The celebration was short-lived.
When LSU coach Chuck Winstead gathered his team at the school’s practice facility for their first meeting on Aug. 24, he briefly reflected on what happened three months ago and then focused on the task ahead.
There was no gloating. No apathy, either.
The meeting lasted all of 30 minutes, and then they went straight out to the course. It was time to get back to work.
“The happiest I’ve been since June 3,” Winstead said.
That was the day LSU players and coaches celebrated a long-awaited national title with hugs, cheers and beads on the 18th green at Concession, after a commanding victory over Southern Cal in the NCAA match-play final.
It was the Tigers’ first NCAA title in 55 years, but if you wondered whether that newfound success would change this group, or Winstead, think again.
“It’s like I explained to the guys when we first got back: It’s great that we had the success last spring, but if they stacked up 100 of those trophies it wouldn’t change me,” Winstead said. “I genuinely enjoy the work. I enjoy the everyday aspect of being around the guys and trying to help them improve.”
LSU is once again one of the top teams to beat this season, ranked No. 3 on Golf Channel’s preseason list.
The Tigers welcome one of the nation’s best recruiting classes and also return three All-Americans from last year’s NCAA title-winning squad, including their most consistent player, senior Zach Wright, who bombed his way to a perfect record (3-0) in the match-play portion of the championship.
Before NCAAs, Wright had enjoyed a solid but unspectacular junior season. He finished outside the top 20 only twice, but one poor round each tournament kept him out of contention for individual titles and, thus, out of the national spotlight.
“There’s no shot clock on how guys develop in golf,” Winstead said. “Some guys are quicker than others, but I’m happy with where things are with Zach. Now our goal is to refine his game and get him ready for life after college (on the PGA Tour).”
Sure, another year of seasoning for Wright and junior Eric Ricard will help, but the Tigers still absorbed a few key losses during the offseason – most notably a pair of graduating seniors, Stewart Jolly and Ben Taylor, who were instrumental in helping shape LSU into a perennial top-10 program. Also out for at least a portion of this fall season is junior Brandon Pierce, who broke a vertebra in his neck when he dove into a shallow pond the day after returning home from NCAAs. Pierce underwent surgery, but he was fortunate to avoid a career-ending injury. He has resumed hitting short-game shots and could play in practice or tournaments as early as this fall.
It is yet another unfortunate setback for the snakebitten star. Two years ago, Pierce suffered a stress fracture in his back and was sidelined eight months. When he returned to the lineup last spring, he was one of the team’s top performers, finishing in the top-30 in all eight starts, tying for 11th at NCAAs and posting a 2-0-1 record in match play.
“It’s frustrating,” Winstead said, “but he’s got a smile on his face every day and he’s working hard on his game. We’re very glass-half-full on this.”
With Pierce out of action for at least a few months, there is no shortage of suitable replacements.
Not surprisingly, the player getting the most buzz is 19-year-old freshman Sam Burns, who entered college as the country’s No. 1-ranked junior player.
Burns was an All-Everything on the AJGA circuit, but he arrives on campus now simply trying to earn a starting spot. In fact, his toughest competition might come from his own classmates – fellow freshmen Luis Gagne and Nathan Jeansonne, both of whom were ranked inside the top 15 nationally as juniors.
“The negative of not having Brandon right away is also a positive in that someone is going to need to step up and play,” Winstead said. “That’s the culture of our program, that we develop all of our players.”
And that program has never had a higher profile.
Now entering his 11th season at the helm, Winstead didn’t realize the magnitude of what his team had accomplished last June until he returned home to Baton Rouge and was overwhelmed by the support. With the NCAAs now on television, he said fans in town “became a part of the team” and were more invested instead of just scanning an agate page in the newspaper or clicking through another emotionless post on a website.
“The coolest part,” he said, “was seeing how many people it genuinely made happy.”
With success comes expectation, but Winstead isn’t putting any extra pressure on himself or his players to sustain this level of excellence and live up to the lofty ranking.
“My internal desire to improve each day is enough for me,” he said. “Nothing else could trump that.”