Clemson responds to girls' golf trend

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When Austin Ernst won the NCAA Division I Women’s Championship last May, Larry Penley knew the time was right. Ernst, then a freshman at LSU, grew up less than 10 miles from Clemson, S.C. Homegrown talent had arrived.

Clemson announced last July that it would add a women’s golf program beginning with the 2013-14 season. Penley, Clemson’s longtime men’s coach, was promoted to director of golf. He hired J.T. Horton a month later to lead the women. While it was too late to nab Ernst, the state’s talent pool undoubtedly had deepened.

photo

J.T. Horton

“Our recruiting base is the state of South Carolina,” Penley said. “We wanted to make sure the girls’ (high school) competition could get us where we wanted to be on a conference level and a national level.”

Only two high schools in the upper half of South Carolina had girls’ golf teams until recent years, Penley said. Now, with area high schools sporting rosters of eight to 10 girls, Penley and his administration began laying bricks. Clemson will be the ninth Division I women’s golf program in the state and the 10th ACC school.

Clemson’s addition not only illustrates why golf has been one of Title IX’s biggest beneficiaries, but underscores the advances women’s athletics has made under the 1972 legislation. Unlike Title IX’s early days when compliance worries typically forced university action, Clemson is moving forward for a simple reason: The Tigers believe they can win – soon.

Relatively inexpensive start-up costs and the prospects of early success help explain golf’s gains.

Clemson’s inaugural program already is well under way. Horton signed the school’s first two recruits in November: Lauren Salazar of Santa Clara, Calif., and Taylor Ramsey of Milledgeville, Ga. Both women will redshirt next season and begin play in fall 2013.

Penley tabbed Horton to build Clemson’s program after watching him resurrect the women’s team at Tulane. The Green Wave lost their golf programs in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina in 2005. Horton was hired in July 2007 to restore the women’s team and spent the next year recruiting. In Tulane’s first year back, the Green Wave won the Conference USA title and advanced to the national championship.

Horton grew up 45 minutes from Clemson and calls Penley a coaching mentor. In 29 years at Clemson, Penley has led the Tigers to 61 titles, including eight ACC Championships and one national title. Former Tigers on the PGA Tour include Lucas Glover, Jonathan Byrd, Kyle Stanley and D.J. Trahan. Penley expects the women’s program to follow suit.

Horton’s team will have full access to on-campus practice facilities used by the men (putting lab, club repair, weight room, etc.). Penley said their golf budget might actually exceed the men’s during the first year, given that the men’s success affords them free equipment.

“They’re going to have everything they need,” Penley said.

Horton has six full scholarships, the maximum number allowed by the NCAA, to offer. North Carolina coach Jan Mann said the most difficult part about starting the program at Virginia 10 years ago was getting enough good players in the beginning while still saving enough scholarship money for down the road. Mann also had six full scholarships at her disposal and used 21⁄2 that first year. She didn’t want to start from scratch four years later. Horton will face a similar challenge.

“We don’t want to be a good flash in the pan,” he said.

Horton will have to get creative in his recruiting, relying on in-state scholarships and academic money to attract talented juniors. Not to mention his biggest selling point: Be among the first.

“I certainly sold it as an exciting event,” Mann said. “The history of the program starts with you.”

Mann led the Cavaliers to an NCAA Championship appearance in their second year of competition. A golf-rich school such as Clemson should produce similar results.

Time will tell if it will be worth the wait.

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