ST. SIMONS ISLAND, Ga. – “Free Gurley.”
That was Brian Harman’s message on Thursday at the McGladrey Classic, where the conversation inevitably turns to the University of Georgia and its embattled star running back, Todd Gurley.
“We need him against Florida next week,” Harmansaid in a nod to the showdown between the two SEC giants in a week in Jacksonville, Fla.
Oh ... and Harman said he was pleased with his opening 65 at Sea Island Resort that staked him to a share of the early Round 1 lead, but then a Georgia product atop the McGladrey Classic leaderboard is as much a part of this coastal enclave as shrimp and cheese grits.
At the rate Harman is going he will have plenty of company over the next few days to talk about the plight of his beloved Bulldogs and Gurley, who was suspended indefinitely for allegations he accepted payments in exchange for autographing merchandise for memorabilia dealers.
Harman was joined on the leaderboard by fellow University of Georgia products Erik Compton (T-1 at 5 under) and Brendon Todd (T-8 at 3 under) on Thursday, but that’s hardly a headline considering the impressive run former Bulldogs have had on the PGA Tour the last few years.
Bubba Watson has won two green jackets in three years; Chris Kirk won last year’s McGladrey Classic on his way to a runner-up finish in the season-long FedEx Cup race; Harris English has won twice in the last two years and Harman scored his first Tour victory this summer at the John Deere Classic.
The thread that connects all of those champions weaved its way through Athens, Ga., all the way to Sea Island where some former Bulldogs have taken the home-field advantage to the extreme.
English moved to the quiet village when he turned pro, as did Harman, who has been traveling to Sea Island since he was 11 to work with legendary swing coach Jack Lumpkin.
It only makes sense that the Bulldogs have established such an impressive legacy at Sea Island considering no other group has as much experience on the Seaside Course.
The SEC Championship has been played at Sea Island since 2001 and Georgia has won that title twice since then. Consider it positive association with continued success, like at the 2004 SEC Championship when Todd was dueling Florida’s Matt Every down the stretch for the individual title.
“I just remember with three holes left I think I probably had a one-shot lead, and [Florida coach Buddy Alexander] was out there walking with Matt, and he could tell Matt was so frustrated because I was making putts and he wasn't,” Todd recalled. “Then I missed the green left on 17 to that front-left pin, and I flopped it up there to like 6 feet and made it, and he just rolled his eyes and was like, I surrender.”
The rest of the Tour may be starting to get that same feeling when it comes to the mounting success of the Georgia alums, a group that has expanded to include Russell Henley, Kevin Kisner and Hudson Swafford.
“When the ball gets rolling at a certain college and you're kind of seeing it at Alabama now, that good players want to go play with other good players, and it all happened to be timed up right at Georgia,” Compton said.
The credit for much of Georgia’s success inevitably comes back to affable head coach Chris Haack, who took over the golf program in 1996.
Widely considered a benevolent dictator by his former players, Haack has led the Bulldogs to two NCAA titles (in 1999 and 2005) and proven himself one of the best recruiters in college golf.
So adept, in fact, that his embarrassment of riches has led to some awkward moments over the years, like when one future Masters champion (Watson) regularly failed to qualify for tournaments.
“I was the No. 1-ranked junior in the nation and he red-shirted me my freshman year,” Compton recalled. “If you didn’t shoot 30 under in qualifying you weren’t going to play any tournaments.”
Haack’s coaching style is so effective his former players didn’t blink when asked if he would be the kind of leader the PGA of America could turn to as a possible Ryder Cup captain.
“That’s funny because I was just reading a story about maybe the U.S. should do something like they do in Olympic basketball and name a captain who is used to coaching teams,” Todd said. “That would be awesome.”
Compton agreed. “Absolutely. He’s a fun guy and he knows how to let people do what they do best. He’s a very good motivator.”
At this rate Haack could assemble a Ryder Cup team almost entirely of former Georgia players that could make a game of it with the Europeans. And if the matches are played at Sea Island some may even consider them favorites – with or without Todd Gurley.