While watching the top college teams compete at the Isleworth Collegiate Invitational last week, I was reminded of a conversation I had in June with one of amateur golf’s sharpest and closest observers.
The topic was the state of the U.S. college game. We were trying to come up with a list of college programs where a youngster could go and actually improve his game, become a better player over four years and eventually advance to the PGA Tour. The list was short, but we both agreed that the University of Florida belonged on it. And that is due, quite simply, to the school’s golf coach, Buddy Alexander.
His birth certificate says Stewart Alexander, but everyone knows him simply as Buddy. And unlike so very few college golf coaches, Alexander has been there.
He was a competitive amateur as a young man, tried to play pro golf and got reinstated, and then won the U.S. Amateur. He became a college coach, and in his Hall of Fame coaching career he has sent no fewer than 30 players to the pro ranks. Chris DiMarco, Camilo Villegas, David Toms, Brian Gay, Jodie Mudd and Chris Couch are among the PGA Tour winners he has groomed.
Alexander was an All American at Georgia Southern in 1974 and 1975. Two years later, he found himself coaching the team. He left and made an effort to play professionally, but soon returned to the coaching ranks, at Louisiana State University.
It was during his tenure at LSU that he won the Amateur. At age 33, Alexander defeated Chris Kite, 5 and 3, at Shoal Creek in Alabama in 1986. At the time, he said that “growing up, the three things I wanted to accomplish were to win the U.S. Amateur, and to play in The Masters and the Walker Cup. Winning the Amateur took care of all three.”
He got his coveted Walker Cup spot in 1987, playing on the team that won at Sunningdale GC in London.
After a brief stint in the business world, Alexander once again returned to coaching, this time at Florida, where he has been since 1988. Alexander’s coaching record has earned him a rightful place in the coaches’ Hall of Fame. He has been a three-time national Coach of the Year and has won two NCAA championships and a slew of SEC championships.
What few juniors and fewer parents understand is that it is not the job of the college coach to make a player better. That’s not what they are paid to do. Rather, they are hired by schools to assemble teams that can win conference championships and challenge for national championships.
Yes, an education along the way is part of the bargain, but grooming junior for the PGA Tour ranks is not part of the coach’s assignment. Unless you are fortunate enough to play for Alexander, or the small handful of coaches like him. It’s just better to learn course management and mental toughness from a guy who has been there.
By his own admission, Alexander is old school. He recruits kids to play golf, and he expects them to put in the time to get better. You won’t get a lot of the new-age, touchy-feely stuff from Alexander. He can be stern with his kids when they need it, but he is always supportive. And when four years are over, he may well become your friend. Just ask Gay, spotted in a golf cart with Alexander during the final round at Isleworth.
Alexander took his very young Florida Gator team to the Isleworth tournament last week, a college tournament that has emerged, in a short time, as the jewel of the fall season. As expected, his players took their lumps, finishing 10th in the 15-team field. But Alexander expects them to improve and to be ready to compete next spring when it really counts.
His track record would suggest not betting against him.
Not every college golf tournament can get Arnold Palmer to speak at a dinner. But then not every college tournament is the Isleworth Collegiate Invitational, located a 7-iron from Palmer’s home at Bay Hill. And so it was that Palmer spoke at Monday night’s players dinner, much to the delight of the youngsters, most of whom had never seen him in person.
After his customary remarks about how the future of the game was in their hands and how important it was for them to carry on his work in protecting the integrity of the game, the King graciously fielded questions.
The belly putter? “I am not in favor of any piece of equipment that touches the body. It is supposed to be a freewheeling game.”
How many holes-in-one? “19. Nicklaus and Player have 20, which irritates me.”
Most important win? “The U.S. Amateur. Everything else was made possible by that win.”
On the way out the door, he reminded the gathering that he ran a little PGA Tour event around the corner each March, and if anyone got good enough, they should write and ask for an exemption.