McGraw's new attitude leads to sizzling start for Baylor

By Ryan LavnerOctober 29, 2014, 7:51 pm

ORLANDO, Fla. – The new head coach at Baylor was back to his old self here at Lake Nona Country Club. He had a yardage book and reading glasses in his left hand. A pen in his right. And over the course of five hours, he crouched behind putts and scribbled talking points and whispered little words of encouragement to his players during the Tavistock Collegiate Invitational.

Of course, the full Mike McGraw Experience was only just beginning. After a brief lunch, he and senior Filippo Zucchetti moved to the clubhouse veranda for a half-hour chat. Listening to a coach who is always more professorial than pom-pom cheerleader, you almost expected the kid to start taking notes on a napkin.

Hired June 16, McGraw guided the Baylor Bears to a victory in their first start of the season, on Sept. 8. That’s notable because they didn’t win all of last year, even with a team that was ranked as high as 15th nationally. And though Greg Priest – the 11th-year coach who resigned last summer to become an athletic director in Tyler, Texas – left behind a roster brimming with talent and experience, it’s clear that Baylor is only now starting to maximize its immense potential.

“Mike has this newfound level of excitement that I don’t think any coach in the country has, and the kids are just feeding off of it,” Baylor assistant coach Ryan Blagg said. “These guys needed a kick-start and Mike is doing that.”

With top-3 finishes in four of their five fall events, the Bears are ranked No. 5 in the country. This year was supposed to represent a fresh start and clean slate for McGraw, but the learning curve has been accelerated. Now, his team is a strong bet to secure its first NCAA Championship berth since 2010 and could even be considered a dark-horse contender for match play.  

McGraw would love nothing more than to win a fourth NCAA title. But after a few lost years, that is no longer what drives him.

WHEN LAST WE SAW Mike McGraw, he was the most accomplished assistant coach in college golf. Jay Seawell’s right-hand man at Alabama, McGraw developed senior Trey Mullinax into an All-American, schooled the underclassmen and helped the Crimson Tide capture back-to-back national titles.

That NCAA final was particularly juicy, with Alabama facing off against Oklahoma State, the school that dumped McGraw at the end of the 2012 season despite him leading the Cowboys to six Big 12 titles, being named Big 12 Coach of the Year five times in eight years, winning two national titles (2000 as an assistant, 2006 as head coach), recording 30 tournament wins and recruiting such players as Rickie Fowler, Hunter Mahan, Charles Howell III, Peter Uihlein and Morgan Hoffmann.

The revenge factor was obvious, but McGraw maintained that the victory at Prairie Dunes was no more satisfying because it came against his former employer. Instead, he fought back tears after saying he was grateful for the opportunity to coach wonderful kids, for the chance to reignite his passion for coaching.

He had arrived in Tuscaloosa with a bruised ego but no bitterness. He knew he had lost his way as a coach, that he was mentally drained by the pressure to always field the most competitive team in the country. For 11 months Seawell proved the perfect antidote, his high-energy, Roll-Tiding package of pure, unadulterated joy for coaching rubbing off on McGraw.

“That time pumped enthusiasm into me for a year and reminded me that’s why you coach,” McGraw says now. “Why would you coach under a blanket of duress or stress? Why would you do that? It makes no sense. I was putting too much pressure on myself. I wasn’t enjoying it nearly as much.

“What we are doing is important – I truly believe that – but if the result becomes so important that it handicaps and constricts you, then you’re not doing it right. As coaches, we tend to go to that dark place that we have to have a great result or else. Or else what? You lose a job? That’s not fun, trust me, but you’re just coaching. You’re just trying to help these kids develop. My whole perspective was way out of bounds.”

COLLEGE GOLF COACHES can’t dial up a blitz to stop the opposition. They can’t design plays to get the ball to their star in the post. They can’t make an eighth-inning substitution with the game on the line.

Though a few college golf coaches have the skills to demonstrate a point – Illinois’ Mike Small certainly comes to mind – most have to rely on the power of their words. Few, if any, do it better than McGraw, who has long believed that perhaps his biggest impact can be psychological.  

“The most important thing is to remember that the kid has a beating heart, that he’s got dreams, that he’s a human being,” he said. “I’ve always had that, even at the end at Oklahoma State, but my self-imposed pressure was killing me, eating me up. It’s about finding who they are. If the kids can believe and trust and know that I care about them, then they’ll run through a wall for you.”

Developing that trust immediately is key, which is why McGraw agonized over his first impression with his new players. He decided to meet with each one individually over the summer in Waco, spelling out in detail his expectations, his plans and his hopes for the program in what he envisions will be his final stop as a coach.

Trouble was, his players had already formed a few ideas about McGraw. They had seen a picture of him on the Internet – an old man, yardage book in hand, frown on his face, photoshopped Baylor hat and shirt – and concluded that he just might be the meanest coach in the world.

“I wouldn’t have wanted to play for me, either,” McGraw said with a laugh.

But winning three NCAA titles in the past 15 years tends to create instantly credibility among 20-year-old college kids, and they’ve had little trouble buying into his system.

Look closely, and you can already see that his fingerprints are all over this roster.

