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College notebook: Rules have changed, but Oklahoma State still rules

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During the college golf season, GolfChannel.com will check in weekly to update what’s happening in the world of college golf.


While PGA Tour players and the USGA continue their “collaborative efforts” as it relates to the new Rules of Golf, the world of college golf is taking a different approach to the rule changes.

It doesn’t involve a cell phone or Twitter account, but rather a notepad.

Instead of complaining and blasting off on social media, college coaches and players are putting their heads down and learning. Sure, they may not agree with some of the changes, but they’re going to make sure they know them.

An NCAA title could depend on it.

“For us, it’s a great learning tool for our players,” said Florida State women’s coach Amy Bond. “Yeah, you’ve learned these rules – well, let’s be honest, a lot of them didn’t even know all of the old rules – but with these new rules, it’s something you need to focus on because if you do it wrong, you’re going to be penalized and your team’s going to be penalized.”

Florida State had its men’s and women’s teams participate in a two-hour Skype seminar with the USGA before the spring season began. Most schools have taken similar efforts to make sure their coaches and players know the new rules.

“Even if we’re just doing short-game practice, we practice dropping the ball (the new way),” said Coastal Carolina men’s coach Jim Garren. “So it’s literally been hammered into their heads.”

Florida women’s coach Emily Glaser not only went over the new rules with her team using online materials and practice tests provided to them by the USGA, she also took part in a rules seminar at the SEC coach’s meeting in November and, along with Gators men’s coach J.C. Deacon, had a USGA rules official fly to Gainesville, Fla., to meet face to face with both teams.

“These are the rules and it’s our job to follow them, whether we agree with them or not,” Glaser said. “We’re working every day to get more comfortable with everything.”

To the handful of Division I coaches contacted by Golf Channel, none had seen any issues in tournament play so far this spring, though many teams had played in just one event. But even in qualifying, most of the coaches had been surprised by how quickly their players have adjusted.

“I was shocked that every time I saw my guys having to take a drop it was always from right at their knees,” said Georgia men’s coach Chris Haack.

Coaches admit there’s still some hesitation with the new rules, but they already have to constantly adapt to the ever-changing NCAA guidelines, especially in recruiting. Still, old habits undoubtedly die hard, and teams have been extra careful so far this spring.

“Everybody is certainly on edge,” Glaser said. “When you find yourself in a rule situation you’re always wondering, ‘Am I doing it right?’”

Which is one reason why pace of play hasn’t initially improved at the college level. But once players and coaches become more comfortable, coaches feel like other rule changes will help speed up play, most notably the one that allows players to putt with the flagstick in.

“Just give it a chance. Give it some time,” Haack said. “… You might find out after a couple of years that, hey, this isn’t that bad.”

Added Bond: “There are some good changes in there that are going to make golf better. It’s just weird right now. Is it a little bit scary? Yes. Do I know everything now? No. Now that these rules have changed, I’m not going to learn them four months. It’s a learning process for us all.

“But by this time next year everyone will be like, ‘Oh, I got it.’”

As for later this spring, when the television cameras are on? We’ll have to wait and see. But the teams will certainly be prepared.


Eckroat

PASSING THE TEST

If you haven’t heard, Oklahoma State is still really, really good.

The Cowboys won the Querencia Cabo Collegiate on Tuesday by eight shots over red-hot Arizona State. More impressively, they did so without U.S. Amateur champion Viktor Hovland, who is competing in this week’s Arnold Palmer Invitational. Sophomores Austin Eckroat and Matthew Wolff finished first and second, respectively, while Hayden Wood also notched a top-10 finish.

“We are fortunate to have a lineup full of guys capable of leading, contending and winning,” Oklahoma State head coach Alan Bratton said. “We don't rely on one or two guys, and that showed again this week.”

But is this Oklahoma State team better than last year’s NCAA Championship-winning team that won 10 times and swept Alabama in the NCAA final, 5-0?

