Heart, strategy key in Baylor's comeback NCCGA win

Baylor won its first NCCGA national title in its short program history on April 27.

In Waco, Texas, Matt Brugner and his Baylor club golf teammates have learned to perfect the knock-down shot. In a strong, chilly New Jersey wind April 27, Baylor put that knowledge to good use. The Bears mounted a powerful comeback at the National Collegiate Club Golf Association finals, coming from three shots back to win by 18.

“We thought that would favor the cold-weather teams but we handled it well,” Baylor club president said of the weather at Crystal Springs Resort in Hamburg, N.J. Conditions were textbook for early spring, and Baylor rose to the occasion.

Six months ago at the NCCGA’s fall national championship, Baylor tied for second with Campbell, nine shots short of champion Michigan. The Bears team was just getting off the ground then after having been founded the previous spring. Brugner plus three teammates returned from that squad (NCCGA features a play-eight-count-five format), and all wanted it badly.

“We got together Saturday night at the hotel and said, ‘This is what we need to do to win this thing,’” Brugner says of this year’s motivation. The next day, the team shaved 10 shots from its score.

You could say that conversation happened days or even months before the final round, however. Baylor’s club team operated with a competitive model from the start. As many as 90 players show up each semester with an interest in competing, and about 40 play the two-day, 36-hole qualifier used to narrow the team. Twelve guys made it past that qualifier this spring, though only eight would travel.

“We’ve done a lot of trading out and trading up for better players,” Brugner said.

A national title may bring the sort of headlines that increases interest in Baylor’s club team, and Brugner can see the team possibly growing to 16 players. He doesn’t want it to grow too big since team dynamic and a close bond have been key in Baylor’s success.

“Make it feel like a varsity team as opposed to some clubs who have 100 or 200 members but some guys just don’t know each other,” Brugner said.

In many aspects, though, club golf is totally unlike varsity golf. In some ways, that worked to Baylor’s advantage. The national championship was played at Crystal Springs Resort’s two courses – Wild Turkey and Ballyowen. Baylor had just one day to scout both courses (many teams don’t even come early for a practice round, but the Bears committed to missing an extra day of school to make it happen). The men divided into two foursomes and scouted each course, taking thorough notes.

NCCGA play consists of foursomes with two sets of teammates. No two Baylor teammates played the same course in practice, meaning each was able to coach the other through one of the courses. Such team play is allowed under NCCGA rules.

“We do like to communicate and we intentionally pair people who are used to playing with each other,” Brugner said, even if that does sometimes create a heated discussion over the shot or putt at hand.

Far from going to New Jersey for all business, Baylor players found time to trek into New York City to take in Times Square and a Yankees game. The trip home was much more rushed.

“We ran to the car because we had to make a flight at Newark in like an hour and half,” sophomore Hogan Hudgins said, laughing. “We managed to make it barely, but we didn’t have much time to celebrate. We celebrated in the plane on the way back.”

Hudgins is in the pre-med program at Baylor, and passed up a handful of college golf opportunities to pursue that difficult degree. It’s why he jumped on board so quickly when he heard Brugner advertising the team a year ago. It’s a more relaxed way to compete.

When players return in the fall, Hudgins already thinks hanging a national-champion banner over the team’s table at a traditional back-to-school gathering of all Baylor organizations in the Student Union could attract attention.

“Putting national champions way up high could attract a lot of people,” he said. “If we have to expand the team because we have a lot of good guys trying out.”

In the mean time, Brugner has gone from juggling team captain duties to vice president duties for the NCCGA. Many of the organization’s officers brought teams to New Jersey, and Brugner says that’s no coincidence. It’s dedicated individuals like Brugner who keep this group growing.

In checking his email Monday morning after the national championship, Brugner had a message announcing the addition of yet another university club team.

“It’s literally daily we get these schools that I’ve never heard of across the country,” he said. “It’s really awesome to see the work everyone is putting in and seeing more teams compete. It’s not just about adding teams, it’s adding teams that want to compete and want to put a lot of work in it.”

A year from now, Baylor’s model of fierce competition could be matched by any number of schools emerging into the club-golf arena.

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