Team vans are an unmistakable symbol of college golf. At any event – be it an NCAA Championship on national television or a Division III tournament in the middle of nowhere – vans line the parking lot.
To the players and coaches who have spent time in them, those vans are a lot more than transport vehicles shuttling them between campus, hotels and the course. It’s a sacred bonding space. Jokes are told, card games are played, meals are sometimes consumed and unofficial coach-player therapy sessions are held.
When their eligibility is over and they look back on their college career, players remember being in the van because they remember the friendships cemented there. With each passing year, they are reminded that the 81 they shot in the final round of that one tournament didn’t really matter. What endures is the relationships.
Although USW’s golf program was not nationally known, former college golfers and others in the game expressed a certain kinship to the fallen.
That’s a major reason why the golf world has collectively shuddered after hearing the devastating news that came to light earlier this week. The University of the Southwest men’s and women’s golf teams, which compete at the NAIA level, played 36 holes on Tuesday at the TankLogix Invitational in Midland, Texas, which is about 100 miles from USW’s campus in Hobbs, New Mexico. As is often the case in lower levels of college golf, the team was returning home after the first day of competition with the intention of driving back to Ranchland Hills Golf Club on Wednesday for the final 18 holes. Many schools of that echelon are granted only one “overnight tournament” during which the team is allowed to stay in a hotel, so such an arrangement is common.
Traveling in Andrews County, about 30 miles east of the New Mexico-Texas border, a Dodge pickup truck crossed the dividing line of the darkened, two-lane asphalt highway, according to Sgt. Steven Blanco of the Texas Department of Public Safety. A head-on collision ensued between the pickup and the USW team van, a 17-passenger Ford Transit van towing a box trailer.
Nine people were killed, six of them Mustangs golfers.
USW coach Tyler James, a 26-year-old who led both the men’s and women’s teams, was the first to be identified as deceased, followed by USW players Mauricio Sanchez, 19, of Mexico; Travis Garcia, 19, of Pleasanton, Texas; Jackson Zinn, 22, of Westminster, Colorado; Karisa Raines, 21, of Fort Stockton, Texas; Laci Stone, 18, of Nocona, Texas; and Tiago Sousa, 18, of Portugal. An unidentified 13-year-old who was driving the pickup, according to a National Transportation Safety Board official, and 38-year-old Henrich Siemans also were among the fatalities announced. In Texas, the minimum age to obtain a learner’s permit is 15. It’s unclear why the pickup truck went into the opposite lane, and authorities said an investigation has begun.
Two Canadian students, Dayton Price and Hayden Underhill, were critically injured and airlifted to the University Medical Center in Lubbock, Texas. One team member, Jasmin Collum, had been scheduled to compete but decided at the last minute to visit her parents in Houston.
Immediately after the news spread, the golf community took notice. The situation and subsequent reaction felt remarkably similar to the Humboldt Broncos bus crash that took the lives of 16 junior hockey players from Saskatchewan, Canada, in 2018. Although USW’s golf program was not nationally known, former college golfers and others in the game expressed a certain kinship to the fallen.
A GoFundMe account was created for the families of the victims and had reached more than $51,000. Wednesday’s final round was canceled and a memorial of flowers, golf balls and handmade cards was erected at the course. Sam “Riggs” Bozoian, the man behind the Let Them Play Classic that took place a year ago, created a “Go Stangs Go” T-shirt to raise money for the victims’ families. Nick Faldo, Max Homa and other prominent golf figures posted condolences on social media, the words “sick to my stomach” being a popular phrase for those who spent ample time in their team van during college.
Nothing added to that feeling of dread more than Chelsi Stone, the mother of victim Laci Stone.
“She has been an absolute ray of sunshine during this short time on earth,” Stone wrote in a Facebook post on Wednesday. “… We will never be the same after this and we just don’t understand how this happened to our amazing, beautiful, smart, joyful girl.”
Grief is often accompanied with anger and problem-solving. We saw that as well this week. One coach expressed to Global Golf Post that “driving the van is a stressful part of the job” and that it’s unfortunate smaller schools have to rely so heavily on a single coach to drive hours at a time to get players to and from venues.
“Change needs to come and come quickly,” tweeted Tennessee Golf Foundation president Whit Turnbow, the former men’s coach at Middle Tennessee State. “No coach should be driving home after a long day of competition like this. Unfortunately, most programs are so poorly funded the coach has no choice.”
There will be a time for solutions. Athletic directors will feel pressure to provide hotels for their teams and realistic options to avoid unnecessary late-night driving. There could be more hired drivers who are well-trained in handling larger vehicles. Maybe change can come from this incident.
But at the end of the day, it’s a horrible tragedy that could have happened to anyone. For now, all of the focus should be on the victims and those in critical condition.
Current college players will never think about their team van the same way ever again. Former college players will think about the memories they made there. Even the members of your Tuesday men’s league will be affected.
A moment like this makes rival golf leagues, distance regulation and any other hot topic seem so insignificant. Golf isn’t about those things, and it never will be. It’s about camaraderie and friendship, the elements that likely were taking place moments before the USW players and coach lost their lives.
We deeply mourn their passing. To honor them, let’s all remember why we play in the first place.
© 2022 Global Golf Post LLC
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