ATHENS, GEORGIA | Georgia Bulldogs are the PGA Tour’s equivalent of the Roy Kent chant from Ted Lasso – they’re here, they’re there, they’re every … where.
Last week in the Wyndham Championship, Russell Henley (UGA Class of 2011) dominated for three rounds before Kevin Kisner (2006) closed the deal in a six-man playoff. The week before, Harris English (2011) aimed for his third win of the year before a four-shot lead slipped away at the WGC-FedEx St. Jude. The week before that, Austrian-born Sepp Straka (2016) was the first-round leader at the Tokyo Olympics and missed the bronze medal playoff by one stroke. The week before, Keith Mitchell (2014) charged into contention before settling for solo fifth at the 3M Open. The week before, Brian Harman (2009) was the early first-round co-leader at the British Open en route to his third top-20 finish in a major this year.
You get the picture. Former Georgia golfers have been ubiquitous on the PGA Tour all season, from Hudson Swafford (2011) winning in the Dominican Republic in September, to English kicking off 2021 with a win in Kapalua, to Chris Kirk (2007) snagging the runner-up finish he had to have at Waialae to retain his tour card after a medical leave to deal with alcohol issues, all the way up to Kisner’s playoff win to cap the regular season.
“The cool part is it’s different guys. … They’re like their own fraternity of guys out there.” – Chris Haack
The tour’s FedEx Cup playoffs got started with the Northern Trust at Liberty National with a record 10 Bulldogs qualified among the top 125 – including Bubba Watson (2001, but finished his UGA degree in 2008) for the 15th consecutive season. It’s a pretty satisfying collective performance for the two men who coached every one of them over the last 25 years at Georgia – head coach Chris Haack and his long-time assistant Jim Douglas. Rarely does a week go by that they don’t enjoy some rooting interest in the hunt at PGA Tour events from a group that has collected four wins, 43 top-10s and $24 million on tour this season alone.
“The cool part is it’s different guys,” said Haack. “Whether all of a sudden Harman is playing good that week, then it’s Henley, then it’s Harris for a couple weeks, then it’s Bubba and back to Harris, and all of a sudden Kisner pops back in there, and Sepp at the Olympics is playing great and Hudson jumps up and wins a tournament …
“The thing I really enjoy out of the whole deal is how close they really are. They’re like their own fraternity of guys out there. We try to tell guys here now it’s a pretty special fraternity that they’re a member of and so they all embrace the new guys coming out.”
That closeness is real and one of the things that is key to their collective success. Many of their collegiate careers overlapped in Athens and it has formed a continuous chain of brotherhood among them. Many of the pictures that adorn the golf team’s clubhouse at UGA Golf Course are of many of them collected for weddings, fishing trips or hunting. While they all have growing families, they still often share houses together on the road – as many as seven of them at a time this year when most families stayed home during the pandemic. All seven Bulldogs who competed in the Open this year at Royal St. Georges had dinner together every night as they were restricted to the same quarantined restaurants.
“They sent us a picture of seven of them staying together and they’ll send us texts saying we’re sitting around together telling stories about the guys and laughing our asses off,” Haack said. “It can be a lonely existence out there on tour and to be able to have that many guys to kind of lean on and room with and go to dinner with … it helps a lot.”
As close as most of them are, their successes that have reached this point on tour could not be more different. Some of them have recovered from slumps or personal crises that nearly drove them from the game. Some thrive off their natural God-given skills. Others, like Kisner and Harman, fight relentlessly to squeeze every ounce out of the skillset they’ve cultivated.
“Each of them all have their different talents,” said Douglas. “Golf is a game there’s so many ways to skin a cat and those guys all skin it differently.”
Haack is keenly aware of what makes each of them tick. He are his thoughts – and a few from Douglas – on each of them (in order of place in the points standings):
English (who should be a shoo-in for one of U.S. Ryder Cup captain Steve Stricker’s six picks): “Typical of a lot of guys, he tinkered with his golf swing and now he’s kind of come back to what he did well. What he did really well was a nice big cut and put it in play a bunch and get your putter going. He hits it plenty far and plenty good and sometimes these guys are chasing perfection. He got back to the basics and he looks like the Harris of old and it’s paying off for him.”
Kisner (who Haack and Douglas say Stricker would be “crazy” to keep off the team at Whistling Straits): “I was texting Kiz last night about (the Ryder Cup). I get tired of them picking the same ol’ guys. Let’s get some new blood in there and not go with these same guys who keep losing. Let’s go with some guys who bring some energy and that’s one of the things a lot of players like about Kiz. He’d be a great partner for any of them. The guy’s got ice water in his veins. He’s not afraid, especially with a putter in his hand. He’s pretty good under pressure and has proven that in match play.
