Ninth place never looked so good. Not to a fringe independent candidate in a presidential election, not to an “American Idol” wannabe, and definitely not to Brad McMakin.
McMakin is the square-shouldered coach for the Lamar University golf team who, at first glance, more resembles an extra from “The Sopranos” than a college golf coach. But as McMakin and his Cardinals proved last week at the NCAA Division I Men’s Championship, he most definitely can coach. He can coach like John Wooden after a double espresso. And his high-energy, no-nonsense style helped lift Lamar to a tie for ninth in the school’s first NCAA waltz since George H. W. Bush was in the White House.
In college golf, the bromide is that there are van drivers and there are coaches. McMakin and assistant Brian White are coaches in every sense of the word. They motivate and counsel.
They teach and, on occasion, discipline. But most importantly, they make their players better.
Welcome to Golf U. Non-zealots need not apply.
At Lamar, substance, not sizzle, is what matters. Which is appropriate, since little besides the temperature sizzles on the Texas coast. Beaumont, Texas, an oil boom town that’s long since gone bust, is the Cardinals’ home. The port city’s claim to fame is that it gave us Babe Didriksen Zaharias and music legend J.P. “The Big Bopper” Richardson.
“If I could have afforded a plane ticket for a campus visit, I wouldn’t have come,” says South African Dawie Van Der Walt, Lamar’s easygoing team leader.
Sparse is the best way to describe the golf team’s existence. Just the way McMakin likes it.
“At Lamar, we don’t have football. We don’t have fraternities. You come to play golf. It’s a golf school,” McMakin says. “If you really don’t love the game and you really don’t want to be a professional golfer you won’t stay there, because there’s really nothing else to do.”
At Lamar, players don’t want to become better ballstrikers, they want to become Ben Hogan.
Just ask McMakin his swing secrets and you’ll get a Hawk-like glare.
“Can’t give ’em all away,” he says.
Hate to let the cat out of the shag bag, but the only secret seems to be the coaching duo’s knowledge of the game. McMakin and White were players long before they traded their clubs for clipboards. It’s a passion, fittingly enough, that was forged on the same rough-around-the-edges practice range Lamar players use today.
The last time the Cardinals were dancing this late in the season was 1986, when McMakin and White were seniors at Kelly High School, about a Crosswater Course par 5 from Lamar’s campus. Even back then, McMakin and White were golf junkies. They’d skip school to sneak in 18 holes, or just drive over to Lamar’s practice range and watch a team that included Trevor Dodds, John Reigger and Kelly Gibson.
“We were there one night and Trevor Dodds is hitting an old wooden wood out of a divot and he’s just hitting them perfect. Me and Brad were freaking out,” White recalls with the wide-eyed demeanor of a 5-year-old at his first fireworks show.
Both players went on to distinguished college careers – McMakin at Oklahoma and White at Lamar – before testing the play-for-pay waters. But in 1995, McMakin’s pro dreams began drying up like one of Beaumont’s gushers. So he took the Lamar coaching job, he admits, because he thought it would give him enough time to hone his own game. It only took one tournament for that plan to change.
“We were so bad and I was so embarrassed,” McMakin says. “We shot 1,000 and I decided I had to go to work. So the clubs went in the closet.”
How times have changed for Lamar golf. At Sunriver’s Crosswater Course, the 21st-ranked Cardinals played their first six holes in 6 over before going even par over the next 66. It’s the type of production McMakin has come to expect from a squad that won a nation’s best seven team titles and didn’t
post an 18-hole score over 300 this season.
As a team, the Cardinals are crazy straight. Straight like Ward Cleaver. Straight like the team’s next missed fairway will be its first.
McMakin and White don’t turn to scorecards or leaderboards for satisfaction. Instead, White nods toward junior Dusty Smith. Four years ago, White explains,
Smith was the No. 3 player on The Woodlands (Texas) High School team. At NCAAs, he led the field in par-3 scoring and tied for 10th, a stroke better than the All-American likes of Florida’s Matt Every.
“Players get better at Lamar,” White says.
Because of the school’s location and obscure place among the college golf hierarchy, McMakin recruits potential over pedigree. He covets players with gumption and grit who are willing to buy into the Lamar way.
Players such as the 6-foot-4 Van Der Walt, who bares a striking resemblance to Ernie Els and led the Cardinals with a fourth-place finish at NCAAs. Although Van Der Walt’s swing isn’t as developed as Els’, the smiling sophomore looks every bit as relaxed both on and off the course as his high-profile countryman. The Big Easy meets the Big Lebowski.
McMakin wants players like sophomore Casey Clendenon. After sitting out the fall season because of academic problems, Clendenon didn’t leave a single range ball unturned in his quest to claim Southland Conference Player of the Year honors. But even McMakin was surprised when Clendenon awoke at 6 a.m. one cool November morning and drove 830 miles to the College All-American Classic in El Paso, Texas. He wanted to video the swings of Oklahoma State’s Pablo Martin and Oklahoma’s Anthony Kim.
“How many kids in college will go watch their peers play to get better?” McMakin asks. “That’s unbelievable. When you’ve got guys like that, you know they are doing everything they can to get better.”
Some would call Lamar’s NCAA finish unbelievable. But to McMakin and Co., ninth place never looked so good. At least until next year, which is only a few hundred thousand range balls away.