It was hardly two good brassie shots ago that the majority of college athletic directors were classing golf somewhere between meat-loaf baking and fossil hunting in the spectrum of collegiate activities, and there are still a few who think only in terms of the crammed arenas of football and basketball. But most of those have come to agree in recent years that a par-smashing golfer is almost as good for prestige as a bone-crunching fullback—or a second-string bone-crunching fullback, at least. The result has been a much more kindly reception when thin young men appear in a registrar's office and confess that they may have dubbed a few courses in high school Latin but are consistently long and straight off the tee. What this has all meant is a new way for the golfing talent of the country to refine its skills.
It is not clear whether promising young golfers suddenly discovered that colleges were the best places to build their games for serious professional or amateur play or the colleges decided that good golfers were likely to make fine future ambassadors for them. Whatever the case, it is becoming obvious that America's campuses are producing today's good players. Not many years ago they came only out of the caddie shacks, they fed on soda pop, and old, bent clubs were the tools of their education. The Hogans, Nelsons and Sneads, who clawed a special kind of immortality out of hard times, came no closer to a campus than today's collegians come to the caddie houses. It is a new day, and a better one all around, because the universities have become the high minors of major league golf, and the prospects are that everyone concerned will continue sharing the benefits of this evolution.
A recent survey by the National Collegiate Athletic Association shows that 225 colleges now have access to a total of 259 golf courses in the U.S., and the colleges are using them. The NCAA golf championships, which 10 years ago drew a field of only 135, had 215 entries last year. In 1950 only 25% of the pros on the PGA tour had come up through the college ranks. Now 70% of the players on the tour have been exposed to college. If the scoreboards at tournaments were to list the players by universities instead of resort hotels and real estate development offices, sports fans who have never shed their old school ties would find plenty to whoop about. For example: LSU has Freddie Haas, Earl Stewart, Jay and Lionel Hebert, Johnny Pott and Gardner Dickinson; Duke has Mike Souchak and Art Wall; North Texas State has Billy Maxwell and Don January; Florida has Doug Sanders, Dave Ragan and Tommy Aaron. Wherever he plays, Bobby Nichols is nearly always followed by the familiar, if quite distracting, Texas A&M cry of "Gig 'em, Aggies."
Moreover, for the past several years the big amateur tournaments have been completely dominated by collegians. Jack Nicklaus was barely a junior at Ohio State when he first won the U.S. Amateur in 1959, and he was a decrepit 21-year-old senior when he won again in 1961. In between, Deane Bern an, who was not yet out of the University of Maryland, was the winner. Last year at Pinehurst, Labron Harris Jr., son of the Oklahoma State golf coach and just four months removed from that campus, swept through a dazzling field almost as if he were winning the Stillwater, Okla. city championship. Tucked away in the Ozarks at the University of Arkansas is a tall young man named Richard H. Sikes. Sikes is a senior there and already has won two U.S. Public Links championships, has made a trip to Japan for the World Amateur and has competed twice in the Masters. Ahead is a journey to the Walker Cup matches in England—which adds up to a pretty good education in itself for Sikes, who says that if it were not for golf he would be a chicken plucker in Springdale, Ark.
"The best amateur golf in the world is played in college," Labron Harris, the stern Oklahoma State coach and father of the Amateur champion, said recently. "Let me pick a team of college players and I'll beat the tail off the Walker Cup team. These college boys play every day and they play good. Some of those fellows on the Walker Cup have to work for a living."
A more fascinating experiment might be for either Harris' hypothetical all-stars or the Walker Cup team to try to beat the one college that has gone into the game the way the Yankees went into baseball. That is the University of Houston.
Houston has won 51 of 68 tournaments it has entered in the last 10 years. It has won six of the last seven NCAA team championships and five of the last six individual trophies with such players as Phil Rodgers, Jacky Cupit, Rex Baxter, Dick Crawford and Kermit Zarley. Zarley is the team's current star. He has won six straight collegiate titles, beginning with the NCAA last year, where he defeated teammate Homero Blancas in the finals. (Blancas is just good enough to have once shot a 55 and to have finished third in the recent Houston Classic, where the field included most of the PGA tour's best.)
As with any other highly successful team, Houston has seen glamorous (and not so glamorous) stories rise out of the moss and oaks of its sprawling campus. It has been claimed by rival coaches that Houston certainly ought to win, because it gives 20 full scholarships for golf, the Houston players hit 800 practice balls a day, play the entire year, get more deals than half of the winners on the professional tour and are forced to go 54 holes after dark if they happen to be caught carrying textbooks.
"We don't condone their methods of recruiting," says a Big Ten Coach, "or the amount of golf they play. We can't reach their level, so unless something is done about them they'll continue to dominate college golf."
Labron Harris, probably Houston's bitterest rival, says, "I'm convinced we could have a national championship at Oklahoma State if we wanted to use the money. Apparently those Texas boys don't have to spend much time in class."
"Houston has opened up the scholarship field for college golf," says one coach in the southern California area, a locale where the colleges would like to give Houston a few golf lessons but find they just can't compete. "One year Houston had 25 kids try out for five freshman places. Mike Riley, one of the good young players from the Los Angeles area, shot a 72, finished about 14th and came right back home."
Remarks like these led the NCAA to investigate Houston's golf activities. The findings presumably were that Houston does not coddle its golfers—either academically or financially—any more than most institutions lavish special care on their football players. The school was not censured.
