My, what a strange ending

Eagling the final hole, Curtis Strange, a freshman at Wake Forest, won the NCAA championship for the Deacons and the individual title for himself
June 30, 1974

A college golf coach is equal parts fidget and fuss, worry and anxiety. Watching one at a tournament is like studying the moves of a rookie father in a maternity ward. Only worse. Childbirth never takes 72 holes. Coaches play bump and run on the course, hiding behind foliage, disguising themselves as electric golf carts, stalking their players as furtively as the CIA. They fret a lot. That's their job—fretting. And handing out golf balls. Usually their sage advice can be distilled straight down to this: "Do better."

They were all at the NCAA golf championship in San Diego last weekend, squirming, exhorting, praying, wondering, hoping and giving with a lot of body English. They were easy to spot. Most had on straw hats, and they kept sticking money into the ballwasher and yelling about how the stupid machine would not give them any cigarettes.

The NCAA tournament is bigger than big and in some ways smaller than small, simply because college golf is mostly consigned to agate type. But for the participants the NCAA is four days of concentrated torture, where the coaches find themselves puffing on three cigarettes at once and the players stand in line when the driving range opens at 6 a.m. A total of 224 players from 79 schools showed up at Carlton Oaks Country Club in Santee, a San Diego suburb, each of them carrying a dream as the 15th club in his bag.

The college game deserves more notice. All but eight tournaments on the 1973 pro tour were won by former collegians. The colleges are golf's sandbox, an incubator where the players receive the finest equipment, instruction and competition. And even though Arnold Palmer and Jack Nicklaus never graduated, anyone who knows the difference between a lateral and a parallel water hazard can tell you their former colleges are Wake Forest and Ohio State. Some big golf schools like Florida have 30 players on their squads.

The University of Houston is to college golf what UCLA is to basketball, with 12 NCAA titles and four seconds since 1956. But the Cougars' chances were slim last week, since defending champion Florida was minus only one player from 1973.

The Gators' best golfer was Gary Koch, a child prodigy who learned how to putt as a babe and so far has not grown up and forgotten. The other players call him "Drain" because that is what his ball usually does. He and teammates Phil Hancock and Andy Bean had paced Florida to victories in six of nine tournaments this season, although the team was beaten by Southern California in the Aztec Invitational held earlier over the same Carlton Oaks course. "We're going to have a different attitude this week," promised Florida Coach Buster Bishop.

For the first time in four years there was speculation about who would win the individual title, since in the previous tournaments the NCAA could have saved everyone a lot of scorekeeping by just mailing the trophy to Ben Crenshaw—although he did share it with Texas teammate Tom Kite in 1972. This year's roster of title candidates was as long as Sly Stone's wedding reception guest list and included Koch and Hancock, plus Southern Cal's Craig Stadler, the U.S. Amateur champion, of whom one coach said: "The reason he plays so well is that he's got short legs."

Curtis Strange, a freshman phenom at Wake Forest, also merited consideration. He is a friend of former Wake star Lanny Wadkins and like him started winning as soon as he traded in his pacifier for a putter. Using a driver Wadkins gave him, Strange had won four tournaments this year.

Wake Forest's team was so young that the players needed an accompanying adult in order to ride in a golf cart. The team had two freshmen, a pair of sophomores and a junior. Even so the Deacons had their usual wealth of talent, but the question was: Would they finally put it together for a win? Coach Jesse Haddock ("You spell it just like the fish") was burdened with snide comments because his teams had held third-round leads in several NCAAs but had never won, despite such aces as Wadkins, Eddie Pearce, Jim Simons, Leonard Thompson and Joe Inman Jr.

Joining Strange were soph Jay Haas, a nephew of Bob Goalby and the low amateur in the U.S. Open, and freshman Bob Byman, a former U.S. junior champion. Strange and Byman share a Buddy Worsham memorial scholarship, which was established by Arnold Palmer, a good friend of Haddock's.

To the people of Winston-Salem, Wake Forest golf is rated right up there with the-invention of the filter tip. When Wadkins and Simons played in the 1972 Walker Cup matches in Scotland, 80 Wake boosters chartered a jet and flew to the matches.

Haddock, the Deacons' coach for 15 years, approaches his job with zeal and meticulous attention to detail. His favorite word is "discipline" and, although some opponents sneer at the boy scout appearance of Wake Forest's players, the discipline seems to work. Wake upset Florida in the Chris Schenkel Intercollegiate, the teams' only previous meeting this year. Personable and courteous in the manner of the Old South, Haddock is a master recruiter. Palmer sometimes encourages a hesitant high school prospect, but Haddock covers all eventualities. He first wrote Wadkins when Lanny was only 13 years old, and Simons wound up marrying one of Haddock's daughters.

Haddock drills into his golfers that they are members of a team playing an individualistic game. "That's all I thought about today, playing for the team," said Strange after shooting a record-tying 65 in the third round. "Everybody sort of kids us about the way Coach Haddock treats us. He wants us always looking neat, and you could never throw a club. But I think the record shows that he has the right idea about coaching. He's real good psychologically. We come to a golf tournament to do just one thing: play golf. We can party later."

With Phil Hancock and Gary Koch sailing along under par, Florida jumped into a four-stroke lead after the first two rounds, with Houston and Southern California dropping far behind. But despite playing the third round in only two over par. the Gators led Wake Forest by a mere five strokes going into the final round on Saturday. "It's going to be a long day," mused a cautious Coach Bishop. Strange, meanwhile, held a two-stroke lead over Koch and Hancock in the individual race and was threatening to join Ben Crenshaw as the only freshman to win the title.

On Saturday, Haddock and the rest of the coaches resembled harried generals receiving sketchy reports from their scouts. Haddock's face was burned a near-violet color from the bright sun. "I'm too nervous to take time to go back to my room for my suntan lotion," he explained.

The finish could not have been more theatrical. With only him and Gary Koch left on the course, Strange stood on the fairway of the par-5 18th. This was the situation: a birdie would cinch the team title for Wake Forest. An eagle would win the individual title for Strange by one stroke over Koch and Hancock. Strange pulled out a one-iron and hit it perfectly, the ball stopping six feet from the cup. Later he said that he was not even trying that hard to make the putt, that he just wanted to insure the team title, but the eagle attempt edged up to the hole, caught the right side of the cup and dropped.

It probably was the only time that a player won two titles on the final hole. Jesse Haddock and the rest of the Deacons mobbed Strange on the green. It had been a long wait for Wake.


Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)