2001: College - Competitive Cowboy
By RON BALICKI
His teams have won more than 160 tournaments, including eight NCAA championships and 24 conference titles. They also have finished second 89 times, nine of which have been at the national tournament.
He has produced 100 All-American selections, including 35 first-team choices, and a pair of Ben Hogan Award winners, which is based on athletic and academic excellence.
Not bad for a guy who really never planned on being a college golf coach and took the position primarily to work on his own game, which, at the time, he felt could carry him to a career on the PGA Tour.
Now, 29 years later, Mike Holder reigns supreme at Oklahoma State, where he not only is the most successful of all active men’s Division I coaches, but one of the most respected as well.
“Originally, my intent was to coach one or two years and work on my game,” said Holder, 53, who took over the Cowboy coaching job from the school’s only other golf coach, Labron Harris, at the start of the 1973-74 season. “I never saw myself as a college golf coach. It actually took a number of years before I could even watch (the team play). I’d take the team to a tournament, drop them off, and go hit balls.”
Back in those days, Holder, who was a third-team All-American twice and honorable mention once during his playing days (1968-70) at Oklahoma State, spent more time on the practice range than his players.
Tom Jones, who was a freshman on that inaugural Holder-coached Cowboy team, remembers those early days.
“That first year he really wasn’t much of a coach,” said Jones, head professional at Karsten Creek Golf Club in Stillwater, Okla., where Holder is director of golf. “He still wanted to be a player. He had played a few years on the mini-tours and this (coaching) was more like a brief stopping-off point. He wore out the numbers on the bottom of his clubs hitting so many balls.”
Then, in his third season at the helm, Holder coached the Cowboys to the NCAA title, beating BYU by seven shots at the University of New Mexico course in Albuquerque.
And the rest, as they say, is history. Holder went on to win national titles in 1978, ’80, ’83, ’87, ’91, ’95 and 2000. Along the way he has produced such players as individual NCAA winners Scott Verplank, Brian Watts, E.J. Pfister, David Edwards and Charles Howell III; Ben Hogan Award winners Kevin Wentworth and Trip Kuehne; and the likes of Michael Bradley, Bob May, Bob Tway, Willie Wood, Danny Edwards, Tommy Moore and Lindy Miller.
In the process he has helped mold college golf into what it is today, following and expanding on the foundation laid by the late Dave Williams, who coached Houston to 16 NCAA titles and is considered the father of college golf.
“In my opinion there have been two dominant people in college golf, and that’s Dave Williams and Mike Holder,” said Gregg Grost, former coach at Lamar and Oklahoma who serves as executive director of the Golf Coaches Association of America. “Their records speak for themselves. Those two guys are college golf.”
UNLV coach Dwaine Knight agrees.
“Dave Williams was the master of promotion, but he did it in a flamboyant way. Mike’s done it in a more quiet way. They took two different approaches, but both successful.
“Mike’s been an innovator, especially in recruiting,” Knight said. “He changed the way you recruit by his getting out and going to tournaments wherever they might be to watch players. He was the first to really do that, and now it’s something all the coaches do. The days of sitting at home and just getting on the telephone are over.”
In a nutshell, Holder was, is, and always will be fiercely competitive.
“Even in high school he was very dedicated to golf and very emotional as far as golf was concerned,” said Gary Jackson, who was a classmate of Holder’s at Oklahoma State and in high school in Ardmore, Okla., where Jackson and his wife, Jeannine, own the Fireside Restaurant. “Golf was his life, morning, noon and night. He was always very competitive and still is. He always wanted to be No. 1 in whatever he did, and I think he instills that in his players. He’s focused on what he has to do and is very dedicated.”
Once he finally came to the realization that he wasn’t returning to competitive golf as a player, he transferred his focus, dedication and desire to coaching.
Over the years stories have circulated about how Holder ran his program like a boot camp or how he dictated players’ every move. It seemed the more successful he became, the more widespread the stories grew, like qualifying in the worst possible conditions or going through overly strenuous workouts in the gym.
When asked about this, Holder just shakes his head and smiles, neither confirming nor denying.
“I think young men crave discipline,” he said. “I think you should set high standards for them to try to achieve. Am I too strict? I never thought so. I like to think that, as a coach, I can show them they can do things they didn’t think they could do. Sometimes it comes across as being a personal thing, but that is not the case. I just want every one of them to be the best they can be.”
For the most part, you won’t hear his former players complaining about their time in Holder’s program.
“I enjoyed it. And looking back now, I appreciate more (of) the things coach Holder did,” said Wentworth. “Yes, his program is very structured. But he does so many things to not only help you with your golf but to be a good student as well. He gives you a lot of opportunities to succeed.”
Howell, who won the 2000 NCAA title and turned pro before his senior season, said he and Holder didn’t always see eye to eye, but he always felt they had a mutual respect.
“Sometimes it was extremely easy to play for him, and sometimes it was extremely hard,” Howell said. “There were times, especially in the post-season, when he really got intense. You just had to understand him. He was more strict when you got in trouble. But if you followed his rules, practice hard, study hard, go to classes, there was no problem. The thing I liked most about coach Holder was that he always was open to opinion, more than I thought he would be. He may not always agree, but he would listen to what you had to say.
“I think with coach, once you get past the fear factor of him, he’s fine,” Howell said.
For many years, and even to some extent today, it was that fear factor that turned people sour on Holder. At times, members of the media were scared to approach him – even after he won.
“I think he’s very misunderstood,” said Jones. “He’s one of the straightest shooting guys around. The thing is, if you ask a question, be prepared for an answer whether you like the answer or not. He’ll even surprise you from time to time with his sense of humor. I think the more you get to know him, the more comfortable you feel around him.”
In looking over the last 28 years, Holder says he has seen a lot of changes in college golf and in himself. .
“Your life’s work is what it is. There are a lot of things I’m pleased with and a lot of things I’m not so proud of. Winning a lot of tournaments is great, but to me that’s just a by-product of what you’re trying to do – to make a difference in a young man’s life. Don’t get me wrong, I still want to win. But there are a lot of other things that are equally important to me, and school is one of those.”
Speculation has arisen that he will retire after the 2003 NCAA Championship, which will be hosted by Oklahoma State at its home course Karsten Creek, a facility that has been Holder’s baby since before its birth.
“Personally, I don’t think he’ll retire anytime soon because he still enjoys it and still loves working with young people,” said Jackson, who was Holder’s best man.
And, Holder isn’t getting the rocking chair and TV remote ready just yet.
“The day I feel we can’t consistently have a team that can compete for national championships is the day we (Oklahoma State) need to find someone else,” Holder said. “As long as I can continue to recruit quality players and mold them as a team, I’ll keep coaching.”
That day may be long into the future. Holder still gets out and tangles with the best of them in the recruiting wars. He spent most of this summer – like all summers – traveling, and he even made a trip to Great Britain to check out the talent at the British Boys’ Championship.
This, plus his fund-raising activities for his program and his involvement in Karsten Creek keeps him moving in overdrive.
But coaching his Cowboys still comes first. And being first has always been the standard Holder has set for his teams.