By Eric Soderstrom
There is no rivalry, representatives from both sides assert. Which starts to make sense geographically, at least, when you consider that the schools sit 6 miles from each other in Greensboro, N.C., connected for the most part by a road named Friendly Avenue.
On one end is Guilford College, the reigning Division III men’s golf champion for the second time in four seasons (2002, ’05). On the other, Greensboro College, which finished third at last year’s nationals, has placed outside the top 5 only once since 1997 and also took home a national title as recently as 2000.
Both are considered powerhouses on the D-III golf landscape, but the fact that three of the past six national championship trophies reside in Greensboro is in some ways incidental.
“It’s not really that big of a deal,” says Colin Clark, a Guilford junior and the 2005 Division III individual champion. “We don’t really look at ourselves as the ‘Greensboro teams’ or anything like that.”
Of course, the only town in North Carolina that truly can lay claim to the title of unofficial capitol of D-III golf is Fayetteville, which is about 11⁄2 hours southeast of Greensboro and home to Methodist College.
“Methodist – everyone wants to beat them the most because of the dynasty they have down there,” Clark says.
In total, the Methodist men’s and women’s teams have combined for 16 national titles the past 12 years, including eight in a row by the women. “And we’ve got everyone coming back,” coach Vici Pate says, “so I’d say we’re going to be fairly strong again (this year).”
The men failed to claim the top prize only once in the ’90s, and despite not having won one since, have finished no worse than fifth each of the last 18 years.
“We haven’t won since 1999, which we’re very disappointed about,” says coach Steve Conley, who has led the Monarchs to all nine of their national titles. “But it’s gotten so deep with talent. There are so many good programs out there now and it’s just really tough.”
Parity in Division III men’s golf is a relatively new concept. From 1975 to ’99, only six different schools took home national titles, with Methodist picking up where Cal State-Stanislaus, now a D-II school, left off (12 titles from 1976 to ’89).
But since Methodist’s streak ended, five schools (Greensboro, Guilford, Wisconsin-Eau Claire, Averett and Gustavus Adolpus) have won NCAA crowns, with plenty of others challenging.
“All these other coaches keep telling me I set the bar really high when we had that nice run in the ’90s, and maybe there’s some truth to that,” says Conley, offering one possible explanation for the recent rise in competition.
Other “probably more influential” reasons, he says, are the rising number of quality junior golfers and an increase in coaches’ motivation and recruiting across the board.
“I think a lot of coaches realized that Division III programs can be that good,” he says.
Thirty years ago this season, Greensboro coach Robert Linville, 47, and Guilford coach Jack Jensen, who will turn 67 this month, began their journeys in Division III men’s golf.
Jensen, who at the time also was the Guilford basketball coach (he led World B. Free, M.L. Carr and the Quakers to an NAIA national title in 1973), was “talked into taking over the golf team” by former athletics director Herb Appenzeller, even after suggesting that golf and two other sports be cut. His first recruit, as fate would have it, was Linville.
“I had friends going to (nearby) Elon, so that didn’t go over real big, because at the time they were archrivals. But I ended up at Guilford,” says Linville, who earned All-American honors his sophomore year. “It was good. It worked out great.”
As a result, Greensboro remains a city not divided.
“This is my 12th year (coaching),” says Linville, “and actually one of the best parts has been being able to spend so much time with (Jack).”
In each other’s words, Jensen is “a great recruiter” and Linville is “a great teacher,” and each has used their respective expertise to build programs that have evolved to the competitive level of lower to mid-level Division I schools.
“It doesn’t matter whether it’s golf or basketball or football, they see it’s D-III and they don’t think we have good players” says Jensen, “and that’s not true.”
The truth is that Guilford likely is still the team to beat this year – in state and out, even with the losses of Dave Patterson (graduation) and Brant Stovall (ineligible). Greensboro also should contend, despite the loss of Ryan Sharpe and Thomas Bullock, who did not return to school.
That leaves Methodist, led by three-time All-American Adam Horton, as probably the safest prediction you can make any given year.
“There are just a lot of good teams now,” says Conley. “I’m hoping somewhere along the road we’ll get back up there.”
These days, that road runs through Greensboro.