Seventeen years ago, John Fields was walking through the men’s locker room at Barton Creek when he bumped into legendary Texas coach George Hannon.
Hannon had overseen some of the best talent to ever come through Austin, including the Tom Kite and Ben Crenshaw-led teams in 1971-72, and this was his first opportunity to welcome Fields to the UT fraternity.
“I think you’re going to do well, and I think you’re going to win national championships,” Hannon told him. “But you’re going to need one thing … ”
Fields leaned in.
“You’re going to need some luck.”
For 15 years, Fields never truly understood what Hannon meant. Then came that late afternoon in June 2012, when he stood on the 18th green at Riviera, tears in his eyes, after guiding Texas to the school’s first national title in 40 years. From Jordan Spieth getting a spot in the PGA Tour event there four months earlier to Cody Gribble rediscovering his game just in time to Dylan Frittelli being pushed by a superstar-in-waiting, it was clear: Hannon was right. Yes, the Longhorns had played remarkable golf, but at the same time they also benefited from a bit of good fortune.
The old coach’s message seems even more relevant now, with Texas about to kick off one of its most highly anticipated seasons ever. On paper, the Longhorns have by far the most talented team in the country, their roster a who’s who of can’t-miss junior prospects.
So what could possibly go wrong?
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Nearly every college coach knows what he’s facing this season, because in all likelihood he swung and missed on recruiting these kids:
• Beau Hossler, who briefly led the 2012 U.S. Open at age 17 and recently won the Western Amateur.
• Scottie Scheffler, who made the cut at the Byron Nelson last spring and won the 2013 U.S. Junior.
• Gavin Hall, who was the No. 3-ranked prep prospect in the country and a member of the Junior Ryder Cup team.
• Doug Ghim, who won four AJGA titles and reached the finals of the 2014 U.S. Amateur Publinx.
• Taylor Funk, who won virtually everything in Florida and is the son of the nine-time Champions Tour winner.
• And all of those standouts are bound together by Kramer Hickok, the team’s lone senior and a two-time All-Big-12 selection himself.
But talent alone doesn’t win championships, which is why it’d be misguided to automatically pencil in Texas for the championship match.
More than a few coaches have noted how this team was similarly stacked last season and yet won only once, in late April, to salvage a top-15 record.
Sure, Hickok’s injury played a significant role in the underwhelming campaign. He tore a ligament in his left wrist at the 2013 U.S. Amateur, a setback that put him on the bench for the entire fall. “There was a definite disruption there,” Fields said. “We were essentially a man down for a long time.”
Depth won’t be an issue this year, not after three well-known, highly regarded freshmen arrived on campus. Coaching the No. 2 team in Golf Channel’s preseason rankings, Fields is neither buying the hype nor shying away from the elevated expectations.
“If we can maintain our focus,” he said recently, “then we’re capable of winning any golf tournament that we play in.”
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If only it were so simple.
College golf isn’t like other sports, namely football and basketball, in which the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. Budding superstars can carry teams in this play-five, count-four format.
All five starters don’t have to like each other – the Augusta State teams that won back-to-back national titles certainly spring to mind – but it’s more rewarding for everyone when they do.
“If you can move the selfishness meter from all individuals to guys who are one-for-all, that’s when it’s really fun,” Georgia Tech coach Bruce Heppler said. “If you can move that maybe 10 percent, then you’re probably ahead of the game. The more you can get, the better off you are. But it’s not the be-all and end-all to be successful.”
The trickiest part for Fields will be finding a consistent starting five, because at least one stud is going to be left home. Normally, that situation would threaten to disrupt team chemistry and cause friction, but Fields says he has a longtime qualifying system in place that removes all of the subjectivity.
Simply, the low five scorers in qualifying play the team’s next tournament, regardless of world ranking or seniority. Players who reach a certain threshold in that event – say, a top-10 finish – are exempt into the next event. A win earns a spot in multiple events. And the same rules apply for everyone.
Though the uber-talented freshmen may qualify for every event on their own, that doesn’t necessarily mean they’ll thrive on game day.
Despite junior golf’s increasingly year-round schedule, the most important time remains the summer. It’s why so many juniors are able to contend for national amateur titles, because they’re in form from concentrating solely on their games. That isn’t the case once they arrive on campus, however. Not only must they log practice time, but they also have mandatory workouts and study halls, all while adjusting to being away from home for the first time. (Hello, laundry.)
“Golf is probably the easiest part,” said Alabama coach Jay Seawell, yet even that aspect isn’t without its challenges. Freshmen are essentially PGA Tour rookies – everything they see and experience is new, from learning the courses in one day to playing more high-level golf than ever before. It can be a lot to handle.
No wonder there was only one true freshman (Alabama’s Robby Shelton) ranked among the top 30 last season.
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With so much uncertainty surrounding the newcomers, it’s reassuring to have an emerging star like Hossler at the top of the lineup.
Much was expected of the 19-year-old last season too, especially only a year removed from his breakout performance at Olympic Club, where he briefly held the lead on Friday at the U.S. Open. But his freshman season got off to a rocky start as his national ranking took a beating. He ended the year with six top-12 finishes in his last eight starts, then carried that momentum into the summer, when he captured the biggest title of his career at the Western Amateur.
“Guys like that, they come in here with a lot of pressure that they’re putting on themselves to perform,” Fields said. “They tend to measure themselves against other great players. Sometimes that can hurt, but it can also be a great motivating factor, because it makes you work really hard.”
To his credit, Hossler is taking a big-picture approach when it comes to his college career.
“It’s impossible to play well year-round,” he said. “Once you play well in an event like (the U.S. Open), people expect you to play well for years to come. But I’m not going to put that expectation on myself. You’re not going to have your A-game every week.”
Like Funk this year, Hossler was an early enrollee at Texas in spring 2013, a decision he made to not only get acclimated to college life but also to get a head start on his business major. Scheffler and Ghim won’t have that luxury. They’ll be adjusting on the fly, and more than a few stumbles are inevitable.
“It’s tough to transfer your game when you get to school,” Hossler said. “That adjustment is difficult for everybody, it doesn’t matter who you are. You just have a lot more responsibility, a lot more things to do on a daily basis. Those guys are going to be just fine, but they know what’s coming and they know it’s not always going to be easy.”
Championship seasons rarely are, which is why Fields was still thinking about old Coach Hannon on the eve of a much-anticipated year.
“What I would like to be doing about 10 months from now,” he said, “is looking back and saying, ‘Wow, what a great year, and I’m really humble and appreciative of what has happened to us.’ Because it’s not just great play. Sometimes, it takes a bit of luck, too.”