Hell did not freeze over in Stillwater, Okla., in June; it just seemed like it. Because for the first time in 65 years, since Harry S. Truman was president of the United States, Oklahoma State’s men’s golf team did not advance to the NCAA championship tournament.
Oklahoma State is the Alabama of college football, the Kentucky of college basketball and the Yankees of professional baseball all rolled into one. During their reign, the Cowboys won 10 national titles and posted 16 runner-up finishes. They won 54 conference championships and produced 160 All-Americans.
Eight Cowboys won the individual NCAA Championship when it used to mean something, nine were named player of the year, and 45 won conference championships. And all this occurred under the watchful eye of just three coaches. Forget about college golf; there is really nothing comparable in sport, period.
So last year’s disappointment came as quite a shock to Oklahoma State fans and those who follow the college game. Things were so bad that, for awhile, it didn’t even look like the Cowboys would qualify for postseason play. In college golf, a team has to have an overall winning record to advance to the postseason. The Cowboys had to rally at season’s end to simply make it to the regionals.
So what went wrong in 2012?
Oklahoma State had a deep and talented squad in 2010-2011, with three All-Americans. But Kevin Tway graduated, Morgan Hoffman turned pro after his junior year and, all of a sudden, the team was young and thin. When Peter Uihlein surprisingly turned pro in the middle of his final season, the team was left with no leadership.
The problem is a recruiting issue. But only part of it is OSU’s problem.
Uihlein was the last really big-time junior to commit to play in Stillwater, and that was in 2008. Since then, just two first-team Rolex Junior All-Americans have chosen to enroll at OSU. More recently, U.S. Open darling Beau Hossler committed to Texas, New York’s Gavin Hall elected to fly over Stillwater on the way to Los Angeles to play for UCLA, and former U.S. Junior champion James Liu committed to Stanford.
OSU seems to be slipping due to academic concerns. Led by Athletic Director Mike Holder and fueled by the largess provided by business magnate T. Boone Pickens, OSU has become an athletic powerhouse in a number of sports, not the least of which is football. Academically, however, it lags behind its competitive set, ranking No. 132 in the nation by one measure. When Cowboy-caliber talent enrolls at Stanford, UCLA, or the University of Southern California, it’s a sure sign that academics have joined tradition and facilities as a consideration for some elite juniors and their parents.
The other part is the changing recruiting landscape. There are more skilled kids coming up through the American Junior Golf Association than ever before. They can’t all go to one school, which means there are more programs that can compete at the highest levels. Parity has come to college golf. Obscure schools like Tennessee-Chattanooga and Augusta State can now attract skilled players and tee it up against Oklahoma State, as can bigger schools lacking a long golf tradition, like Illinois, Washington, and Oregon.
All eyes will be on Coach Mike McGraw as he tries to right the OSU ship in the 2012-13 campaign. He arrived in Stillwater in 1997 after a successful run heading the golf program at Edmond (Okla.) North High School. He was the Cowboys’ assistant coach for seven years, and then took a stint as women’s head coach.
He became just the third men’s head coach in the 65-year history of the program when Holder became the university’s athletic director after a legendary 32-year run as head coach. McGraw promptly won the national championship in his inaugural season, in 2006, and was named national coach of the year. Were it not for rub of the green and a convoluted NCAA team championship format, he might have two more national titles as well.
The 2012 Cowboys do not have a player on the team with a college win, so it’s hardly a surprise that they are not ranked in the preseason top 25. For the team to return to the NCAA Championship this year, Talor Gooch will have to step up. The highest ranked Cowboy in the world at No. 53, Gooch, a junior, won the Oklahoma Stroke Play title this summer by a whopping 12 shots. The Cowboys will need that kind of production from him on a regular basis if they are to overcome last year’s shortcoming. They also need to get consistent production out of the two junior All-Americans who did head to Stillwater – sophomores Patrick Winther and Tanner Kesterson. Beyond that, it’s unclear who will claim a spot on the traveling squad.
Longer term, it’s hard to see how OSU doesn’t rebound. The tradition is too strong, the facilities are too good, and McGraw is too good a coach to allow the program to be down for too long. Look for them to be back in the national mix soon.