Competition, cooperation tough balance on golf teams

Many coaches like to say there's nothing like playing on a college golf team, but that's the problem: There's nothing like playing on a college golf team, writes Ryan Herrington.

Updated: September 28, 2006, 4:59 PM ET
By Ryan Herrington | Golf World

Come the middle of May 2007, one of the nation's 232 Division I women's golf programs will walk away with the NCAA team title at LPGA International Golf Club in Daytona Beach, Fla. Two weeks later, one of the 288 men's squads will do the same at Golden Horseshoe GC in Williamsburg, Va. Until then, unless your school's athletic department has the money to purchase a time machine, the ultimate identities of the two champions will remain a mystery.

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But for those who simply can't wait to see what the final act of the 2006-07 college golf season might look like, there is a way to get a glimpse of sorts. Golf World interviewed nearly two dozen of the game's top men's and women's coaches to identify and explore the essential qualities to a winning college golf team (aside, of course, from having talented players). The information gleaned from these experts won't forecast definitively whether the defending champion Duke women or Oklahoma State men will be on top again in nine months, or who might knock them off. Their collective knowledge, however, can distinguish teams with the characteristics necessary to earn the title from those with still more work to do.

Long story short, there is no single formula for winning a national championship, no one culture to assimilate. Still, there are several traits that serve as predictors of success and ones that aren't as important as you might think.

For starters: Teammates don't have to be best friends to fill a school's trophy case. A year after coaching a tight-knit group at Arizona to the 2000 NCAA women's title, Todd McCorkle took over the women's program at Georgia and surprisingly found his new team's motivation decidedly different. "They all wanted to beat the heck out of each other on the course," he says. "Each was trying to prove they were the best player on that team. That's what drove them." All the way to victory at the 2001 NCAA Championship.

NCAA Golf Championships
AP Photo/Don RyanWake Forest's Kyle Reifers tees off during the 2005 NCAA men's golf championship final round.
Duke women's coach Dan Brooks hinted at a similar scenario in May, when his Blue Devils won their second straight national championship and fourth in eight years. Despite both the 2005 and 2006 teams attaining college golf's ultimate prize, the temperaments of the two groups were almost completely opposite. Brooks elaborated recently that egos and personalities often clashed in '05, while last year's squad had more positive energy.

"It's easier and a lot more fun to win the latter way," says the all-time winningest coach in NCAA women's golf, "but it's not a necessity."

What is required of coaches is that they get their charges to understand the concept of playing for a team in the first place.

"It's definitely one of the hardest parts of my job," Clemson men's coach Larry Penley said. "I don't think there is a more individual sport in the world than golf. They're taught from an early age it's you, your golf clubs and the golf course. Now for four years it's also about the name of the school on your bag."

Many coaches like to say there's nothing like playing on a college golf team, but that's the problem: There's nothing like playing on a college golf team. Unless a junior has teed it up for his or her high school -- something top recruits are doing less and less of these days -- the experience can be a peculiar period in a player's development as he or she spends anywhere from 20-35 hours a week with his or her teammates.

"I've always tried to find kids that played other sports," Georgia Tech men's coach Bruce Heppler said. "It's easier to talk to them about team and sacrifice and giving [it] up for the other guy because even though they haven't done it in golf, they have in other sports."

Yet with more kids focusing exclusively on golf at a younger age, the ones playing organized basketball or soccer are dwindling.

"Team," Heppler says, "is a foreign subject to these guys."

To get young players to buy in, most successful programs emphasize the idea that by unselfishly working together toward a collective goal, golfers can achieve their personal ambitions in the long run.

"You've got to prove to them that 10 people working toward the same good can be much more effective than one person doing the same thing," UCLA men's coach O.D. Vincent says. "It's like if you have to move from apartment to apartment. You're much better off having nine friends coming over and the 10 of you each take one box over than you making 10 trips."

Since taking over the Bruins' program in the fall of 2002, Vincent has put in place what he describes as a "cooperative, competitive team framework." Every fall he takes his entire squad on a multiday retreat away from campus -- this season the group heads to Seattle -- to participate in various team-building activities.

"That's been pretty effective, getting players who are working as a group or working with each other, outside of just hitting balls or playing golf," Vincent says. "You're able to find out a lot of things about people."

NCAA Golf Championships
AP Photo/Jay LaPreteNetherlands native Dewi Schreefel leads the USC golf team.
"If you do it the right way, the sum can be better than the parts," Heppler adds. "Otherwise, [as a coach] you're nothing but a van driver."

As the season unfolds, the emphasis centers on an obvious theme.

"Ultimately, competitiveness is the factor that makes a team great," Pepperdine men's coach John Geiberger says. "It doesn't necessarily matter why they are competitive, but to establish that mind-set is critical."

"Competitive tension" is the label North Carolina men's coach John Inman puts on the atmosphere teams try to create in daily practices and qualifiers that determine who travels to tournaments.

"I remember when I played, Davis Love III and I had a [competition about being] No. 1," recalls Inman, an All-American in the 1980s. "That helped us both be mentally sharp when we got to an event."

Of course, coaches must be conscious that any tension doesn't transform into enmity during the season. Teams with open communication appear to have the best success at maintaining that distinction. Vincent, for one, uses part of the 20 hours the NCAA allots weekly to team practice for team meetings to discuss matters large and small.

"If you don't have a group that's willing to sit down and get things in the open, the season can go the wrong way in a hurry," Arizona women's coach Greg Allen says. "You've got to have people who are willing to confront each other, work things out and move on."

"The kids don't necessarily have to agree with each other, but they certainly have to respect each other," Florida men's coach Buddy Alexander says.

In trying to create a winning environment, coaches must know when and how to press their players.

"If that means me being the bad guy to get them together, that's what we'll do," Penley says. "If that pushes them to get better, so be it."

"If the guys know we're putting in the same effort we're asking from them, that's big," Inman says. "So we're at the 7 a.m. workouts with the guys. We're all doing this together, we're all sacrificing."

Make no mistake, everyone involved in a team eventually is asked to change individual habits for the betterment of group. The programs that are willing to do this -- or better still, the ones that don't realize they're doing it -- find many benefits.

"If you can get your older players to appreciate that sometimes it's best for the team to practice with the freshmen, even if it's not what's best for their game, it's like a vacuum," Heppler says. "It sucks everybody up to another level."

No doubt that's the intention of every school as they embark on yet another college season, each toiling to make a decent team good, a good team great and a great team a national champion. Although it might be a mystery as to who will walk away with the title, there shouldn't be any mystery in how they did it.

Ryan Herrington is a senior writer for Golf World. His blog, The Campus Insider, is updated regularly.