It’s a conversation piece that always comes up. The only questions are how quickly, and by whom.
When college golf coaches at Northeast schools engage in serious discussions with recruits from somewhere warmer, the dialogue might dance around the issue at first, but eventually will hit it head-on: How bad are the winters, and how will the weather impact one’s golf development?
Or, put another way: What would prompt a golfer from a warm-weather climate to select a college in a part of the country that is considerably less playable for a portion of the year?
“Sometimes I still ask myself that question,” said Tiffany Lim, a sophomore from San Jose, Calif. “But it is Harvard, and at the end of the day it’s still college golf, and college comes first.”
Lim isn’t the only one. All four of her Crimson teammates are from places where golf can be played year-round: three are also from California, the fourth from Texas. Choosing Harvard — and the area’s predictably cold winter weather — wasn’t easy from a golf standpoint. But as anyone playing college golf in the Northeast will say, sacrifices up this way have to be made. When you play an outdoor sport, sometimes the outdoors make it tough to play.
It also makes it challenging for area coaches to attract top-level talent and compete against the best teams in the country. Much like college hockey, where you would expect the top teams to be from cold-weather areas, college golf brings a similar assumption. To find the best teams, go where it’s warm.
In the latest coaches’ poll, only two men’s teams from areas considered cold in the winter are ranked among the top 25: Illinois and Kent State. In the women’s poll, 14th-ranked Purdue is the only one.
It doesn’t end with in-season rankings. Not surprisingly, the NCAA championships have been dominated by warm-weather schools. Purdue is the only women’s team from somewhere cold to ever win a team title; since 1980, Minnesota (2002) is the lone men’s winner from a cold-winter climate, although Oklahoma State (seven titles since then) could argue that winters in Stillwater aren’t tropical.
Area coaches won’t use the winter weather as a crutch. Well, not specifically.
“I’ll stop short of saying it’s not possible, but it is challenging,” said Kevin Rhoads, who shares coaching duties at Harvard with the program’s director of golf, Fred Schernecker. “Unless we were going to try to do things really aggressively to seek out more warm weather and be able to travel a little bit more, there is some reality to that idea, that it’s hard to be [ranked] a lot higher.”
Harvard actually has had some success, qualifying for three NCAA regionals in women’s golf. A fourth trip could be reserved this week if the Crimson win the Ivy League championship, which starts Friday in Bedminster, N.J.
As an Ivy League member, Harvard competes with other schools in this area and climate. That’s at least somewhat of a level playing field. As a member of the Atlantic Coast Conference, Boston College isn’t as fortunate, going up against schools from Georgia, the Carolinas, and Florida, and teams that can play and practice year-round. The women’s team at BC finished ninth at the ACC championships last week; the men aren’t expected to do much better this week.
“There are definitely some challenges. Obviously, we have to be upfront and truthful in saying that we’re not going to have the resources others have,” said Drew Kayser, who is in his first season as head coach of the Eagles’ teams, after four years as an assistant. “But BC, as far as recruiting, can sell itself a little bit: the city of Boston, Boston College and its campus, the athletics, being in the ACC. They’re big selling points for a lot of players.
“One of the other things we can sell to the top [high school] players is they’re going to be able to play immediately as a freshman, to make an impact straight away, play in every tournament. If they go to a top-20 program, they may play in only 20 percent of those tournaments.”
College coaches in the Northeast say that the weather only affects a small portion of the calendar. The college golf season is split in two: fall schedule, spring schedule. The fall isn’t impacted, but it’s the run-up time to the spring tournaments that leave schools in this region at a distinct disadvantage. While other schools are playing and practicing outside, the ones in this region have no such option.
So, they improvise. Harvard has a 2,500-square-foot indoor facility its golf teams use, complete with four hitting stations and a putting and chipping green. BC uses the bubble above the football stadium during the winter, and also practices at Bosse Sports in Sudbury.
The forced break from playing outside can take some time getting used to, especially for those who have never been forced to put the clubs away.
“When I was in high school, I basically practiced every single day, because that’s what everyone did in California,” said Bonnie Hu, a junior at Harvard from Fremont, Calif. “It was going to be different coming to college and not being able to practice every day.”
Harvard is proof that a Northeast school can have some success in college golf. So too Bentley, at the men’s Division 2 level. Coach Mickey Herron has guided the Falcons to two straight tournament wins this month, and they expect to be invited to the NCAA regionals for the third straight year. Bentley is also unique in that it offers no golf scholarship money, making its success even more impressive.
“We’ve gone the last two years to the regionals, finished in the bottom half both times. Every other team there has scholarships, 19 of 20, so we wear that as sort of a badge of honor,” Herron said. “We’ve won five tournaments the last two years, which is surprising and pleasing.”
The NCAA regionals are scheduled for early May, followed by the national competition for the teams and individuals that qualify later in the month. It’s not unheard of for the Northeast to be represented on the national stage — former Dartmouth star Peter Williamson, for instance — but it’s getting more difficult. For Harvard and BC. And for Herron and his Bentley team. The NCAA Division 2 golf committee this season reduced the number of automatic team qualifiers advancing out of the East Regional, from five to three.
“It speaks volumes how they feel about college golf in the Northeast,” Herron said. “There’s definitely a ceiling [on how good Northeast teams can be]. We have a ceiling, too.”