College golf has a long and rich history in the state of Texas.
There was that lengthy stretch from the mid-1950s through the mid-’80s when Houston, under legendary coach Dave Williams, won a record 16 NCAA titles.
There was Texas, with current Golf Hall of Fame members Ben Crenshaw and Tom Kite, capturing the national – and individual titles – in 1971 (Crenshaw) and ’72 (Crenshaw and Kite tied). Crenshaw again won the individual title in ’73.
Years before that, North Texas won four consecutive NCAA crowns (1949-52), and Southern Methodist claimed the national title in ’54.
These days, Division I golf in the Lone Star State is as healthy and prosperous as ever, most evident by reigning NCAA champion Texas A&M.
And consider this: Four Texas teams are in the top 20 of the Golfweek/Sagarin College Rankings, including No. 2 Texas A&M and No. 7 Texas.
There is one team, though, that people seem to overlook – not only within the state but nationally, as well.
Meet the Texas Tech Red Raiders.
No, this Red Raiders program has not won a national title and certainly does not have the history and tradition as some of its other Lone Star State counterparts.
But since head coach Greg Sands took over in Lubbock 10 years ago, the Red Raiders have been moving in the right direction.
“When I first came to Texas Tech, I felt there was only one way to go if I did my job,” Sands said. “I knew it would take time and (that) success would not come overnight. Pretty much, it’s been a slow rise.”
“Steady” might be a better word, and Sands definitely has gotten results.
In his first season at Tech, the Red Raiders finished 106th in the Golfweek/Sagarin Rankings. The next season, they improved to 103rd.
Since then, Tech has finished outside the top 50 only once (59th in 2002-03), and was a program-best 15th in 2005-06. After a third-place finish last weekend at the Aggie Invitational, Tech has moved up to No. 17 as the 2010 postseason looms.
The Red Raiders have advanced to the NCAA Championship three of the past four years.
“What I’ve been most proud of is how consistent we’ve been over the last four to five years,” Sands said. “We’ve been in contention more and more, and this season we have the strongest schedule we’ve had since I’ve been here.
“We only have one win this season, but we’ve had some solid top-5 finishes at UNLV (fifth) and Morris Williams (fourth) against some of the country’s top teams,” Sands said.
“I think our guys feel we can compete with the best in the nation.”
Junior Nils Floren of Sweden has been the Red Raiders’ go-to-guy all season. His average finish is 11th, highlighted by a tie for first at Carpet Capital, a third at Isleworth and a second at the Morris Williams. He leads Tech individually at No. 20 in the Golfweek/Sagarin Ranking.
Senior Chris Ward also has been a chief contributor, finishing fourth at the Morris Williams and holding a No. 43 ranking. Junior Matt Smith freshman Ewing Finley IV and sophomores Brian Scherer and Tyler Weworski (T-3 at the Aggie Invitational) have added depth.
“We lost two seniors last season, but I felt with Nils and Chris we had a good foundation, and if we could develop some young players, we could get to nationals again,” Sands said.
However, first on the to-do list for Sands and his squad is this weekend’s Big 12 Championship at Whispering Pines Golf Club in Trinity, Texas.
Tech has never won the Big 12, with its best showing a third-place finish in 2008. The program’s last conference title came in 1998, when it captured the last Southwest Conference Championship before the league was disbanded.
“We want to be in contention come the final round at the Big 12 and give ourselves a chance to win the title,” Sands said. “And we want to make another appearance at the NCAA finals.
“I’d be disappointed if we didn’t reach those goals.”
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A look ahead
What: Big 12 Conference Championship
When: April 23-25
Where: Whispering Pines Golf Club, Trinity, Texas
Why it’s important: A key late-season showdown among three top-10 teams: No. 1 Oklahoma State, No. 2 Texas A&M and No. 7 Texas. And don’t forget No. 17 Texas Tech and No. 19 Texas Christian. This could turn into quite a shootout.
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What: Atlantic Coast Conference Championship
When: April 23-25
Where: Old North State Golf Club, New London, N.C.
Why it’s important: The ACC might not be as strong at the top as it has been, but because of its depth it remains a conference to reckon with. Florida State, Clemson, Georgia Tech, Duke, Virginia, N.C. State and Wake Forest have a chance at the crown.
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What: Pacific-10 Conference Championship
When: April 25-28
Where: Karsten Golf Club, Tempe, Ariz.
Why it’s important: With five teams ranked in the top 10 and nine among the top 40, the Pac-10 arguably is the strongest league in the country. Thus this should be one unpredictable affair, especially considering the play-six, count-five format.