Even in New Orleans, LSU country, Bubba Watson couldn’t escape the occasional “Go Dawgs!” a cry more ubiquitous than “You da man!” in his gallery. But unlike the latter, Bubba doesn’t ignore the former. The Masters champ is quite proud of the University of Georgia diploma that hangs on the wall of his home. And he is quick to acknowledge those who shout “How ’bout them Dawgs,” whether it’s in Augusta, New Orleans or Los Angeles.
While Bubba is the first major champion to play his college golf at Georgia, he is far from alone in the tour’s Bulldog club. Four of the school’s alums – Brendan Todd, Harris English, Brian Harman and Kevin Kisner – earned PGA Tour cards in December, joining Watson, Ryuji Imada, Erik Compton, Chris Kirk and Matt McQuillan, while former UGA players Russell Henley, Justin Bolli, Richard Scott and Hudson Swafford compete on the Nationwide Tour.
In total, they constitute the largest cadre of active tour players to have lettered for the same university under the watchful eye of a single coach.
Chris Haack, in his 16th season at Georgia, has won two national championships, seven Southeastern Conference championships, finished runner-up in two more NCAA tournaments, carded 44 tournament wins, and is arguably the most successful college coach since Mike Holder’s dynasty at Oklahoma State. Alumni from Haack teams have earned north of $30 million on tour and been on Walker, Presidents and Ryder Cup teams. And even with the loss of Todd, English, Harman and Kisner, Haack once again has a bumper-crop of young talent ranked in the top 25 in the country.
None of which seems to faze the 51-year-old, who still enjoys a sloppy hot dog at the Redneck Gourmet restaurant in his hometown of Newnan, Ga.
“You never think you’re ever going to have that many of your former players on tour,” Haack said in his typical slow manner. “But I always felt like that if they came here and improved their game, why not?”
Haack always had an eye for talent, and a great venue from which to watch it. As the lead tournament director for the AJGA for two decades, he got early looks at most of the game’s best. He chaperoned youngsters such as Davis Love III and Phil Mickelson at various far-flung tournaments, and had the foresight to put a youngster named Tiger Woods on his Wyndham Cup team when very few people outside California knew much about the skinny kid.
Those instincts have served him well in the college recruiting wars. But it is Haack’s laid-back style and fair philosophy on who makes his team that keeps the pipeline full in Athens. He doesn’t fool with his players’ games (despite being a collegiate player himself, who has seen more good golf swings than most teaching pros), and he doesn’t play favorites.
“We let them play,” he said. “We try to feed them with a lot of positive reinforcement, put them in a good, fun, comfortable environment. But more than anything, we have them compete against each other for their spots.
“Nothing is given to them. They know that 72 beats 73 every time, and they know they have to go out and beat the other guys if they want to play. It’s never a case of your résumé getting you a spot. You tee it up and beat the other guys if you want to play in the next tournament.”
That simple formula – no favoritism and no freebies, just 36 to 72 holes of qualifying before every event – has earned Haack a mountain of respect from his players.
“Your better players want a chance to prove that they deserve to be there,” he said. “The other players, the guys who didn’t have stellar junior careers, all they want is a chance. If a guy shoots three 74s and misses, he has nobody to blame but himself and he knows the areas where he needs to improve. But nobody ever has to worry about being a suck-up, or believing that politics has anything to do with whether or not you play here.”
The only time he considered changing his system was the fall of 2005 when Georgia was the defending national champion with four returning All-Americans and Harmon coming in as a freshman. The first tournament was held at the course where the NCAA tournament would be played the following spring, so it was important that the best players get a look.
“I really vacillated on whether to have qualifying for that one event,” Haack said. “So, I sat down with Chris Kirk and Brendan Todd, who were the captains of that team, and asked them what they thought. They looked at me like I was crazy and said, ‘Let’s tee it up. You don’t need to protect us.’ From that point forward, I’ve never questioned the process.”
The process will continue in the coming weeks. Georgia will host one of six regional NCAA tournaments beginning May 17. Between now and then, nine of Haack’s players will tee it up to qualify for five spots. What they’ve done throughout the year, what they did as juniors, and what their résumés say won’t matter. All that will count are the numbers on the board.
And 72 beats 73 every time.