Furman alumni, donors fret about loss of men's golf

Furman golf supporters Cindy Davis (left), an alumna and president of Nike Golf, and Scott Timmons Hipp, a major university donor, encourage juniors during a 2011 AJGA event at Furman University Golf Club in Greenville, S.C.

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Frank Ford feels betrayed. Don’t misunderstand, because Ford’s love for Furman University runs as deep today as it did before he learned that his alma mater was cutting the men’s golf program. But the hurt and disappointment is thick in his voice.

“It’s a dark day for Furman,” he said.

Ford is “deeply saddened” for all the young men who won’t have the opportunity to play golf and get a degree from Furman, perhaps one day making it into the school’s Hall of Fame as he did. Ford, like many others, is frustrated that he wasn’t given the chance to stop this from happening.

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Frank Ford

But Ford also looks at what has transpired at Furman, a small liberal-arts school in Greenville, S.C., with a golf tradition that dates to the early 1930s, and is equally disturbed by the bigger picture.

“Golf needs to look at itself a lot harder than it does,” said Ford, 61, who is senior vice president of wealth management at Morgan Stanley in Charleston, S.C. “At a serious place like Furman, with a long history, and golf is what’s targeted as expendable, that’s bad for golf.”

The outcry over the university’s decision to eliminate the men’s golf program after the spring season came in the form of an online petition with more than 2,000 names and scores of emotionally charged comments.

But because this was a financial decision made by the Board of Trustees on Feb. 7 to help address a budget deficit – a reported $6.4 million for the 2014-15 school year – all of the signatures in the world won’t change the bottom line.

Ford has spent the past several days speaking with members of the board and Furman’s administration and sees a tough road ahead for those who, like him, are looking to save golf.

“We would have to walk to Greenville with a check today,” Ford said Monday. “Enough to endow the golf program.”

And how much would that cost?

“$9 million,” he said.

Todd Satterfield said he was “dumbfounded” Feb. 6 when Furman athletic director Gary Clark told the 18-year coach that his program could be shuttered. Golf is among the least expensive sports to carry on any given campus. At Furman, Satterfield said the annual budget is about $400,000.

Clark, who when questioned by Golfweek asked to respond via email, confirmed that a $9 million endowment would be needed to generate approximately $400,000 in interest annually to fund the program. Whether that's a possibility at this stage is unclear.

Scott Timmons Hipp, for one, is convinced that the program can be saved, and she doesn’t think it will take $9 million to do it.

Those familiar with the Furman campus will recognize Hipp’s name. Scott’s husband, Neel Hipp, a Furman trustee for 15 years, donated, among many other things, the money for Hipp Hall.

Scott Timmons Hipp said that when her father, a Furman trustee for 30 years, found out in the late '90s that the sponsor for the proposed arena in Greenville was going to require the sale of beer at all Paladins games and would dictate the school’s basketball schedule, he and his siblings wrote a check for $4 million to build what would become Timmons Arena.

Scott and Neel Hipp added their own personal check of $100,000 toward the new gym, the first of many significant donations from the passionate supporters. In fact, when Nike Golf chief Cindy Davis wrote to her fellow alumni and urged them to donate specifically to the golf programs, the Hipps responded by designating that the benefit from their $1 million life-insurance policy go directly to Furman golf.

Hipp, like Ford, is deeply hurt that she wasn’t told golf was on the chopping block before it was too late.

“I feel slapped in the face that I was not notified,” Hipp said. “We were not given the opportunity to help.”

Clark, the athletic director, defended the announcement, distributed via a university news release at 5:38 p.m. on a Friday as the school effectively closed for the weekend. Furman revealed the move "shortly after the decision was made by the Board of Trustees and we talked with the coach and the team."

"Unfortunately, there is no easy way to make or communicate these kinds of decisions," Clark said via email. "There is always a better way to do something, but I do not know of anything in this process that if done differently would have resulted in a different decision or cause people to feel better about the decision."

Adding more head-scratching to this decision is the fact that the golf course at Furman, built in the 1950s on the northwest corner of campus, underwent a $1 million renovation four years ago. And in the past two years, work has been done on a modern short-game practice facility for both teams to use.

“I don’t know what their thinking was,” said Willie Miller, whose coaching career at Furman spanned three decades before he ran the university course. Furman University Golf Club ranks No. 29 on the Golfweek’s Best Campus Courses list.

And what of the men's and women's lacrosse teams that start their programs this year?

Ford said the powers-that-be determined that adding lacrosse would open the university to new markets down the road, even if it meant “turning their back on some history.”

The two lacrosse teams were funded by a gift from an anonymous alumnus who pledged $5 million in October 2011.

Betsy King recalled going into the president’s office in the mid-70s to ask for more money for women’s athletics. She promised at the time that if she made it on the LPGA, she would share her success with Furman.

King, who won 34 LPGA titles in a World Golf Hall of Fame career, made good on that promise, running a lucrative fundraising pro-am for more than 20 years with fellow alumna Beth Daniel, herself a 33-time winner on the LPGA. Even entertainer Dinah Shore flew in to participate. From the start, King and Daniel made sure the proceeds from the event were split between the men’s and women’s programs.

And in recent years, a group of heavy hitters from the women’s side – including King and Daniel – got together to ensure the hiring of Kelley Hester as women's coach, raising money to help restore Furman’s winning tradition.

“Why wouldn’t they at least approach a group of people to say ‘What can we do to save the (men’s) program?’ ” King asked.

Hester said the administration has assured her that women’s golf will continue to be funded as it has been in the past, if not better, because officials think the program should be nationally prominent.

When Hester was told several weeks ago that her program was in no danger of budget cuts, she immediately asked about men’s golf. With no assurances for her counterparts, she said she had been stewing about it ever since, never believing the board “would actually pull the trigger.”

Hester said the absence of a men’s program will make a difference for the women. At every school where Hester has coached – Mercer, UNLV, Arkansas and Georgia – she has encouraged her players to practice alongside the men’s team and watch how they do things.

Plus, as Hester noted, it’s just more fun. The men’s and women’s golf teams at most schools typically are quite close.

“We’ve been handed the responsibility of carrying on the tradition that is Furman golf,” Hester said.

“It’s a tall task.”

Lance Ringler contributed

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