SORRENTO, Fla. – Kalen Harris doesn’t look quite old enough to be in charge of a perennial top-30 team. The petite South Carolina coach blends in with her players on the course. Her hat is always pulled down low, sunglasses on, presence unassuming.
Harris, at 34, doesn’t fit the mold in the SEC coaching circle. She’s among the youngest coaches in a league that is one of the most competitive in the nation. Still, the age jokes that fly good-naturedly around the team are directed more at director of golf Puggy Blackmon, 62, who also travels with the team.
It’s an unusual dynamic, but it works at South Carolina. Since Blackmon sought out Harris for the head coaching position when it opened up in the spring of 2008, the Gamecocks have made four trips to the NCAA Championship. They won the NCAA East Regional in 2010 and again last year – as the No. 8 seed. That team went on to finish fifth at the NCAA Championship.
Under Harris’ reign, South Carolina has had a tendency to peak in the postseason. Her goal for the program is to become a regular-season contender as well as a postseason contender.
“We don’t generally come on strong throughout the year, and we come on very strong at the end of the year when it matters most,” she said. “I think that’s just part of the youth of our team and the development of our program.”
Like Harris, the South Carolina lineup is especially young this year. With five freshmen comes a learning curve. This season, that’s been trying to cope with the fact that Katie Burnett isn’t around anymore. Burnett had been the team leader for the four previous seasons.
The Gamecocks never managed to crack the top 10 in the fall, but began the spring with a seventh-place finish at the UCF Challenge after holding the first-round lead.
“I’ve really been pleased with the work that some of our players have put in over the winter time,” Harris said. “They know the job that they have to do to get back to the competitive team that we are.”
Harris was a member of three national-championship-winning teams at Duke – one as a player (1999), and two as an assistant to Dan Brooks (2006, ’07). Blackmon has been at South Carolina since he was hired as the head men’s golf coach in 1995 and became the director of golf in 2007. He spent 12 years as the head coach at Georgia Tech before arriving in South Carolina, and remains PGA Tour player David Duval’s swing coach. South Carolina players sometimes call him Papa.
“He’s just kind of latched on,” Harris said. “… I’ve got a huge resource in him.”
Said Blackmon about Harris, “You can’t outwork her.” He ended up as her assistant by accident, when there was a need for a helping hand. Three-and-a-half years later, he’s still traveling with the team. If Harris is the one to connect with her players, Blackmon is the go-to guy for swing advice.
“It has totally rejuvenated my enthusiasm for coaching,” Blackmon said of coaching a women’s team for the first time in his college-coaching career.
Blackmon’s legacy in college golf is lengthy. He can remember sketching out plans for the Carpet Capital Collegiate, a top men’s college event hosted by Georgia Tech, on a cocktail napkin. He’s also largely responsible for the addition of The Coop, South Carolina’s year-old, eight-acre practice facility, and the creation of the Darius Rucker Intercollegiate, a tournament that debuted last year to a No. 6 ranking in terms of field strength. Blackmon created it with the idea that players would be treated like royalty while having the opportunity to play a top private golf course (Long Cove Club on Hilton Head Island, S.C.).
In the Rucker and The Coop, Blackmon, a self-described idea man, has helped create something unique in college golf. The same could be said about his coaching partnership with Harris. Call them the odd couple of coaching.
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SHORT SHOTS: Patricia Garcia joins the Arizona roster this spring after a year and a half at Texas A&M. Garcia is a three-time Puerto Rico Women’s Amateur champion, and is the second player to transfer to the Wildcats this season. Head coach Laura Ianello also added former Ohio State player Kendall Prince in the fall. . . . After two seasons as the assistant women’s coach at Oregon, Justin Fetcho will return to his native Illinois as the Illini’s assistant men’s coach. . . . Southeastern University, a small Christian school in Lakeland, Fla., will add a women’s team in the fall. The team will compete at the NAIA level. Men’s head coach Steve Phelps also will oversee the women. Phelps hopes to bring in 12 players to begin competition next fall.
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5 questions with Virginia’s Briana Mao
Virginia sophomore Briana Mao earned her first collegiate victory Feb. 12 at the UCF Challenge.
1. How does it feel to win your first college tournament?
It feels sort of surprising, but like a good surprise. Everything kind of came together this tournament. I was playing really well, so I just wanted to play the best I could. It was good enough to win.
2. Is the first time you’ve been doused? (Mao’s teammates met her in the parking lot with bottles of water to celebrate her victory)
It is the first time I’ve been doused with water all over. It’s surprising. I really enjoyed having my teammates be so supportive. It was a lot of fun.
3. The key this week seemed to be fighting the wind. How did you do that?
I played a lot of three-quarter punch shots to keep it low to go through the wind, because I usually hit a really high shot. If it just goes up in the air, the wind is just going to knock it down, so those are actually the kind of shots I actually played all week. I guess I’m lucky because all throughout growing up, my dad was always like, ‘Oh, it’s windy; this is good practice. You know, you need to hit these shots.’
4. You finished with a one-shot victory. Are you glad there was no playoff? (Mao is the player who went eight extra holes with Angel Yin at the 2012 Arizona Silver Belle Championship before they were declared co-winners)
The playoff that lasted for another two hours! It was fun. Today, it’s nice that I actually played better.
5. What’s the best part of your game right now?
My ball-striking was really on, but my putting, which I’ve actually been working on a lot getting here and I kind of tweaked it a little so I was kind of nervous how it was going to turn out but I practiced a lot. It snowed it Virginia, and I went into Coach’s office – she has a putting mat – and I worked on that every day, basically, to make sure it was good.