Last season, Oklahoma State finished as the No. 1-ranked team in the country with a 179-6-1 head-to-head record. Eight players ended the season with a sub-72 scoring average, led by Hovland at 70.08. Nine players notched a top-5, with four of them winning tournaments. At one point, the Cowboys won seven straight tournaments.

This season, Oklahoma State is again the top-ranked team in the nation with four wins to its credit. Seven players have a sub-72 scoring average, with Wolff and Hovland each below 69. Six players have top-5s and four of them have capture medals, though Wolff and Hovland already have combined to win seven times.

Statistically, last year’s squad was better up to this point, but this year’s team has more star power. Wolff and Hovland are the best players in college golf, per the rankings; Eckroat and Wood have improved dramatically; and Zach Bauchou is one of the most experience players in the country.

And the 2018-19 Cowboys could ultimately end up with the same amount of wins, an NCAA title and, something Oklahoma State hasn’t had since 2011, a Big 12 crown.

“Every year is different,” Bratton said, “but each of our guys have improved over the last year, so we’ll see if we can keep pushing each other.”


HISTORY LESSON

There’s a character in the hit sitcom “Friends” named Fun Bobby, who dated Monica and had a reputation for being, well, fun. (Of course, things changed as the show went on.)

When Keith Mitchell was at Georgia, he was the life of the party.

“Everybody liked Keith and Keith liked everybody,” Bulldogs head coach Chris Haack said. “Somebody could always talk him into doing something other than what he probably needed to be doing. If somebody wanted to go bowling and everyone else was practicing or studying, Keith could always find a reason to go.

“Keith was Fun Bobby, and that’s what we called him.”

Haack likes to tell a story from Mitchell’s sophomore year when he got a call that Mitchell had missed his tutoring appointment. Now, Haack never worried about Mitchell’s grades, but he immediately dialed Mitchell.

“Were you supposed to be somewhere?” Haack asked his player.

Mitchell responded that he had overslept. “I’m so sorry. I was studying so much last night,” Mitchell told his coach.

“Really?” Haack then said. “Well, then you better hurry up and wake up so you can take those steaks off the grill. They’re going to get burnt.”

Mitchell had just posted on social media that he was grilling out with his friends on the football team.

“I caught him red-handed,” Haack said, with a laugh.

Despite his social personality, Mitchell still was able to find success on the golf course for the Bulldogs. He won once during his junior year while being named an All-American honorable mention. As a sophomore, he placed ninth at the 2012 NCAA Championship at Riviera.

But Mitchell has told Haack that he regrets not taking college golf more seriously from the beginning. Mitchell played just two events as a freshman, finishing the season unranked and beating just 36 players. That year, the Bulldogs were loaded with Hudson Swafford, Russell Henley and Harris English, and advanced to the NCAA final before losing to Augusta State.

“He’s told me, ‘Man, I should’ve worked my tail off to play on that team,’” Haack said.

Mitchell never finished a season ranked better than No. 82, yet Haack always knew Mitchell had it in him to achieve big things at the next level – if he worked hard. Mitchell is now the 10th Georgia player to have played under Haack and gone on to win on the PGA Tour.

“I remember the first time I saw him play at our golf camp when he was 9 years old,” Haack said. “Keith was always ultra-talented. … But all these guys live and learn at different paces.”

Especially Fun Bobby.


SOCIAL LIFE

Ole Miss may have lost its best player, Braden Thornberry, to the pro ranks last winter, but don’t rule out the Rebels making some noise this spring, especially after this prayer by Cash Malloy, son of Ole Miss coach Chris Malloy.


ON TAP

The spring season rolls on and highlighting the men’s slate are the General Hackler Championship and Lamkin Grips SD Classic, both scheduled for March 11-12. Meanwhile, the competition gets really good in women’s golf, with the Darius Rucker Intercollegiate beginning Friday, the Florida Gators Invitational starting Saturday and the reigning NCAA champs hosting the Arizona Wildcat Invitational on Monday-Tuesday.