“He’s got a lot of grit. You can’t teach that. That’s why I’d think he’d be a perfect Ryder Cup guy. If you ask (UGA’s) guys if they have a 10-footer that has to be made to win the NCAA, Kisner would be, ‘Give me the ball.’ Another guy would say, ‘Let Kiz putt it.’ “
Harman (who finished third in the Players Championship and 12th in the Masters): “Having kids probably changed his perspective on things a little bit. He doesn’t seem to get all wound up. He used to be a pretty intense player. He uses the little talent that he has to hit it pretty straight and hit it pretty solid and get himself in the hunt there at these bigger events. For a guy his size that swing around body is a natural draw for him. He controlled it beautifully. He was never a bomber. He just had to learn to play his game, his style, and now he’s become a big money machine.”
Henley (who shared the 54-hole lead in the U.S. Open and missed the playoff by a shot in Greensboro, North Carolina): “Russell is a great natural athlete. From what I watched (last Sunday), it looked like he was getting a little fast. I wished I’d been caddying for him because I would have made him slow down. He was getting fidgety and looked like he was getting anxious. He was always a good closer. I wish I could have gotten in his ear. His golf game has never changed but he could get four or five thoughts in his head. He would ask what’s wrong and nothing was. But I would tell him something little and it was basically a placebo to get him focused on something other than the five things he was thinking about. Then that’s all he thought about and he’d make the same swing.
“I saw it at Torrey Pines, too, when I was watching him. I really need to talk to his caddie and say this is how you need to handle him. Focus on one thing and slow down. He’s got ADD pretty bad. His mind can wander all over the place.”
Kirk (four-time tour winner who won an NCAA title at Georgia on the same team with Kisner): “Kirk has said he’s never had more fun on tour because he travels with Sepp and B-Todd,” said Douglas. “They all get a house together. Sometimes Keith Mitchell will be in there, too. Chris says it’s made traveling fun for him again because he literally hated leaving his family. To have a little bit of home life has revamped his mindset.”
Swafford (whose Corales Puntacana Championship victory was his second on tour): “Big Hud’s just a big ol’ fun-loving dude. God, he hits it so good. Everybody thinks Harris and Hud were swapped at birth. They both kinda look alike – same size, both hit big cuts. And they’re best friends since high school and played a lot of junior stuff against each other.
“He’s unbelievably talented and I’m waiting for him to have one of those kind of years like Harris. … One thing I wish Hud had was that killer instinct (like Kisner). He’s just so good.”
Watson (two-time Masters champ and one of only six players to qualify for all 15 FedEx Cup playoffs): “All the stuff he was talking about with the mental issues, he does seem to be much better and more at peace with himself. Having kids has probably changed him a lot.
“He’s played some great events this year but his putting let him down. … As a golfer, it’s amazing to watch what Bubba can do with a golf ball. The way he can move it 40 yards across the fairway. … He always liked to see the ball curve. His only shot here was a hook. When he finally learned how to hit a fade is when he made a lot of money.”
Brendon Todd (who nearly won three consecutive events at the end of 2019): “Brendon arguably was one of the best putters we’ve had. Great short game. His nickname around here was ‘Greased T’ because he was so greasy around the greens, he could get anything up and down. So for him it was always about hitting fairways and greens and let your putter get hot. He started chasing distance and trying to hit it higher thinking that’s what he needed to do to contend in majors and it wasn’t who he was anymore. He ended up reinventing himself again and got back to his strengths.”
Straka (whose twin brother, Sam, also played at UGA and caddied for him in the Olympics): “Sepp was gonna quit playing. I literally had to talk him into coming back and staying for his fifth redshirt year available to him. He had decided to quit playing and try to get a job. He always had the physical tools but never had the belief in himself. He didn’t trust his swing and wouldn’t commit to it.”
Haack actually followed Straka – who was born in Austria but grew up in Valdosta, Georgia – around one tournament and would punch him in the arm every time he didn’t commit to his swing. “I said, ‘Your game is so good but you’ve got to believe in yourself more.’ He ended up coming back and had an all-American year playing. He just started believing in himself. That’s the thing he leans on now. Love watching him swing. It’s such a simple move.”
Said Douglas of the stoic Sepp versus his more flamboyant brother: “Sepp is from Vienna and Sam is from VY-enna. He’s just an Austrian redneck.”
Mitchell (who won the 2019 Honda Classic and ranks top 10 in strokes gained off tee): “He hits it so good. Hits it hard. Hits it long. Hits it solid. All these guys talk about how good he hits it. He’s almost one of those guys who needs to have his back up against the wall to get serious and focused and play good.
“Of all those guys, he’s much more social and likes to have a good time with his buddies.”
However far they get in these playoffs, Haack’s Georgia boys will remain PGA Tour fixtures for the foreseeable future. And maybe next season they can try to break their own record and put 11 players in the playoffs. Greyson Sigg (Class of 2017) finished sixth on the Korn Ferry Tour season points list to earn one of the 25 PGA Tour cards for 2021-22. Joey Garber (2014) and former world No. 1 amateur Davis Thompson (2021) aren’t far behind on the Korn Ferry Tour.
Haack sent a group text to all of his boys on tour last week about Sigg: “You got a new guy coming out – look after him.”
“And they will,” Haack said with absolute confidence.
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