Notes: A strange new world for Cowboys

Oklahoma State head coach Mike McGraw

Oklahoma State head coach Mike McGraw

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1Joey GarberGeorgia  68.61 
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What a season the Oklahoma State men’s team had in 2010-11. The Cowboys won eight tournaments, including the Big 12 Conference and NCAA South Central Regional titles. They again advanced to match play at the NCAA Championship, losing in the semifinals.

With only one senior on that squad, the immediate future seemed bright, too – at least on the surface.

However, Oklahoma State coach Mike McGraw knew he and his Cowboys would face a tough and challenging 2011-12 campaign.

First-team All-American Kevin Tway was the lone senior last season, but soon after the national championship, first-team All-American Morgan Hoffmann, a junior, announced that he was turning professional.

But McGraw had a solid ace in the hole. Peter Uihlein, another first-team All-American – the 2010 U.S. Amateur champion, the 2011 Ben Hogan Award winner and two-time U.S. Walker Cup member – was coming back for his senior year.

This past fall, however, Uihlein took advantage of opportunities to test the waters at the pro level and played in just one college event for the Cowboys, tying for 41st at Olympia Fields.

Then, after the fall campaign, Uihlein, too, announced he would turn pro and bypass his final spring season.

Just like that, the Cowboys’ future got a little dimmer.

“When you lose three first-team All-Americans, you pretty much know you’re not going to take a team to where it was before,” McGraw said.

Over the past quarter century, I’ve seen programs go up and down, down and up. Things seem to run in cycles.

The one thing that has remained constant during that period is Oklahoma State. Year in and year out, the Cowboys have been among college golf’s elite.

Since the Golfweek/Sagarin Rankings made their debut in 1999-2000, OSU has finished the season No. 1 five times, including the past three seasons. Only once have the Cowboys finished outside the top 10 (13th in 2000-01).

Also during that 12-year span, the Stillwater contingent has won two NCAA titles and finished in the top 15 at NCAAs 10 times.

In the first three seasons since match play became part of the NCAA Championship, the Cowboys twice finished first in the 54-hole stroke-play portion of the event. They lost in the quarterfinals in 2009, the finals in 2010 and the semifinals last season.

Now they are paddling upstream in waters unfamiliar to this storied program – one that has captured 10 NCAA titles, the last coming in 2006, McGraw’s first year as head coach.

What once seemed like the impossible is now a distinct possibility – Oklahoma State not competing at the NCAA Championship. OSU has competed in the event a record 65 consecutive years. Its nearest challenger for consecutive appearances? Florida with 11.

Right now, however, even with their No. 23 ranking, the Cowboys own a 49-45 overall won-loss record, and if they don’t maintain that .500 percentage, they could be on the outside looking in when the NCAA sends out postseason invitations.

“I’ve never experienced this type of season as a coach in 26 years,” said McGraw, dating back to his high-school coaching days and those as Mike Holder’s assistant at Oklahoma State. “It’s been disappointing for sure. . . . But I think you have to look at life’s overall picture. This is adversity, but it’s not something that will scar you for life. There are a lot of people out there who are facing a lot worse.

“This is certainly not the kind of season I had imagined, but maybe we – I – needed a year like this,” McGraw said. “Maybe it’s an opportunity for all of us to evaluate ourselves and to learn from it.”

The two Cowboys returning from last season’s NCAA squad are junior Sean Einhaus and sophomore Talor Gooch.

Gooch is having a solid year and is No. 9 individually in the Golfweek/Sagarin College Rankings. Einhaus has been up and down and ranks 136th.

After that, though, the Cowboys have no other players among the top 300. Junior Drew Page is 344th, sophomore Ian Davis is 418th and sophomore Kevin Dougherty is 459th.

Not only has the team not won a tournament, it has only two top 5s, those coming in the first two starts last fall at Olympia Fields (T-2) and the Golfweek Conference Challenge (third). Since then, the Cowboys have finished no better than ninth in five starts.

“In Puerto Rico (earlier this spring), we were in fourth place with nine holes to play and things looked encouraging,” McGraw said. “We ended up finishing 10th. That was the most disappointed time of this year.

“The bottom line is we’re not playing the kind of golf we’re supposed to play,” he said. “Maybe it’s me. Maybe I’m not doing a good job and need to do some soul-searching myself.”

The road won’t be getting any easier, either. After a tie for ninth last weekend at the Southern Highlands Collegiate Masters in Las Vegas, the Cowboys are in action again this week at the Callaway Match Play Championship. From there, they play at Augusta State (March 31-April 1), Texas A&M’s Aggie Invitational (April 21-22) and the Big 12 Conference Championship (April 27-29).

While it’s no doubt difficult for him to remain upbeat at times, McGraw tries to keeps a positive attitude and remains confident in his team.

“I’m the eternal optimist,” he said. “It hasn’t been easy – and at times pretty rough. We’ve had to count scores this spring we’ve never had to count before. But I really believe it’s going to get better. It may be tomorrow or next week or next month. I just know we will start playing like I feel we are capable of playing. I’m very confident about that.”

Knowing McGraw and the tradition of the Oklahoma State program, I don’t doubt it. And I don’t think there’s a college coach out there who does.

Really, can you imagine an NCAA Championship without the Cowboys? Why, it would be like Christmas without Santa Claus.

• • •

ALSO WATCHING .500: Oklahoma State isn’t the only team keeping their eyes on the .500 mark. Six other teams in the top 80 – including two-time defending national champion Augusta State – are below the break-even point, giving them some work to do to qualify for the postseason.

The 50th-ranked Jaguars, who lost all five starters from last season’s title team, are 46-48-1 and play in this week’s Schenkel Invitational in Statesboro, Ga. Other bubble teams currently below .500 are No. 63 Mississippi (37-40-2), No. 72 Ohio State (32-44-1), No. 78 Arizona State (43-66-1), No. 79 Vanderbilt (40-48) and No. 80 Pepperdine (38-44-1).

Flirting with danger: No. 55 Notre Dame (32-29-1), No. 59 Lamar (34-33-2) and No. 71 Southeastern Louisiana (40-39).

A look ahead . . .

What: Morris Williams Jr. Intercollegiate

When: Friday-Sunday, March 16-17

Where: University of Texas Golf Club, Austin, Texas

Why it’s important: This is a good opportunity for the host team to end its recent malaise. After four consecutive victories spanning the end of the fall and start of the spring, the No. 1-ranked Longhorns have finished sixth in their past two events (Puerto Rico, Southern Highlands). Jordan Spieth, Dylan Frittelli and Co. will look to get back on track against a field with six other top-50 teams but only two in the top 35 (No. 14 Texas A&M and No. 20 New Mexico). Other top-50 squads are TCU (36), Texas Tech (43), North Texas (44), and Wake Forest (47). The event is held annually in memory of Austin native and former Texas star Morris Williams Jr., who died in a plane crash while serving in the Air Force in 1953.

• • •

What: Callaway Collegiate Match Play Championship

When: Sunday-Tuesday, March 18-20

Where: Concession Golf Club, Bradenton, Fla.

Why it’s important: This 16-team event gives NCAA Championship contenders some important match-play experience and features 11 top-50 teams in the Golfweek/Sagarin College Rankings. First-round matchups (rankings in parentheses): California (5) vs. North Carolina-Wilmington (93); Arkansas (11) vs. Washington State (107); Duke (16) vs. Arizona State (78); Oklahoma State (23) vs. Colorado State (57); Chattanooga (31) vs. South Florida (76); Iowa (32) vs. East Carolina (42); Liberty (33) vs. Tennessee (38); Indiana (34) vs. Kennesaw State (40).

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