2005: A fine Haack job
July 18, 1996, was one of the most nerve-racking days of Chris Haack’s life. It was on that hot summer afternoon that Haack was officially named the third coach in the history of the Georgia men’s program, a position he once told longtime friend Jack Larkin was his dream job.
Haack, however, never believed he’d get a crack at coaching the Bulldogs, which is a big reason why he boldly admitted to Larkin he’d take the job if it ever was offered. At the time Georgia was under Dick Copas’ leadership, and Haack – affectionately known as Haacker – was second in command at the American Junior Golf Association. Then, a few years later, opportunity suddenly knocked. Larkin, a Bulldogs player in the early 1980s, called to let Haack know that Copas had resigned after 25 years. Larkin asked Haack if he remembered their conversation.
“He said, ‘How serious were you about that comment about coaching Georgia?’ ” Haack recalls. “I had been with the AJGA for 16 years, and it was growing like crazy. I wasn’t looking to go anywhere.”
When the university called a couple of weeks later, Haack was faced with a difficult decision. Although he grew up a Georgia fan, he had never been a head coach. He was comfortable at the AJGA and taking on a new challenge would bring a fear of the unknown, something Haack didn’t know if he was prepared for. So he called Acushnet CEO Wally Uihlein, whom Haack knew through Titleist’s association with the AJGA.
“He gave me great advice,” Haack said. “He said ‘Stephen (Hamblin, executive director of the AJGA) is not going anywhere, he’s going to be the head guy. I’m a believer that when opportunities come, sail your own ship and be your own guy. You ought to take it. Do you want to be the guy who leads or the guy who gets led?’
“That was it right there. I made up my mind.”
Shortly thereafter, Haack met with a search committee that included Copas, Danny Yates, Jimmy Gabrielson, David Boyd and Jimmy Blanchard, all legends in the Georgia golf fraternity.
“They took a chance on me,” Haack said.
“For some reason they thought (my) golf knowledge and connections to junior golf was worth taking a risk. That’s how it all started.”
It’s easy to see why Haack, then 35, was the committee’s No. 1 choice. Find anyone who knows Haack well and ask that person to describe him. You won’t hear a negative word, and the adjectives that are tossed back include easygoing, fun, free-spirited and loyal – traits that make him a successful recruiter.
“He knows how to have fun without going overboard,” said Ryuji Imada, a Georgia standout in 1998 and ’99. “Even though we were serious golfers, we were still kids. He knows how to deal with that very well.”
Added Kevin Kisner, a senior and this year’s team captain: “He lets you be yourself, and he’s not overbearing. It doesn’t feel like a job or a chore to play for him. He’s the same guy all the time.”
That same guy has returned Georgia’s program to perennial powerhouse status. When Haack took the reins, the Bulldogs had won one Southeastern Conference Championship in the previous 13 years and were no longer serious national title contenders. In Haack’s nine seasons, Georgia has won four SEC titles (1998, 2000, ’01 and ’04), and the Bulldogs led wire-to-wire at Caves Valley near Baltimore three months ago to convincingly win their second NCAA title under Haack.
Georgia lost David Denham to graduation but will add heralded freshman Brian Harman to its lineup, which makes the Bulldogs Golfweek’s No. 1-ranked team to begin the season.
Georgia’s transformation began three months into Haack’s tenure. His office was at the school’s coliseum, and he spent most of his days driving between there and the school’s golf course to keep tabs on his players and make sure they were practicing. He soon realized better facilities – including coaches’ offices near the course – were needed to become competitive.
With the help of a major gift from Boyd, Haack spearheaded a fundraising drive that helped the program construct new facilities.
“It was like a mud pit out there,” Haack recalls of the practice range he inherited.