This year, he has instituted a cellphone ban when the team is on the road. For 54 holes, at least, all of the outside noise – the “attaboys,” the prying parents, the girlfriend drama – is gone and the players are invested in each other.

“It’s a more team-friendly environment,” senior Kyle Jones says. “No one is completely shut off. We’re all engaged and having more fun.”

During a qualifying round at the team’s country club in Waco, McGraw followed his players from afar and jotted down what he saw. It wasn’t pretty – one-arm finishes, club slams, poor language.

At the end of the day, McGraw added up the scores and announced that the team had shot 18 under par. The low score prompted a few high-fives from the players.

“How do you think that makes a coach feel?” McGraw asked.

“Great!” one replied. “You LOVE low scores!”

“Actually,” he said, “I’m really upset right now,” and then proceeded to list the numerous mistakes that would make any coach cringe.

The lesson, of course, was that the score pales in comparison to how his team treats the game. That’s something McGraw learned from his dad and from Mike Holder and from Jay Seawell – a 2-year-old can throw a fit, but it takes a man to accept his poor shot as his own miscue and move on.

His players haven’t made the same immature mistakes since.

RECENT HISTORY SUGGESTS that Baylor became a perennial top-10 program the moment it hired McGraw, and will only get better once his own recruits arrive on campus.

This senior-laden group finished second four times a year ago but flamed out in regionals for the third consecutive year. The early returns in Year 1 have been even better than anticipated, and the marked improvement with largely the same group of players begs the question: How much of an impact can a new coach truly make?

“A lot,” Seawell said. “You have to have good players, and Baylor certainly does, but Mike is as good as it gets. You can already see his personality stamped on that team. I’m not even a little surprised that they’re doing so well so far.”

Said Blagg, the Baylor assistant: “We had the talent, no doubt, but honestly, I think it just might be as simple as Coach McGraw telling them that they are good, hearing it from him, a guy who has coached a lot of PGA Tour players. They’re like, If this guy thinks I’m good enough to do this, then maybe I really am. They start believing.”

McGraw, meanwhile, is focused only on what he can control. Simple concepts, like working with purpose, learning to pay attention to the surroundings, understanding how a player’s body reacts under pressure.

Even at age 54 and in his third decade as a coach, the learning never stops. His ideas about human nature and teaching and things he thinks can be found in a notebook that has now stretched to 400 handwritten pages. The most recent chapter, already about 75 pages, focuses on his fresh start and clean slate at Baylor.

McGraw is still trying to figure out who he is as a coach and how he can improve. He understands the competitive world – the winning, the losing, the finishes, the production – and that his livelihood likely depends on his record. But he has also learned, sometimes painfully, during his stops in Stillwater and then Tuscaloosa that he can’t define himself as a coach simply because he won or lost a tournament. He can’t be consumed by the lust for victory.

“That doesn’t matter, as long as the players can use it to get better,” he said. “It’s such a truth in life: When the result becomes more important than the process, you’ve got it all backward. Because these kids, they can sense it. They can look you in the eye and know what you think and how you feel. Now, these kids can tell that I’m truly enjoying it.”

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Berger more than ready to rebound at Travelers

By Will GrayJune 20, 2018, 9:54 pm

CROMWELL, Conn. – Daniel Berger hopes that this year he gets to be on the other end of a viral moment at the Travelers Championship.

Berger was a hard-luck runner-up last year at TPC River Highlands, a spectator as Jordan Spieth holed a bunker shot to defeat him in a playoff. It was the second straight year that the 25-year-old came up just short outside Hartford, as he carried a three-shot lead into the 2016 event before fading to a tie for fifth.

While he wasn’t lacking any motivation after last year’s close call, Berger got another dose last week at the U.S. Open when he joined Tony Finau as a surprise participant in the final group Sunday, only to shoot a 73 and drift to a T-6 finish.

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“It was one of the best experiences of my professional golf career so far. I feel like I’m going to be in such a better place next time I’m in that position, having felt those emotions and kind of gone through it,” Berger said. “There was a lot of reflection after that because I felt like I played good enough to get it done Sunday. I didn’t make as many putts as I wanted to, but I hit a lot of really good putts. And that’s really all you can do.”

Berger missed the cut earlier this month to end his quest for three straight titles in Memphis, but his otherwise consistent season has now included six top-20 finishes since January. After working his way into contention last week and still with a score to settle at TPC River Highlands, he’s eager to get back to work against another star-studded field.

“I think all these experiences you just learn from,” Berger said. “I think last week, having learned from that, I think that’s even going to make me a little better this week. So I’m excited to get going.”

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Rory tired of the near-misses, determined to close

By Will GrayJune 20, 2018, 9:46 pm

CROMWELL, Conn. – Rory McIlroy has returned to the Travelers Championship with an eye on bumping up his winning percentage.

McIlroy stormed from the back of the pack to win the Arnold Palmer Invitational in March, but that remains his lone worldwide win since the 2016 Tour Championship. It speaks to McIlroy’s considerable ability and lofty expectations that, even with a number of other high finishes this season, he is left unsatisfied.

