PONTE VEDRA BEACH, Fla. – Wehman Hopke walked off his last hole Tuesday at Sawgrass Country Club quite obviously upset about this round. It was, after all, a 78, and at the end of the day, these Furman athletes are competitors first and foremost. They didn’t come south to the John Hayt Collegiate Invitational to finish next-to-last.
But there was a bold silver lining to this day, a reason for all Paladins past and present to breathe a big sigh of relief. Their program had been saved.
Eighteen days after Furman University announced that it was discontinuing the men’s golf program, the school sent out a news release taking it all back. The outpouring of alumni support, financially and otherwise, resulted in a reverse decision.
When Hopke, a sophomore from Austin, Texas, was asked after the final round of the Paladins’ spring opener why he chose Furman, he raised his arm and pointed a finger at head coach Todd Satterfield.
“Because that great man right there gave me a chance,” Hopke said.
And now, the university is giving him a second one.
Satterfield learned the good news while his players were on the golf course Tuesday morning. He told Hopke immediately after a three-putt at No. 14.
“I’m gonna tell you something that’s going to make you feel a heck of a lot better walking off this green,” Satterfield said, recalling the conversation. “That put a little zip in his step.”
A group of impassioned alumni, led by PGA Tour winner Brad Faxon, submitted a proposal to the school’s Board of Trustees that would help take care of short-term operating costs for the program and establish an endowment for scholarships.
Carl Kohrt, Furman’s interim president, said the funding plan will provide the necessary support to keep the Paladins competitive in the Southern Conference and NCAA Division I while allowing the school to retain the cost savings consistent with the board’s original decision.
“We are all proud alums of the Furman golf program, and none of us wanted to see it discontinued,” Faxon, a 1983 graduate and former Haskins Award winner as college golf’s top player, said in a news release.
“The outpouring of support from Furman alumni and the golf community has been amazing.”
Satterfield, in his 18th season at the Greenville, S.C., school, said he expects a reduced amount of scholarship money in the coming years. He has been operating with a fully-funded scholarship budget for the past several years, but for most of his time at Furman – including all of the years that he won conference titles, the most recent being 2010 – he had less than the full 4.5 allotted by the NCAA.
“It’s nothing that I haven’t faced before,” Satterfield said. “Just have to do things a little differently.”
Sophomore Preston Heyward already had begun corresponding with coaches and said it felt like high school all over again, only worse because it was happening so late in the season.
He’s relieved to know he has now has the option to stay put, and praised Satterfield for his leadership during this difficult time.
“He’s been really strong,” Heyward said. “Hasn’t shown any weaknesses.”
Frank Ford, a golf alumnus and member of the school’s Athletic Hall of Fame, said the past few weeks have been an incredibly emotional time. Ford said the university-wide support and angst regarding the decision ultimately led to the school taking a step back.
“In true liberal arts fashion, they opened up their minds,” Ford said.
Ford will be part of a five-person advisory panel – along with Furman athletic director Gary Clark, Faxon and two more to be chosen – to help the school and its supporters work together.
“We are very confident that the synergy being created among the many stakeholders for men’s golf will not only result in a long-term solution but serve as a model for many of our other programs,” Clark wrote in an email to Golfweek, in response to a question about the program’s outlook. “The next step is to endow the scholarships, which is the best long-term guarantee.”
T.J. Blandford, who launched the online petition that garnered nearly 2,500 signatures in support of the program, wanted to be in Ponte Vedra Beach on Tuesday afternoon to celebrate with the team. Blandford, 31, has earned a masters from Harvard since graduating from Furman, but he still feels tremendously connected to the program, calling the reprieve overwhelming.
“It’s all about them,” Blandford said of the 10 current Paladins.
Here’s to the future.