clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

How Maryland golf is building its national profile

The Terps are trying to make a name for themselves in the unique college golf landscape.

The University of Maryland's golf course, for all intents and purposes, is on campus. It’s barely a full driver away from Maryland Stadium, and it’s easily within walking distance for students in the dorms. The clubhouse grill and pub, Mulligan’s, accepts payment with student IDs.

But Maryland’s golf program, which has made this course its stomping ground, is as removed from the collective consciousness of the campus as possible. This is partly because no collegiate tournaments are actually held in College Park, and partly because golf simply isn’t a spectator-friendly sport.

"I’ve heard it even when I was a student-athlete here: ‘I didn’t even know we had a golf team, I thought it was just a club team,’" said Jason Rodenhaver, who played golf at Maryland from 1990-94 and has been the men’s head coach since 2011.

It’s a real team, Jack. I sat down with Rodenhaver recently, and we talked about his team and the college game. It’s an interesting little world, so here’s a look at what it’s all about.

The college golf season spans both semesters

This year, Maryland played five tournaments in the fall (between mid-September and early November) and six in the spring (from mid-February to late April). Tournaments generally consist of somewhere between one and two dozen teams, often from all over the place. Each team sends five players to play two or three rounds, and the low four scores count each round. Every tournament ends with a team and individual winner.

The Terps travel all over the country (and even to Puerto Rico) for tournaments, but do host the Terrapin Invitational in October at Woodmont Country Club in Bethesda. The spring season ends with the Big Ten tournament, which is the only time the whole conference gets together (although Maryland might see a couple of conference foes in a given tournament).

Since wins and losses don’t mean what they do in other sports, rankings are tricky. There are formulas used by GolfStat (which tracks the various events) to rank teams based on who they’ve beaten head-to-head, and there is also a top-25 poll of coaches, just like every other sport. A selection committee sends teams to regional tournaments (along with deserving individuals not on those teams) and the top performers at these events go to the NCAA Championships, which were held this week.

This was the second year the men’s and women’s finals were televised on Golf Channel. It’s a six-day event: four rounds of stroke play followed by an 8-team match play tournament. The Oregon Ducks won the match-play championship at their home course, Eugene Country Club, and Oregon sophomore Aaron Wise won the individual title.

Maryland has a young, up-and-coming team

The Terps haven’t reached the NCAA Tournament as a team since 2007, although individuals have competed in the regional rounds. But this year, the team picked up its first win since 2010 and its highest conference tournament finish in over 30 years.

Maryland won the Firestone Invitational at Firestone Country Club in October, holding off host Akron by two strokes. (Firestone’s South course hosts the PGA TOUR’s WGC-Bridgestone Invitational, one of the more prestigious events of the year, but this tournament was on the also-very-good North course.) Sophomore David Kocher picked up his first collegiate victory in the same event, posting 9-under and winning by one stroke.

Aside from that double victory, however, the Terps had an inconsistent season. Senior Tom Harris tied for first in the 36-hole April event at Ohio State’s course, but Maryland had some poor team performances in the spring, including a 13th-place finish in a 15-team tournament at Bulls Bay in Avondale, S.C.

Maryland started strong at the Big Ten Championship, though. A 6-under first round at Victoria National in Newburgh, Ind. left the Terps three back of powerhouse Illinois. Iowa took a seven-shot lead after the second round, with Maryland sitting second. But Illinois went ballistic to the tune of 24-under in the final round, leaving everyone in the dust. The Terps finished solo third at plus-2, one shot ahead of Michigan and Michigan State.

The team didn’t receive a bid to the NCAA Tournament, which is Rodenhaver’s goal every season. However, Kocher and Harris competed in the Tuscaloosa Regional as individuals, and Kocher had a chance at receiving an individual bid to the Finals. He entered the third round three shots behind College of Charleston’s Will Rainey, but the two went in opposite directions on the last day (Kocher shot 76, while his childhood friend and fellow Charlotte native shot 68).

Kocher and Harris were Maryland’s dynamic duo all season long. Kocher racked up seven top-10 finishes in Maryland’s 11 tournaments, while Harris was in the top 20 five times. Both reached their second straight NCAA Tournament and were named to the 25-man PING All-Region Team for the Northeast. Kocher was also a First Team All-Big Ten selection. Harris was a key contributor for the Terps his whole career, and Kocher has made a name for himself in two years thus far.

[For more on Kocher, check out his stupendous Diamondback profile here]

Harris was the only senior on this year’s eight-man squad. The Terps also had one junior (Victor Fox), two sophomores (Kocher and Joe Brooks) and four freshmen (Tim Colanta, Riley Erhardt, Justin Feldman and Chris Navarro). Every player saw tournament action during the season, and in the conference tournament, it was Colanta, Brooks and Fox rounding out the Terrapin lineup.

