UGA coach makes players earn their playing time


HUTCHINSON, Kan. – Already this season there have been eight PGA Tour winners with University of Georgia ties.

Brendon Todd, a four-year All-American in Athens, won last week’s Byron Nelson Championship, following the lead of Bubba Watson (twice), Russell Henley, Chris Kirk and Harris English. Patrick Reed, a two-time winner in 2013-14, briefly attended Georgia before transferring to Augusta State.

For Georgia head coach Chris Haack, “it’s a huge point of pride” to see all of the former Bulldogs having success at the pro level.

As a coach, Haack has always done it his way.

He isn’t a world-class player like Illinois’ Mike Small, or a passionate and emotional leader like Alabama’s Jay Seawell, or a number-crunching tactician like former Oklahoma State coach Mike McGraw. But Haack is arguably the best recruiter in the country, and for years he has fostered a competitive atmosphere in practice.

“Nobody’s spot is safe,” Haack said. “They’ve gotta earn their spot every week.”

The only way players can stay in the lineup is to post a top-10 finish in the previous event. Otherwise, they’re all fair game in a top-5 qualifier in practice. Depending on the turnaround between events, that can either be a one-round shootout or a three- or four-round mini-tournament.

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In Haack’s 18 years at Georgia, only three players have never missed a tournament because of qualifying: Kevin Kisner, Brian Harman and Henley. All three currently play on the PGA Tour.

“It makes them stay sharp and stay focused,” Haack said. “Nobody can get too comfortable.”

Sometimes, that means the team’s best player is left out of the lineup. 

That’s what happened this season to senior Joey Garber, the No. 7 player in Golfstat’s individual rankings. The former Michigan transfer failed to qualify for events at both Crooked Stick and Kiawah Island. He played as an individual at Kiawah and won the tournament, but his 9-under total didn’t count toward the team score. As a result, the Bulldogs finished third.

“As I tell them, it’s no different than a U.S. Amateur qualifier, a U.S. Open qualifier or a Monday qualifier,” Haack said. “You have to figure out how to do it when the time comes.

“We hope it’s beneficial. They prefer it that way, as opposed to me just picking them. As a player you want to feel like you have as good a chance as everybody else, and they’re all very comfortable with that. If they don’t make it, they know it’s not because of me.”

Though in recent years Georgia has churned out pro prospects at the same rate Harvard produces lawyers, it’s remarkable to think that the school has only won two national titles in the past 15 years, in 1999 and 2005. The Bulldogs also were NCAA runners-up in 2007 and ’11, the latter with a team that included PGA Tour players Henley, English and Hudson Swafford.

So, Haack was asked: Which Georgia player is next to break through on Tour?

Erik Compton, from a ball-striking perspective, was one of the best I’ve ever had,” he said. “With his situation, I would love nothing more than to see him in the winner’s circle. Also Brian Harman. I’m surprised he hasn’t gotten himself in the winner’s circle yet. He’s so talented. And Kevin Kisner. He always seemed to get himself in the hunt in college, and getting out on the Tour and winning a few times gave him some confidence.

“It wouldn’t surprise me if any of those guys did it,” he added. “To see any of these guys win is a huge thrill for me.”