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CEDAR RAPIDS, Iowa – Some things stay the same.
Press McPhaul decided to pull out a game from his playing days at North Carolina State with one of his pupils, Nolan Mills Jr., in Saturday’s practice round at the Golfweek Conference Challenge. The contest: Simple, both hit bunker shots and the one who ends up farther from the pin has to rake the bunker.
Mills edged out his coach to avoid that chore. In a practice round at a tournament in Charlottesville, Va., more than a quarter-century ago, McPhaul lost the contest so often against his Wolfpack teammates that then-head coach Richard Sykes quipped that McPhaul was going to be put on the club payroll for raking so many bunkers.
“Not much has changed in 27 years,” McPhaul said with a smile.
But a lot has recently.
Sykes announced in January that he was retiring at the end of the 2016-17 season after serving as head coach at North Carolina State for 46 seasons.
It was the departure of one of college golf’s legends, a wily veteran who couldn’t help but create hilarious memories wherever he went.
Who could replace such a presence? North Carolina State looked within, sort of.
McPhaul was named Sykes’ successor in June after having spent the last 11 seasons as head coach at East Carolina and the five years previous to that leading Vanderbilt.
But his Wolfpack ties run deep. McPhaul, 44, played for North Carolina State from 1991-96 and Sykes put in his head that he could be a good coach. To wit, McPhaul began his coaching career at North Carolina State as an assistant in 1998, earning $500 per month, living in a North Carolina State athletic dorm and using a free meal card in dining halls.
A year later he earned a promotion and became a “real employee.” Eighteen years later, he’s returned to his alma mater taking over for the legend he entrusts as a mentor and friend.
“It’s kind of an honor,” McPhaul said. “Not everybody gets to go back home to where they played. It’s a real humbling feeling.”
Not intimidating, though.
North Carolina State finished fifth in its opening event, the Wolf Run Intercollegiate, but the team may get McPhaul his first win as the leader soon. The Wolfpack fired an opening 14-under 274 Sunday at the Cedar Rapids (Iowa) Country Club to take a nine-shot lead over Iowa with 36 holes to play at the Golfweek Conference Challenge.
The Wolfpack also boast the individual lead, as Stephen Franken is one ahead thanks to a bogey-free 6-under 66.
Franken, a junior and North Carolina State’s highest-ranked returnee, was actually missing drives right early in the day but let his mind track him toward a low round.
“I know I’m a good player, so I just let that (confidence) kind of take over,” Franken said.
That confidence is palpable in the program.
McPhaul’s arrival was hailed as a worthy choice for following up on Sykes’ work, and nothing since has changed that early optimism.
Mills was a supporter from the start. The junior grew up dreaming of playing golf for North Carolina State – after all, his dad had done just that – but McPhaul made him seriously ponder going to East Carolina instead.
“I’ve never heard anyone say anything bad about Press,” Mills said. “He actually made the decision way harder than I thought it was going to be.”
Fast forward a few years, and we’re seeing why.
The Cedar Rapids Country Club didn’t have yardage books, which meant McPhaul spent several hours creating his own for the team ahead of the Golfweek Conference Challenge.
Sykes may’ve been known for his humor, but the memories that most stick for McPhaul are those that proved his mentor’s deep well of compassion.
There was the time McPhaul, then a struggling freshman player, met with Sykes, and the coach opened up his closet and gave his pupil a heap of Wolfpack gear – a gesture that said, “I still believe in you.” It reaffirmed McPhaul’s confidence in his game.
At the 2000 NCAA East Regional, North Carolina State had finished seventh to advance to the NCAA Championship on the back of Carl Pettersson’s medalist showing.
That is, until Pettersson was disqualified for signing an incorrect scorecard in the final round. The gaffe dropped the Wolfpack to T-14 and out of nationals, devastating Sykes. Somehow, he kept his composure.
“He held that hurt in, and never showed it to the (players),” said McPhaul, then the Wolfpack assistant coach. “To see how he handled that was a really good learning experience.”
McPhaul isn’t the only new face at North Carolina State: He brought on Van Williams as an assistant.
Williams served as assistant coach on a national champion Oregon team in 2015-16 and moved on to Arizona State for the 2016-17 campaign.
But the 40-year-old, who grew up in Raleigh, wished to return his family home. Williams was a North Carolina State fan as a child as well and his grandfather operated the clocks at Wolfpack basketball and football games for 42 years.
Williams began chatting with McPhaul, pondering about the East Carolina head coach opening, but it soon became clear their coaching philosophies meshed.
“N.C. State was a natural fit,” Williams said.
While Sykes may be retired, his footprints still remain.
McPhaul took to heart the fact that North Carolina State always seemed to have the most fun at Regionals with Sykes in charge.
Along with the bunker contest, McPhaul kept things light during this week’s practice round by way of putting him and Williams in a bind.
At times in practice rounds, McPhaul will ask his players what kind of shot they want to hit off the tee. The two players who execute the shot closest to what they described get their bags carried by McPhaul and Williams the rest of the hole.
During Saturday’s practice round, three players executed so perfectly on one such occasion that Williams was forced to double-bag. McPhaul suffered the same fate when he said coaches would carry for whoever made a birdie putt at No. 11 and three did.
Of course, McPhaul also has a built-in advantage for humor.
“Press has a lot of good stories, a lot of good stories about Coach Sykes,” Mills said.
But McPhaul is already forming his own.
In his first tournament as North Carolina State’s head coach, McPhaul was looking at tee times and couldn’t figure out why his team was in the second wave in Round 2.
“Then I realized I was looking at East Carolina,” McPhaul said.
Even McPhaul’s discipline can’t help but inspire funny memories.
The new head coach has instituted more structure into North Carolina State, and players know they cannot be late – otherwise they face the task of cleaning the weight room where the team works out.
Mills felt the pain of that when he woke up two minutes before he was supposed to meet the team at Lonnie Poole Golf Course, the Wolfpack’s home course, from where they would travel to the airport for the Wolf Run Intercollegiate.
In a panic, Mills rushed to the facility and arrived there shirtless at 7:26 a.m., 11 minutes after he was told to be there.
When he returned from the trip, Mills cleaned the weight room at 6 a.m.
“I won’t be late again,” Mills said.
A difficult experience, but it reminded McPhaul of his first tournament as a head coach. The Vanderbilt leader was getting worried when one of his players wasn’t showing up to the meet-up point for a trip to that opening event.
The player then sped into the picture in his pickup truck, hopped out, frantically grabbed his clothes and started stuffing them like a madman into a travel bag. That player was Brandt Snedeker.
“I told Nolan when he was a little late, it was kind of a repeat,” McPhaul joked.
The end of the Sykes Era is still fresh, but even early on it seems the guy tapped to fill the shoes of such a legend is a pretty good bet to build on his legacy.
“I don’t think we could’ve gotten a better guy for the job,” Mills said.