From rebuild to resurgence, Furman golf is back in a big way

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From rebuild to resurgence, Furman golf is back in a big way

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From rebuild to resurgence, Furman golf is back in a big way

EDEN PRAIRIE, Minn. – Senior Alice Chen has heard the question a time or two: Where’s Furman?

The answer, of course, is Greenville, S.C., population 67,453, as of last year’s census. The size of the student body: 2,970.

One doesn’t have to look far down the Golfweek/College Rankings from last season, however, to find the seventh-ranked Paladins.

“We can compete with anybody,” said Chen, matter-of-factly.

Which is why Furman is making its debut this week at the prestigious ANNIKA Intercollegiate Presented by 3M. The much-improved Paladins were invited to the elite, 12-team field that includes Stanford, Southern Cal, UCLA and Arkansas based on last year’s performance. 

The Razorbacks posted an even-par 288 on a cold and rainy opening day at Olympic Hills Golf Club and hold a three-stroke lead over South Carolina. Furman sits tied for sixth, 12 shots back.

“When I committed, we weren’t this good yet,” said senior Reona Hirai. “When we came in … it was just eye-opening because we won our first tournament. Ever since that we’ve been pushing and pushing to get better.”

Furman boasts a storied women’s golf history, with Betsy King, Beth Daniel and Dottie Pepper among its decorated alumni. But somewhere along the line the program lost its luster, and a dedicated group of alumni and supporters rallied to bring Kelley Hester to the helm. Hester, who had been recently let go at Georgia, brought along her assistant coach from Athens, Jeff Hull.

The 51-year-old Hull was promoted to head coach at Furman in July of 2016. He’s only been a college golf coach for six years, but has proven to be a quick study.

Hull met Hester while working as a teaching pro at Georgia’s University Golf Course.

“She knew that I had this secret desire to coach, but never had a great opportunity,” said Hull, who set a record for career scoring average during his time as a player at South Carolina.

When Hester had an opening for an assistant coach at Georgia for the 2011-12 season, she sent Hull a picture of the Pacific Ocean from the recruiting trail and said, “This could be your office.”

The pair were dealt a surprise blow the next spring in Athens, but went to Furman together in the fall of 2012 to begin the rebuilding process. 

Success came rather quickly, with Furman earning a berth at the 2016 NCAA Championship and a No. 20 ranking.

When Hester took the job at Clemson, 41 minutes north of Furman’s campus, Hull got promoted to his first head-coaching position. Players say it was a smooth transition.

“I always felt like we had two head coaches,” Chen said of Hester and Hull.

In his first season at the helm, Hull led Furman to its third-consecutive SoCon title and a second-place finish at NCAA Regionals, the school’s best finish since 1999. Furman won four times last season and finished 12th at the NCAA Championship just outside Chicago.

“The goals really haven’t changed, because we’ve never had goals,” said Hull. “We just are constantly trying to get better every day.”

Hull loves his job so much he gets choked up talking about his players. Chen said he works them hard at practice, and she appreciates the accountability. Every area of her game has improved, she said, thanks to Hull’s input.

“He’s made me see how good of a player I am,” said Chen, “and to believe in that too.”

Furman sophomore Natalie Srinivasan.

Natalie Srinivasan, a sophomore and the youngest in the Paladin lineup, likes the structure of Hull’s practices, particularly the drills he sets up.

“He does all the drills with us,” said Srinivasan, “and he beats us all the time.”

Hull calls himself a “practice guy” who likes to pour over stats and emphasize fun at tournaments. An area he’s currently harping on: making more putts from 6 to 15 feet. Hull said his team excels at ball-striking.

“The thing we try to sell is everybody has basically gotten better every year,” said Hull.

The team’s scoring average has indeed dropped 13.4 strokes since 2013.

 “I’m confident that we can make it into match play at nationals,” said Chen. “It’s an exciting year just to think of what’s ahead.”

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