Five 2014 Tour Winners Played Golf at the University of Georgia. What’s in the Water in Athens?
Chris Haack is running out of room.
The University of Georgia golf coach has a wall inside his team’s golf offices in Athens, Ga., adorned with framed portraits of former players who have won events on the PGA Tour and Web.com Tour. And with the recent flurry of wins by Georgia alums, the wall is now full.
“It makes you very proud to see them hoisting that trophy,” said Haack, who has been at Georgia since 1996. “That’s the ultimate goal of what they are trying to do, so any time you get to see them have a chance to do that on golf’s biggest stage, I sit back and feel like a proud father.”
It started with Chris Kirk (2003-07) winning the McGladrey Classic in November. He was soon followed by Harris English (2007-11) taking the Mayakoba by four strokes. Patrick Reed (2008-09) continued the trend by winning the Humana Challenge, then Bubba Watson (1999-2001) won at Riviera. Russell Henley (2007-11) took the Honda Classic in a dramatic playoff, and Reed followed with another title at the WGC-Cadillac at Doral.
Throw in Kevin Kisner’s (2002-06) win at the non-Tour Pebble Beach Invitational and English’s win alongside teammate Matt Kuchar at the Franklin Templeton Shootout, and you start to think there must be something in the water down in Athens.
“We work on their imagination and creativity,” Haack said. “They can all swing it pretty good, but it doesn’t matter if you hit the ball all well and shot 80. I’d rather you scramble around and shoot a 69.”
Haack, 54, has seen it all. The 1999 and 2005 National Coach of the Year came to Georgia almost two decades ago after serving 15 years with the American Junior Golf Association. He immediately laid out his recruiting plan to his staff. It was simple: Find athletic, competitive guys who can hit all the shots, not just swing on the range.
Haack’s affiliation with the AJGA allowed him to get a look at the best young players in the game. English had the type of beautiful, rhythmic swing that can’t be taught when he started attending Haack’s golf camps as an 11-year-old. After a huge growth spurt when he hit high school, he had to adjust his swing to his body as he began a serious amateur career. Kirk was from nearby Atlanta, and even though his swing was not as perfect as others, he “just knew how to get the ball in the hole,” Haack said. As an 12-year-old, Henley shot a 34 in one 9-hole round at one of Haack’s camps, a record that has not been broken. He played basketball his entire high school career, so his recruitment wasn’t as high-profile as his talent would suggest.
“We like to see guys that have a knack for getting the ball in the hole,” Haack said. “Rarely do we sign guys who are taught a bunch and are ‘swing gurus.’ We go more towards the guys who have a knack for knowing how to play with a home-grown swing, or even an unconventional swing like Bubba had.”
The 13-year-old Bubba Watson was much like the 35-year-old Watson you see today, Georgia assistant coach Jim Douglas explains. He hit shots that made fans subconsciously utter “Wow,” had the best hands you’ve ever seen and loved to stand out from the crowd, often showing up to junior events with bright pink knickers on. According to Douglas, at the 2000 SEC Championships — which the Bulldogs won — Bubba wanted to have his white saddle shoes dyed red. The finished product was a light red, slightly pink color.
“He thought they were the best thing since sliced bread,” said Douglas, who was heavily involved in Watson’s recruiting. “Someone would come up and say something about his shoes, and Bubba was as proud of them as ever. That’s the way he was. These things he does now on Tour, he perfected in Georgia.”
The things all of Haack’s players are doing on Tour, they perfected at Georgia. That’s where they learned to compete.
The mindset of Georgia’s coaching staff was to get competitive players on campus, group them with fellow competitive players and watch them constantly attempt to out-work each other.
“If you put seven competitive guys, they can push themselves places they couldn’t otherwise,” Douglas said. “There is a difference between guys who like to play golf and guys who like to compete. I can’t put my finger on it, but I know it when I see it.”
Some players enter the college ranks and stagnate due to a lack of daily competition. They get bored and regress. Not in Athens. If you want to play in every tournament, head somewhere else. Because each player fights for his spot each week with a clean slate. Only three players in Haack’s tenure went their entire career without missing a tournament. One was Henley, a two-time All American.
“If Russell sees Harris win a tournament, he thinks he’s going to be the next Bulldog to win,” Douglas said. “But if it’s not going to be him, they want someone else to be the next one.”
At the current pace, the next one will be right around the corner. Haack better start making some room on his wall.
Photos from left to right: Sam Greenwood/Getty; AP/Wilfredo Lee; Darren Carroll/Getty; Sam Greenwood/Getty; AP/Reed Saxon