CEDAR RAPIDS, Iowa – Jalen Griffin couldn’t help but be envious.
His San Francisco Dons at times would run into UNLV, and the Rebels were known to sometimes fly to tournaments in a private jet.
It was tough not to notice the team dressed in suits and arriving in that luxury.
“I thought, ‘These guys really fly in a jet? Why can’t we get that?’ ” Griffin said.
Well, that jealousy is no longer necessary.
Griffin, a senior, and his other teammates who travelled for this week’s Golfweek Conference Challenge, played at Cedar Rapids (Iowa) Country Club, did so in a private jet.
Private plane travel is certainly not unheard of in college golf, but it’s definitely rare outside of the sport’s most storied programs and outside of the Power Five conferences (San Francisco plays in the WCC).
For the Dons, it was an arrangement set up via head coach Jack Kennedy’s family connection.
Kennedy is the son-in-law of Bob Kagle, the founder of venture capital firm Benchmark and a minority owner of the Golden State Warriors.
Kagle has been happy to help San Francisco golf, and previously made a donation to the school that allowed the program to get its first TrackMan.
Kennedy, previously the men’s and women’s assistant coach, was named interim head coach of the men’s team in January and garnered permanent status at the head coaching position after the season (2017-18 is his first season in the role). As head coach, Kennedy had another idea about how Kagle, now semi-retired, could help out the team: Would Kagle like to travel with the group?
Kagle jumped at the chance, telling his son-in-law just to let him know when there would be a tournament for it to be a logistic advantage to have the team fly with him on his private plane.
Kennedy noted the Golfweek Conference Challenge, as there are no direct flights from San Francisco to Cedar Rapids, and Kagle had the opening in his schedule to travel with the team.
“(Private travel) is another way we can be helpful to the team and its well-being,” Kagle said.
At a meeting before the season, Kennedy tipped the private plane possibility to the team. Suddenly players began practicing harder and qualifying got more intense.
“You just notice the whole culture started to change,” Griffin said.
There’s no motivation like a high-class trip.
“That was in the back of our minds, ‘We don’t really care about the golf, we just want to get to ride on the private jet,’ ” freshman Toby Briggs joked.
After the roster for the Golfweek Conference Challenge was finalized, the qualifiers occasionally put on the song, “Billionaire,” (a Travie McCoy single featuring Bruno Mars), relating it to how the upcoming trip was going to be.
When the time finally came, the team drove right up to the plane, a Falcon 900 tri-jet that seats 14, at Hayward Executive Airport (in the East Bay subregion of the San Francisco Bay Area).
“It was like a movie,” said senior Henry Chung.
Of course, what was it like on the actual aircraft? Among the players who got to travel as part of the starting roster (Griffin, Chung, Briggs, sophomore Tim Widing and freshman Soren Lind), only Griffin had previously flown on a private plane.
The experience proved incredibly casual – a luxury in itself when you think about it.
Rather than having to go through the hassles of checking bags, airport security and being pinned in at your seat on the plane, private travel is a seamless process.
Players were able to indulge in poker for hours on the flight and could even get a comfortable nap on a couch if necessary.
“They were acting like college kids in a dorm room,” Kennedy said. “Just happened to be at 35,000 feet.”
The unusual college kid experience: How about sitting in the cockpit with the two pilots as the plane went on its descent to land?
Briggs did just that, letting out a worried tremor as the plane dropped toward the Eastern Iowa Airport in Cedar Rapids.
“It was pretty scary witnessing it from the front, where you just start nosediving toward the ground,” Briggs said.
But there’s no doubt Briggs enjoyed it.
The team will make the return flight home private as well, but any future trips with this type of travel are to be determined.
This experience served as more than just a nice luxury.
As the players noted, they did seem to up their intensity at the idea of flying this way. Kennedy added that it serves as a competitive advantage to save hours of traipsing through airports (and it can’t hurt as a recruiting tool).
It’s also a way to imbue confidence in the players that San Francisco is in step with the big boys.
“We want to think of ourselves as a program that belongs with the high majors,” Kennedy said. “Part of that is the way we travel.
“Travelling like professionals is always nice. I talked to these guys, they’re going to have a professional collegiate experience while they’re here. They’re not going to get paid, but we’re going to try to treat them like pros.”
The Dons have high hopes of returning to NCAA regionals for the first time since 2012 and players feel they’re deeper than they have been in recent years. Nobody on the roster is a pushover anymore in qualifiers and Chung says the team is as good as it’s been in five years.
San Francisco went about proving it in Cedar Rapids, as the Dons fired a second-round 7-under 281 (the round of the day Monday) to jump into solo third at 4 under.
So it seems flying private may have an effect after all.
Even if does turn out to be a one-time thing (not too likely, to be honest), the memories of that trip should buoy the squad for some time.
“It was an amazing experience with the team,” Griffin said. “We’re going to remember it forever.”