STILLWATER, Okla. – Mike McGraw, the head coach at Oklahoma State, administers a quiz to his players at the start of each season. The questions cover the Cowboys’ many impressive accomplishments as the gold standard of college golf programs.
Players who don’t pass risk being benched for the season’s first tournament, though McGraw is more likely to give a mulligan than leave a player at home. Answers on the quiz include:
10: Number of national championships won
54: Number of conference championships won
65: Consecutive years the Cowboys have advanced to the national championship
Considering the Cowboys’ unprecedented success, a visitor to the team’s home course, Karsten Creek, would be surprised to see a scene that looks more like a summer camp than a PGA Tour training ground.
A visitor on this September day would see junior Morgan Hoffmann hitting balls shirtless next to PGA Tour player Chris Tidland, clad in cargo shorts. Players tee off on the first hole in T-shirts and basketball shorts. Even head coach Mike McGraw is wearing jeans. Karsten Creek only has about 50 local members, so the Cowboys have the run of the place.
“We mess around a lot,” said senior Kevin Tway. “Out here, we’re pretty relaxed and laid-back. When people come, they think we’d be structured, but we kind of just do whatever.”
Fishing poles hang on the walls of the team’s covered hitting bays. Many players, like Hunter Mahan and Rickie Fowler, have ended long days of practice by trying their luck in Lake Louise, the body of water that runs down the left side of Karsten Creek’s 18th hole. Armadillo hunting is another form of entertainment, and a way to exact revenge on the creatures that burrow into the team’s hallowed ground. Hoffmann has been known to do backflips off a bridge on the 18th hole. A YouTube video shows Fowler, then a freshman, sliding face-first down an icy hill on the driving range.
It’s not all fun and games, though. Karsten Creek wasn’t built to make players feel good about themselves. It’s a penal layout for a reason – to prepare Oklahoma State’s players to win national championships. The Cowboys have 10.
Their quest for No. 11 will begin Tuesday when the NCAA Championship begins at Karsten Creek. The Cowboys, winners of eight of 12 regular-season events, are the tournament’s top seed. They’re coming off an 18-shot victory at their regional. The NCAA Championship will be the final event for Tway, the No. 3 player in the Golfweek/Sagarin College Rankings, and Hoffmann, a former Walker Cup player.
Mike Holder, the former Oklahoma State head coach, got the idea for Karsten Creek when one of his players built a model for an architecture class of an imaginary golf course laid out on a nearby piece of property. Holder dreamt of building a golf course each time he time he drove by that land on Highway 51.
He waited to build Karsten Creek until he’d raised enough money to finance the entire project. He didn’t want to be in debt or have to answer to administrators. He jokes that he considered putting a suggestion box on a small island in Lake Louise.
“It was a challenge to get the architect to build a challenging golf course, because Tom Fazio … was worried about the average player,” Holder said. “That was not my concern.”
Holder theorized that there was no better way for his players to prepare for tournaments than by practicing on the most difficult course they’d see all year. Karsten Creek uses visual intimidation to keep players from getting comfortable on its 7,095 yards. The course’s fairways are relatively wide, but tall trees and thick vegetation lining each hole seem to shrink the landing areas. High rough and fast greens are the norm, as well. That should be no different this week.
“To … take a 5-iron out of the rough and knock it onto the green you just won’t do it,” McGraw said. “Once you get off that rye grass you’ve got pretty much death. … You might survive finding your golf ball, but you might get killed by a snake or a tick or something.”
Hoffmann called Karsten Creek “one of the hardest (courses) in the country.” He can speak from a position of authority, having played in last year’s U.S. Open.
The Cowboys have an undeniable advantage this week. But they also have to handle the pressure of high expectations. That 11th national championship has been difficult to come by. It’s been five years since the Cowboys last won a national championship. That wouldn’t be an issue at other schools. Not at Oklahoma State.
“You base your success based on national championships,” Uihlein said. “We’ve been a pretty successful teams the past few years, but we haven’t won, so we still have a lot to improve and a long way to go.”
The Cowboys ended the past two years ranked No. 1 in the country. They also ended those seasons in tears.
At the 2009 NCAA Championship, Georgia’s Brian Harman birdied the last three holes to beat Rickie Fowler, 1 up. Fowler missed an 8-foot birdie putt to extend the match. It was a complete contrast to the Ryder Cup rally he’d pull off little more than a year later.
Oklahoma State made it to last year’s championship match before being upset by Augusta State. Tway crouched next to his golf bag, his head buried in his chest, after a three-putt from 20 feet gave Augusta State the victory.
“We hate match play,” is how Hoffmann simply phrases it. The Cowboys had double-digit leads after 54 holes of each of the past two NCAA Championships. Under the traditional 72-hole format, the final round likely would’ve been little more than a coronation. Team match play replaced stroke play in 2009 as the format used to determine the team champion.
Oklahoma State’s current players are reminded daily of the tradition they’re trying to add to. As you enter the Cowboys’ locker room, a mural celebrates Oklahoma State’s accomplishments in U.S. Golf Association championships. McGraw tries to update the mural within two weeks of the Cowboys’ latest victory.
The hall outside the team’s locker room features more murals of past Cowboy greats. The trophies from past NCAA and conference championships, All-Americans and other honors sit on wooden ledges that jut from the walls and give the hallway a claustrophobic feel.
No matter how small the space, the Cowboys will gladly find room for one more trophy, though.