The people of Augusta, Ga., are passionate about their golf, and the college game is no exception. Josh Gregory received his first taste of that passion last fall when a news conference was scheduled to announce his hiring as men’s golf coach.
News conference. Golf coach. Not an ordinary occurrence.
In another uncommon practice, athletic director Clint Bryant allowed the team to interview five coaching candidates and select the person it believed was best to replace Jay Seawell, who left for Alabama. Bryant had the final say, but the players’ opinions weighed heavily.
“We interviewed Josh and it seemed like he had some great ideas,” said Oliver Wilson, the only senior in the Jaguars starting lineup. “We liked the way he was thinking and thought he was our guy.”
As an assistant coach at North Carolina State the last two years and a player at Southern Methodist in the mid-1990s, Gregory, 27, has had a steady dose of the college atmosphere. But that did little to prepare him for his new endeavor in a town where golf reigns supreme.
“We’re at a place where college golf really means something,” Gregory said. “Golf means as much to the people of the community and the university as it does to myself and the guys on our team.
“We may be a small school in size (5,500 students), but we’re definitely a big-time golf program.”
Golf is the only Division I sport at the university and attracts as much attention as football or basketball at other schools. Wilson, ranked No. 3 in the Golfweek/Sagarin College Rankings, recalls a practice session after a victory earlier in the season where he was not able to hit many balls because there were several television and newspaper reporters requesting interviews. Wilson, and the rest of the team, are constantly noticed at local restaurants and frequently get supportive e-mails from the locals.
“When you think about golf, you think about Augusta,” said Bryant, who has been at Augusta State for 15 years, hiring three different men’s golf coaches. “Our community demands that we play golf on a high level and they have a true appreciation for the game.”
It’s not as if the Jaguars have appeared on the scene overnight. They’ve had a men’s squad for 30 years (the women’s team is only in its second year). In 1986, Augusta State moved to Division I and was a founding member of the Big South Conference. In 1991, the university’s other athletic teams dropped down to Division II, but golf remained Division I.
The last three years, Augusta State has showed it belongs among the nation’s elite, finishing seventh and fifth at the last two NCAA Championships. Later this month at Karsten Creek Golf Club in Stillwater, Okla., a similar result will not be acceptable to the Jaguars. Augusta State, ranked No. 4 in the Golfweek/ Sagarin College Rankings, has recorded five victories in 10 events – as well as a victory at the Hooters Collegiate Match Play, an unofficial event.
“Everyone thinks we’re Cinderella, but we’ve been good for quite some time,” Bryant said. “The last three years have been really special, and this year it seems like we’ve got a realistic chance at winning the whole thing.”
Although Augusta State has played well in many big events, it also has faltered, sometimes showing little emotion on the course when out of contention. In the five tournaments the Jaguars weren’t victorious, they finished second, seventh, 10th, 12th and 13th.
Without Wilson, they were 13th out of 14 teams at the season-opening Bank of Tennessee Intercollegiate, then played poorly in March finishing 12th at the Toyota Collegiate and 10th at the Schenkel E-Z-Go Invitational. But they rebounded with a victory at their home tournament, the Cleveland Golf/ASU Invitational, shooting 44 under par to beat top-ranked Clemson.
“That’s the best golf I’ve ever seen,” Gregory said.
Augusta State’s starting squad for NCAA regional play May 15-17 will include one senior (Wilson), three sophomores and a freshman. Four of the five are from Europe: Wilson and first-semester freshman James Heath are from England and sophomores Kalle Edberg and Scott Jamieson are from Sweden and Scotland, respectively. Sophomore Emmett Turner, the team’s No. 2 player, is from Greenwood, S.C.
The European pipeline has been key to Augusta State’s success. The trend began in 1997 with Englishmen Robert Duck, now an assistant coach at the school, and continued two years later with Jamie Elson. Although Elson recently turned pro, he continues to help the Jaguars recruit international talent, most notably Heath.
“The word Augusta means a lot over in Europe,” Gregory said. “The first thing they associate with is the Masters. But ultimately it all should help get us a few more kids from America, too.”
Having Augusta National in the back yard undoubtedly helps recruiting – at home and abroad – but Gregory says the Jaguars do not play the hallowed layout as much as some believe. The squad usually gets to play one round per year there – more if an invitation is extended – but other schools can boast the same. A few former Augusta State players are members at Augusta National, including Nick Evans, the school’s first-ever scholarship golfer.
With all the positives comes a negative.
Augusta State has had difficulty keeping a successful coach because its athletic budget cannot compete with nearby SEC and ACC competition. The last two coaches, Jim Kelson and Seawell, left for higher-paying jobs at schools with lower-ranked programs. Kelson led the Jaguars to four NCAA Championship appearances before leaving for Tennessee in 1998. The Volunteers are now ranked No. 23. Seawell guided Augusta State to its back-to-back top-7 NCAA finishes before leaving for Alabama last fall. The Crimson Tide is ranked 40th.
But such details mean nothing in the postseason, where birdies and bogeys are the only statistics that matter. While many conference championships are being held, Augusta State will play in the Atlanta Intercollegiate May 8-9 in Stockbridge, Ga., because it does not belong to a conference. From there, it will head to the NCAA regionals, where a top-8 finish will give the Jaguars their third consecutive trip to the NCAA Championship.
“We’re trying not to put too much pressure on ourselves,” Wilson said. “We’ve had a great year no matter what. But it would definitely be great to win.”
Gregory echoed Wilson’s sentiments, but doesn’t intend to settle for anything less than an national championship. The people of Augusta expect nothing less, and Gregory is not prepared to disappoint them.
“Once you get here, you really see how it can happen,” Gregory said. “National championships can be won here.”