Houston's prosperity does stem from tangible things, but not exactly those its detractors cite at such length. It has a salubrious Gulf Coast climate that permits daily practice throughout most of the year; four scholarships (per four years, not per year) that Coach Dave Williams cagily keeps split up 12 to 15 ways; free access to the city's numerous country clubs; its own invitation tournament, the All-America Intercollegiate, which nets as much as $9,000 in profits; terrific competition among the players themselves (over the years four national junior champions have left the campus disenchanted and consistently beaten); and, of course, that infectious winning tradition.
More important than any of these is Dave Williams himself. Williams is a persuasively friendly man of 44 who has kept his wavy hair and quick smile. He still wears a dark suit and white shirt, the uniform of an associate professor of engineering, which he was, and he still has the assertive forwardness of an insurance salesman, which he was not. His salary, $9,000, would make a football coach blush for shame, his car is a Chevrolet, not a Cadillac, and his six-room home is paid for by Williams, not Houston. What he is isI a golf fanatic and a Houston fanatic. He laughs off his critics as merely envious. "Old Labron [Harris] is always saying things to hurt us," Williams says, "but he's a competitor and I respect that."
Harry Fouke, the University of Houston's athletic director, assesses Williams well. "I firmly believe that if you look closely behind any successful collegiate spring sport program you'll find a character," says Fouke. "Dave Williams is a character, but a very likable one. You know, he seriously believes that it means more to Houston to win a national championship in golf than in football. His attitude rubs off on his golfers. They believe it, too."
Williams insists, "All I've ever tried to do besides win is raise college golf to a higher level of appreciation. I wanted us to be recognized as athletes, because that's what we are. You might notice that our letter jackets are just like the football team's."
It is no bargain playing for Williams, unless one happens to like a closetful of silverware. Houston golfers may not smoke during a competition round, a restriction that would set Arnold Palmer and L&M back a century. Neither may they smoke on the campus. They may not relax in the 19th holes of the clubs in Houston where they practice. And though they may be the Yankees of golf, they travel like the Ponca City Mudhens. Williams loads six or seven players into the rear of an old station wagon, plops a mattress down for them to sleep on, and drives off into the night. He gives them $3 per day for meal money—most Houston golfers are lean and hungry-looking—and he headquarters at modest motels.
Houston plays a limited schedule of six or seven tournaments a year, and no dual matches. But Williams takes his freshman team on trips to Florida and New Mexico, journeys he doesn't hesitate to mention when recruiting.
"I'm strict," Williams says proudly. "My boys can't play in the National Open, not as long as it comes so close to the NCAA championship. [This year they actually conflict.] If Jack Nicklaus had played for Houston he would never have gone to the Open. We're a team. We think like an athletic team, and we work like one. Why, I don't care about any of our kids winning the NCAA individual title. It's nice, but we're there for the team championship. Our job is not to make any double bogeys."
His players, in turn, appreciate both his scheduling and his attitude. The Williams schedule limits the times that his boys must compete in match play. This lets them concentrate on stroke competition, which they will have to play if they become professionals and thus prefer. The Williams attitude develops the mental stamina, determination and willingness to practice that are musts now on the pro tour.
Williams has never been through the American Academy of Dramatic Arts, but he can keep a straight face and a sincere tone when he expresses amazement at the splendid players who keep turning up at Houston from places like Yakima, Wash., Pocatello, Idaho, and Danville, Va. "There weren't many schools paying attention to golf when we got started," Williams says. "The young hotshots were looking for a place to go, and we took them."
It is true enough that 10 to 15 years ago all a college had to do to build a great golf team was decide it wanted one. There is the case of Wake Forest, for example. Jim Weaver, now commissioner of the Atlantic Coast Conference, formerly "was athletic director and golf coach there. "We always went down to the Southern Intercollegiate in Athens, Ga. and got clobbered by North Texas State and those few schools that had been giving golf scholarships for a while," Weaver recalls. "One spring every one of our players got eliminated after 36 holes. That year the principal at a school in Athens had decided to change a previous policy of letting his boys out to caddie during the tournament, so there were no caddies. A couple of the coaches suggested that the Wake Forest players be used as caddies. That was too much. We decided we could have a winning golf team, too. So I devoted six full scholarships to it."
In no time at all Weaver got himself five boys, including Buddy Worsham, the younger brother of Lew Worsham, the 1947 U.S. Open champion. "It took Bud five minutes to make up his mind to come," Weaver says. "He got to school early, and when he heard I still wanted a No. 6 man he suggested a kid from Pennsylvania named Arnold Palmer. I phoned Palmer, and he said, 'Sure.' ["Frankly," Palmer now admits, "I had never heard of Wake Forest."] In two years we were back in Athens winning the team championship, with Arnold winning the individual title." The publicity payoff for Wake Forest has been considerable.
College golf has now developed to the point where winning teams cannot be built in a summer—or in lots of summers. Even Houston has felt the increased recruiting competition, but it has the advantage of being a winner. "Once we started winning, the good young players came on their own," Williams says. "Even so, other schools get more of them, too. We don't have the scholarships some schools do. And we don't have a golf course on the campus like nearly all of the Big Ten schools, which is a big thing. But I write personal letters and make phone calls to every top young player I hear about and try to encourage him to come to Houston. All I actually do in the way of 'coaching' is try to make our players think they're the greatest in the world and also keep them afraid that they might not be."
The supply of players for colleges, nearly all of which now have some scholarship aid to offer, is almost endless today, with so many good junior golf programs and the attraction of the big money that the top professionals can earn. As Ohio State's Bob Kepler says, "Any kid who can play a lick in high school now thinks he deserves a scholarship." If he can shoot a 65 the University of Houston might even take him.