Houston charts path back toward nation's elite

Houston coach Jonathan Dismuke (right) and senior Bryn Flanagan.

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For three decades – from the mid-1950s to the mid-1980s – no team dominated college golf like the University of Houston.

Under the late coach Dave Williams, the Cougars won a record 16 NCAA titles. Williams retired from Houston in 1987, but not before claiming his final two NCAA crowns in 1984-85.

“We might not have been the greatest golfers,” said former Houston player Billy Ray Brown, a part of three national-championship squads before playing 12 seasons on the PGA Tour, “but we were athletes, strong and long . . . and we knew that we were going to kick the other teams’ butts.”

Since then, however, the program has lost much of its luster, qualifying for the NCAA Championship only nine times in the past 26 years, the last time in 2001. Its recent 12-year postseason drought is the longest in school history.

It’s a skid that could end this season. Under fifth-year head coach Jonathan Dismuke, a former assistant at Mississippi and Texas A&M, the program is experiencing a rebirth.

In each of the past four years, the Cougars have improved their position in the Golfweek/Sagarin College Rankings, climbing a stunning 79 spots in the past two years. They finished last season at No. 26 and are No. 17 in Golfweek’s preseason rankings this year. Houston finished third behind Central Florida and Virginia at last weekend's season-opening event, the Northern Invitational.

“I don’t particularly put a whole lot into rankings; it’s more about people for me,” Dismuke said. “In my first year, it was very important to lay a strong foundation and bring in freshmen who could be competitive, develop over time and really buy into what we were doing.”

Four seasons later, the foundation seems rock solid.

After years of bouncing around several local courses, the Cougars have found a home at Redstone Golf Club, which houses the Dave Williams Golf Academy and is home to the PGA Tour’s Shell Houston Open. Dismuke also has rejuvenated recruiting and fundraising.

Perhaps most importantly, he has helped revive the school’s golf tradition by reaching out to former players, including Brown, 10-time PGA Tour winner Steve Elkington and others.

“All those guys have been really responsive and been a huge help in getting this program back on the map,” Dismuke said. “I could list names, but I’m going to leave someone out.”

Said Brown, the 1982 NCAA champion who spends quite a bit of time around the program: “It’s a great hang being around those kids.”

Six Cougars return who made at least six starts last season, including four seniors: Curtis Reed, Wesley McClain, Bryn Flanagan and Jesse Droemer. Add juniors Roman Robledo (the 2013 Conference USA medalist) and Kyle Pilgrim, redshirt senior James Ross, sophomore Vincent Martino and freshman Matt Scobie, and you have one of college golf’s deepest rosters.

“That builds such a competitive atmosphere,” said Dismuke, whose team tied for sixth at NCAA regionals last spring, missing a finals trip by one spot. “Our guys are going to have to show up every day to get into the lineup.”

However, he also knows his team still has a lot of work to do. “It’s been very special so far,” he said. “We’ve overcome a lot of hurdles But it’s more about sealing the deal. Making it (to the NCAA Championship) is one thing; being competitive (there) is another.”

If nothing else, there is a buzz that has been missing for two-plus decades.

“We’ll have people we’ve never seen before come up to us around campus or on the range and ask how we’re doing,” Reed said, “and most of the credit has to go to (Dismuke); this program wouldn’t be where it is today without him.”

Said Brown: “He embraces tradition, and for us former players, it’s fun to watch.”

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