GREENSBORO (Sept. 10, 2016) – Golf is just golf. Golf is hard. Golf has no friends.
When you have played and instructed golfers as long as North Carolina A&T head men’s and women’s golf coach Richard Watkins has, you can take something as intricate as the sport of golf and break it down to its bare simplicities.
N.C. A&T heads into its first-ever varsity golf tournament on Monday, Sept. 12, when Watkins and his five golfers drive to Ledbetter, Ky., for the Drake Creek Invitational hosted by Murray State and played at the par-72, 6,178-yard Drake Creek Golf Course. The tournament concludes on Tuesday, Sept. 13. There will be a shotgun start at 8:30 a.m., both days with 36 holes will be played each day.
As Watkins talked about one of his favorite subjects – golf – in his office prior to the women’s golf team’s first tournament, he rotated his office chair from left to right and smiled as he talked for approximately 25 minutes without a hint of apprehension. Too many that may come off as overconfidence for someone taking a first-year program into a tournament that features teams such as Murray State, Western Kentucky and Southern Illinois who have had multiple success at Drake Creek in the past.
The many should not look at that way, however. Instead, his demeanor is closer to the proper temperate needed for someone leading a golf program. It goes back to the simple points. Golf is just golf. Golf is hard. Golf has no friends.
"You can go out there and shoot the best round of your life today. Then go right back out there tomorrow on the same golf course with great condition, and you don't know who that person is playing today compared to who played yesterday,” said Watkins. “Golf is like any other game. You go in with a game plan after you study the course. But the question becomes what do you do, how do you recover, how do you still make par after you make either a mental mistake or a swing mistake that causes you to deviate from that game plan? How do we reduce the damage after we hit bad shots?
You’re going it bad shots. Everybody does.”
One of the dynamics Watkins likes about the inaugural women’s golf team is the two junior college transfers he signed in Jill Harvison and Sofia Alvarez. Unlike his three freshmen, Harvison and Alvarez are used to playing on longer golf courses that extend beyond 6,000 yards as opposed to a high school competition that is usually 5,700-5,800 yards long. Therefore, they are used to hitting 5 or 6-irons to the green instead of pitching wedges, 8 or 9-irons.
Another aspect they bring is that they have played in big golf events before having both qualified for junior college nationals. Freshman Eric Jackson has been playing in national tournaments since the age of 10, so she also brings a certain calm to this first-time event for Aggie Athletics.
Among the teams participating in the Drake Creek Invitational are Akron, Austin Peay, Belmont, IPFW, Morehead State, Lipscomb, Murray State, Southern Illinois, Tennessee State and Western Kentucky. Murray State has won the event four out of the past seven years with Morehead State winning it in 2010 and Southern Illinois taking the title in 2014. Brooke Cussamano of SIU won the individual title last season and returns this season for the Salukis.
“From everything I have been taught, it’s not about beating the competition, it’s about beating the course,” said Watkins. “I’m not familiar with Drake Creek, but we’ll get there early enough to get some insight on the course.”
The Aggies will play a practice round on Sunday. Watkins plans to go out and walk the course himself prior to, so he can get some measurements and find out the courses’ unique characteristics. From there he will then construct a strategy on how he wants the Aggies to approach their practice round. After the practice round the team will meet and come up with the game plan for each player based on their individual strengths.
“Usually golf courses will have the holes for the first round and second round designated on the green, so we’ll know where the pins will be set on Monday, and where the pins will be set on Tuesday,” said Watkins. “That will give us a chance to make some putts from different places, so we can determine the speed and breaks of those putts. We’ll know where to chip from, where the bailout areas are, where we can miss and can’t miss (the green) and what’s the best direction to approach a green.”
The N.C. A&T women will play seven tournaments over the 2016-17 season including the UNC Greensboro Starmount Invitational at Starmount Forest Country Club in Greensboro, Oct. 3-4. It will give most Aggie fans a chance to see the newest N.C. A&T varsity sport up close.
Men’s golf will start at N.C. A&T in the fall of 2017. Watkins said his goal is to host a tournament for his men and women by the 2018-19 season. His strategy for building the men’s team will be the same as it was for building the women. First, find a home and practice course. He already has that in the Bryan Park Golf Course. Second, release the schedule. Third, once you have the schedule released, use it to attract quality players by offering them quality venues and competition in which to play golf.
While Watkins was building the women’s team, he identified four or five junior college men he could potentially sign. Therefore, he said, the transition from building women to the men will be seamless.
After all, golf is just golf.