Bonds run deep for CSUMB at Golfweek Invite

CSU Monterey Bay's Scott Yeakel

CSU Monterey Bay's Scott Yeakel

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DAVENPORT, Fla. – Many of the teams here at Reunion Resort have retired to their villas. Some players will catch up on homework, some will phone their parents, some will watch television. Toiling away in the fading sunlight are the five players on the Cal State-Monterey Bay golf team, with their coach, Jason Owen, standing a few feet back, forever imploring his men to do more.

Of course, there could be worse places to be on a Monday afternoon. Like Monterey, Calif., where last weekend the residents were rudely awakened by a light dusting of snow. “We got out just in time,” said junior D.J. Milligan, and then he launched a crisp iron shot into the blue sky.

A few hours on the range was punishment for an 8-over 296 in the second round of the Golfweek Division II Spring Invitational. The Otters sit 10 strokes back heading into Tuesday’s finale, and Owen wasn’t about to waste quality practice time. A few months ago, after their first victory of the season, the Otters were cooking out on the beach and bodysurfing in Hawaii. Senior Scott Yeakel laughs at the memory. “We played bad today,” he said, “so that means we get to practice more. And probably eat at Chick-fil-A.”

Over the past few months, the Otters have traveled to the Pacific Northwest, to the Big Island of Hawaii, to sunny Florida. How is it that a tiny Division II school of 4,500 students can afford to ship its golf team to such distant locations? How is it that in this economic crunch, CSUMB still can afford to offer its student-athletes something more? To hear Owen, the answer is quite simple. This is what hard work can bring. This is what happens when you volunteer with The First Tee, when you get involved with the community, when you realize that there’s something more significant at stake than just scores and plaques. “It’s just all about the experience,” Owen said. 

No team has accrued more air miles this week than CSUMB. The team’s home base in Seaside, Calif., is 2,800 miles away. It’s a six-hour flight, with a brief layover in Chicago. To send five players and a coach to Florida is about a $6,000 expense, Owen said, about twice more than his team’s typical tournament budget. And though the NCAA allows Division II golf programs a maximum of 3.6 scholarships, CSUMB allocates only 1.4. “We’re handicapped in some ways,” Owen said. “But we try to make up for it.”

Monterey is a mostly affluent community with many retirees and transplants, so the golf team meets face-to-face with the donors. They host fundraisers. They spend time at The First Tee of Monterey. “Making it to the national championship last year really put us on the map,” said sixth-year senior John Jackson. “It seems like no one knew we even had a golf program before that.”

Owen, 33, is in his third year with the Otters. More than a decade ago, he was the star player at Southeast Missouri State, a small Division I program. In his four years there, his team won only three tournaments, but he earned medalist honors seven times. “Those meant the world to me,” he said. But something about college (and then his stint on the mini-tours) left Owen unfulfilled. He craved something more. He craved a more valuable experience. He wished he had been pushed harder.

That may help explain why the CSUMB players awoke before dawn last year for a 5:30 workout. “I’ve only got two guys on the team who haven’t thrown up in the workouts,” Owen said, boasting. “We’re actually working that hard.”

“We have a love-hate relationship with Coach,” Yeakel said, “and he knows it, too. He knows that’s how to make us better.”

When they’re not doing mountain climbs or wind sprints in the gymnasium, the guys (and, yes, even Owen) most likely are together. Last November, during their trip to Hawaii, they were treated to a Hawaiian barbeque outside their condo. Later, they bodysurfed in the ocean. On the road, they’ll spend the evening playing Indian poker, or playing a few games at the bowling alley, or talking about their relationships.

“I know every girlfriend story there is, both the good and the bad,” Owen said. “Sometimes I learn a little more than I want to.”

“I don’t know what it is,” Yeakel said, laughing, “but he knows everything. It’s like he’s got contacts or something.”

Along the way, the Otters have managed to play some pretty good golf, too. In Owen’s two-plus years at the helm, they’ve won five events, four individual titles and earned their first national-championship berth. “It’s been an interesting time here,” said Jackson, and he’d know. After walking on as a freshman, Jackson was moving up the team’s depth chart until he shattered his left pinkie finger during his sophomore season, an injury so gruesome that the damaged digit needed to be fully reconstructed. “I thought my career was ruined,” said Jackson, and then he removed his glove to show his crooked finger, which drew a few gasps from his teammates. “Oh, man!” Milligan yelped. “I didn’t know it was that bad!”

“Yeah,” Jackson said, slipping back on the glove, “I’ve been trying to get it back ever since. I’ll be the first to admit that I probably haven’t put everything into my game that I probably should have, but I’m still hoping to find some backing (and play professionally).”

Milligan harbors no such aspirations. He wants to build his own junior academy, to help young kids the same way he’s been helped. “He’s a genius,” Jackson said of Milligan, who intentionally has lessened his course load just so he can graduate in four years, not three. “You know what you’re getting with D.J.,” Owen said. “Golf is not going to be the end game for him.”

And then there’s Yeakel, the team’s returning All-America selection. He had the lead going into the final round in Hawaii, but teammate Oskar Nystrom, a 24-year-old Swede, came from behind to win the individual title. Another learning experience, he said. Two years ago, Yeakel was suspended by Owen (academic reasons), but he’s since turned the corner with his coach, his grades and his game. They’ve come so far, in fact, that later this year, Yeakel will be on Owen’s bag when he plays the Professional National Championship in Hershey, Pa.

“We’ve done a little bit of everything together, and I’m very close with my guys,” Owen said. “You’re with them so much, you have to be friends.”

And that makes it easier to accept the coach’s advice when the sun is fading and the memory of a second-round 296 lingers. Later, a few of the guys will work on kinesiology homework, then go out to dinner as a team. No fine dining for the boys tonight, Yeakel said. On this day, they didn’t play well enough to earn it.

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