The 2016 class, meanwhile, will bring two Maryland kids to College Park: Woodberry Forest’s Peter Knade and Marriotts Ridge’s Bennett Buch. Knade is a very highly-touted recruit that Rodenhaver says will be in the lineup right away, and Buch first committed to Elon before ultimately flipping last year. The Terps have long prioritized in-state prospects in recruiting, and this class is just a continuation of that trend.

"We want to start from the inside out," Rodenhaver said. "We want local kids, we want Maryland kids, we want to keep the kids home. I’ve always concentrated on the Northeast; Victor is from New York. We were fortunate to get David Kocher out of North Carolina; sometimes that’s hard to do, it’s hard to bring the kids from the South up."

Of course, there are always a few wild card commitments. Harris and Brooks are from England, which is, well, across an ocean. Maryland regularly scouts the British Boys’ Junior Amateur, among other international events, and the global focus has certainly helped.

Like many sports, the golf recruiting scene has seen a spike in early commitments; players are choosing schools as early as their sophomore years. The Terps are committed through 2017, and they're optimistic about the near future.

"We’re confident we’re gonna be pretty good here for a long time," Rodenhaver said. "We’ve just got to get in that tournament."

College golf occupies a quirky place in the sport

The team dynamic isn’t one that players will see after they graduate; at that point, it’s every man for himself except for the Ryder Cup and President’s Cup, which most college golfers will never sniff.

Even within the team, every golfer approaches the game differently. They’ve all had their own swing coaches since high school or earlier, so the college coaches are not instructors like those in other sports.

"We’ll tell kids when they come to school here, they’re not coming here to get golf lessons," Rodenhaver said.

Instead, Rodenhaver and assistant coach Steve Delmar guide the players mostly with course management. The team usually plays the course Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays, while Tuesday and Thursday morning practices (which often start at 7 a.m.) are heavy on shots around the green. Maryland has a spacious short-game facility that’s visible from the fourth tee and fifth fairway. The Terps also use the driving range to work on full swings, but that’s more about reinforcing a player’s mechanics than changing anything.

"I’m an old kinesiology major here," Rodenhaver said. "And to change your golf swing in the school year, you can’t do it. You need 21 days of 80 reps to change a habit, and we don’t have 21 days."

Tournaments are generally a week and a half to two weeks apart, and differ from pro tournaments in a few key ways. Caddies are nonexistent, so players must carry their own bags but are allowed to use laser range finders. There are no leaderboards planted on the course; rather, coaches keep track of the live scores on cell phones and relay that info to the players.

A good number of the world’s top amateurs (including the top nine in the current World Rankings) play on the college circuit. Most play out their full eligibility, but the very best (like Jordan Spieth, Justin Thomas, and Wise, to name a few) often turn pro after a year or two. Some guys receive invites to PGA tournaments; Georgia’s Lee McCoy finished fourth at this year’s Valspar Championship, and Oklahoma State’s Jordan Niebrugge tied for sixth at last year’s British Open at St. Andrews.

But professional golf is a cutthroat business. For every player making seven figures every year and appearing in equipment commercials, there are dozens grinding in smaller tournaments.

"They used to have the Tour here in 2010 and ’11, and I’m out here watching guys who played in the Ryder Cup playing on the mini-tours," Rodenhaver said. "If you don’t work at it or you get hurt, it’s a tough business. It’s not all the things you see with Phil Mickelson and Tiger, private jets and all that stuff. There’s a lot of guys driving with three other guys in a car, sleeping in parking lots trying to make a living."

No Maryland Terrapin has reached the PGA TOUR since Fred Funk, a nine-time winner who graduated from the school in 1980. Of course, several Terps have played professionally in the past 35 years, and others have put on for the program in other ways. Just last month, Kocher and 2015 graduates Connor Tendall and Ben Warnquist participated in U.S. Amateur Four-Ball qualifying, which was held at Winged Foot and televised on FS1.

"That was a great day for us," Rodenhaver said. "[The players were] carrying their Maryland bags, wearing their Maryland stuff, and talking about the Maryland golf team on national TV. So that gave us some exposure."

But nothing is bigger for a college golf program than for someone to make it to the big leagues. Tournament broadcasts often show leaderboards with the players’ alma maters next to their names, and to have the Maryland logo on TV in that context would be huge. Kocher or Harris or Colanta or Knade might get there one day, but that path is filled with so many obstacles that even one doing so would be a remarkable feat.

In this moment, however, they’re all Maryland Terrapins. They’re all student-athletes who have to take on everything that comes with that designation. And although college golfers aren’t celebrated like those in other sports, they at least ought to be acknowledged.