.
Shaw says he's raised the $1,000 he needs for each fall tournament through donations from parents and a few boosters. With a more national schedule requiring air travel, Bower's expenses run about $3,500 per event, and she, too, has called on family and former players to help fit the bill.
Generosity has come from unexpected donors. Tennessee's coach Judi Pavon is covering Tulane's housing costs when the team plays at UT's Mercedes-Benz Invitational later this month in Knoxville, while UNC-Wilmington coach Cindy Ho has done the same when they come to North Carolina for the Landfall Tradition. Yet it was Meredith Mutcher's invitation to stay at her home in Dallas that caught the coach most by surprise. "I recruited her in the early 1990s when our team stunk. She went to SMU, but when she heard about what was happening with our team, she got in touch. Amazing."
"People look at us differently now," Thompson adds. "Even though it's due to such crazy circumstances, it feels real good to have the ability to be the image of Tulane."
Along the way the players have learned something about themselves. "These guys are very different from the people they were at the end of August," Shaw said. "They've been forced to mature. I truly believe that in the long term, they'll have become better, stronger individuals because of all this. It's not much condolence, now, but that's what you've got to cling to."
In trying times, golf has become more than just a game, but a vehicle to help cope with everything they've been through, a chance to take their mind off the mind-numbing images flooding the TV screens.
As the uncertainty slowly subsides, Bower and Shaw find themselves and their players set to move forward. "When we were getting ready for [the Mason Rudolph], I didn't feel like I could really be a coach, really try to get their competitive juices flowing," Bower says. "I needed to be supportive. Once we got back, I had a talk with them and I said: 'OK, now I think we're ready. I think it's time we set some goals and get to work.' We're going back now to what I would have done on Aug. 29."
Meanwhile, all Thompson could do after the Memphis tournament was talk about how his roommate, fellow junior Kyle Richie, had tied for third, his best-ever college finish. It's another sign, a good sign, that Tulane's players' hopes and dreams and ambitions weren't washed away by the floodwaters.
Along with a few of her players, Bower returned to Tulane's campus last week and is optimistic the school's scheduled January reopening will occur on time. Some of the men will take a look for themselves this weekend when SMU has a two-day fall break.
What they eventually return to remains uncertain. But no group of players will be better prepared to face the road ahead. Tulane golfers have taken the first step and they aren't looking back.
Players of the week
Chris Barron, Austin Peay
Three sub-70 rounds, including a closing 67, at The Cardinal Club in Simpsonville, Ky., propelled the junior to a tournament-record 11-under 205 and a four-shot win at the Louisville Intercollegiate on Sept. 27. While missing the school's 54-hole mark by one shot, Barron proceeded to break the record days later at the Earl Yestingsmeier Invitational, when he posted a 10-under 200 (including a final-round 65) at Delaware CC in Muncie, Ind., to win again by four.
Eileen Vargas, Pepperdine
The junior from Colombia eagled the final hole at the University of New Mexico GC in Albuquerque Sept. 28 to claim medalist honors by two shots over teammate Carolina Llano and Texas A&M's Ashley Knoll at the Branch Law Firm Dick McGuire Invitational. Moreover, the eagle also boosted the Waves to a two-shot team win over Texas A&M in their season-opening tournament. En route to an eight-under 211 total for her first career win, Vargas posted a final-round 68, the low score of the tournament.
What to watch for
• Not since Luke Donald was wearing the purple and white three years ago has there been such anticipation surrounding the Northwestern men's team. The Wildcats claimed the title at the Big Ten/Pac-10 Challenge Oct. 4 when junior David Merkow birdied three of the final four holes at The Glen Club outside Chicago, pushing the Wildcats to a three-shot victory and giving him the individual title. With U.S. Amateur runner-up Dillion Dougherty back for a fifth year, coach Pat Goss knew he had at least one player coming in with confidence, yet Dougherty posted only the third-best finish on the team, trailing Merkow and junior Chris Wilson. Northwestern next plays this weekend at the Coca-Cola Duke Golf Classic.
• Trying to predict when East Tennessee State's Rhys Davies will break the school's individual career victory mark? Look no further than next week when the Buccaneers host the Bank of Tennessee Intercollegiate at the Ridges. Davies earned win No. 6 when he shared medalist honors with Jonathan Mount at the Shoal Creek Intercollegiate, matching Garrett Willis' all-time record.
• Having made their first-ever appearance at the NCAA Championship last May, the 14th-ranked Arkansas women can safely be considered among the new elite in the women's game. Kelley Hester's squad boasts three All-American candidates in Stacy Lewis, Amanda McCurdy and Courtney Mahon, but for the Lady Razorbacks to keep the momentum going, they need to play the role of poor hosts and win the title at the Tyson/Embassy Suites Invitational in Rogers, Ark., next week.
Ryan Herrington is a senior writer for Golf World magazine