“I feel like I’ve had five realistic chances to win this year, and I’ve been able to close out one of them. That’s a bit disappointing, I guess,” McIlroy said. “But at least I’ve given myself five chances to win golf tournaments, which is much more than I did last year.”

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The most memorable of McIlroy’s near-misses is likely the Masters, when he played alongside Patrick Reed in Sunday’s final group but struggled en route to a T-5 finish. But more frustrating in the Ulsterman’s eyes were his runner-up at the Omega Dubai Desert Classic, when he led by two shots with eight holes to go, and a second-place showing behind Francesco Molinari at the BMW PGA Championship in May.

“There’s been some good golf in there,” he said. “I feel like I let Dubai and Wentworth get away a little bit.”

He’ll have a chance to rectify that trend this week at TPC River Highlands, where he finished T-17 last year in his tournament debut and liked the course and the tournament enough to keep it on his schedule. It comes on the heels of a missed cut at the U.S. Open, when he was 10 over through 11 holes and never got on track. McIlroy views that result as more of an aberration during a season in which he has had plenty of chances to contend on the weekend.

“I didn’t necessarily play that badly last week. I feel like if I play similarly this week, I might have a good chance to win,” McIlroy said. “I think when you play in conditions like that, it magnifies parts of your game that maybe don’t stack up quite as good as the rest of your game, and it magnified a couple of things for me that I worked on over the weekend.”

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Sunday run at Shinnecock gave Reed even more confidence

By Will GrayJune 20, 2018, 9:08 pm

CROMWELL, Conn. – While many big names are just coming around to the notion that the Travelers Championship is worth adding to the schedule, Patrick Reed has been making TPC River Highlands one of his favorite haunts for years.

Reed will make his seventh straight appearance outside Hartford, where he tied for fifth last year and was T-11 the year before that. He is eager to get back to the grind after a stressful week at the U.S. Open, both because of his past success here and because it will offer him a chance to build on a near-miss at Shinnecock Hills.

Reed started the final round three shots off the lead, but he quickly stormed toward the top of the leaderboard and became one of Brooks Koepka’s chief threats after birdies on five of his first seven holes. Reed couldn’t maintain the momentum in the middle of the round, carding three subsequent bogeys, and ultimately tied for fourth.

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It was a bittersweet result, but Reed is focusing on the positives after taking a couple days to reflect.

“If you would have told me that I had a chance to win coming down Sunday, I would have been pleased,” Reed said. “I felt like I just made too many careless mistakes towards the end, and because of that, you’re not going to win at any major making careless mistakes, especially on Sunday.”

Reed broke through for his first major title at the Masters, and he has now finished fourth or better in three straight majors dating back to a runner-up at the PGA last summer. With another chance to add to that record next month in Scotland, he hopes to carry the energy from last week’s close call into this week’s event on a course where he feels right at home.

“It just gives me confidence, more than anything,” Reed said. “Of course I would have loved to have closed it out and win, but it was a great week all in all, and there’s a lot of stuff I can take from it moving forward. That’s how I’m looking at it.”

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Koepka back to work, looking to add to trophy collection

By Will GrayJune 20, 2018, 8:53 pm

CROMWELL, Conn. – Days after ensuring the U.S. Open trophy remained in his possession for another year, Brooks Koepka went back to work.

Koepka flew home to Florida after successfully defending his title at Shinnecock Hills, celebrating the victory Monday night with Dustin Johnson, Paulina Gretzky, swing coach Claude Harmon III and a handful of close friends. But he didn’t fully unwind because of a decision to honor his commitment to the Travelers Championship, becoming the first player to tee it up the week after a U.S. Open win since Justin Rose in 2013.

Koepka withdrew from the Travelers pro-am, but he flew north to Connecticut on Wednesday and arrived to TPC River Highlands around 3 p.m., quickly heading to the driving range to get in a light practice session.

“It still hasn’t sunk in, to be honest with you,” Koepka said. “I’m still focused on this week. It was just like, ‘All right, if I can get through this week, then I’m going to be hanging with my buddies next week.’ I know then maybe it’ll sink in, and I’ll get to reflect on it a little bit more.”

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Koepka’s plans next week with friends in Boston meant this week’s event outside Hartford made logistical sense. But he was also motivated to play this week because, plainly, he hasn’t had that many playing opportunities this year after missing nearly four months with a wrist injury.

“I’ve had so many months at home being on the couch. I don’t need to spend any more time on the couch,” Koepka said. “As far as skipping, it never crossed my mind.”

Koepka’s legacy was undoubtedly bolstered by his win at Shinnecock, as he became the first player in nearly 30 years to successfully defend a U.S. Open title. But he has only one other PGA Tour win to his credit, that being the 2015 Waste Management Phoenix Open, and his goal for the rest of the season is to make 2018 his first year with multiple trophies on the mantle.

“If you’re out here for more than probably 15 events, it gives you a little better chance to win a couple times. Being on the sidelines isn’t fun,” Koepka said. “Keep doing what we’re doing and just try to win multiple times every year. I feel like I have the talent. I just never did it for whatever reason. Always felt like we ran into a buzzsaw. So just keep plugging away.”