Changed by tragedy, Oklahoma seeks national title
The sleepy-eyed Oklahoma Sooners met at the Charlie Coe Golf Center at 4:30 a.m., chasing program history. The team was preparing to travel to Eugene, Ore., and play for its fourth consecutive trip to the NCAA Championship.
Among the parents, coaches and players, there were two more people present: Marty and Kelly Lewis. They have no genetic connection to any of the players, but something nearly as strong.
Marty and Kelly Lewis might have been kissing their own son goodbye that morning if it were not for a tragic turn of events on July 26, 2010.
Kyle Lewis, 18, was killed in a car accident on the way back from an all-state golf tournament. The Oklahoma signee died nine minutes after driving into the underside of an overpass on the Turner Turnpike near Stroud, Okla. The cause of the accident is unknown, but it took his life just weeks before he would have arrived at the OU campus in Norman.
Head coach Ryan Hybl and assistant Blake Smart would meet with the Lewis family later that day.
"You don't ever want those phone calls. My heart was with Kelly and Marty and their daughter. I don't know how to help them besides try to be there," Hybl said. "That's what we did. We hopped in the car and went to the Lewis family house. We just cried and hugged, and that's the way it was."
Marty and Kelly Lewis have reciprocated that support in the years since Kyle's death.
“They’re our boys. That’s what we call them,” Marty told soonerssports.com. “The names may change over the years, but they are always our boys.”
Nearly four years later, the Lewis family has a bond with the Sooners that hasn't faded.
"That's the kind of people they are," Hybl said. "They know that they're part of this golf team and Kyle is part of this golf team. I hate that we all missed out on having him around, and I missed the opportunity to coach him, because he was a great kid."
Marty and Kelly Lewis have seen Oklahoma transform from the third-best team in the state to a national powerhouse. It wasn't too long ago – 2010, to be exact – that the Tulsa Golden Hurricane finished the season as the No. 64 team in the Golfweek/Sagarin College Rankings, 16 spots ahead of Oklahoma. Now, Oklahoma is heading to the NCAA Championship for a fourth consecutive season. The Sooners head into the event, to be played May 23-28 at Prairie Dunes Country Club in Hutchinson, Kan., as the No. 14 team in the country.
The Lewises were aligned with the program through tragedy, but, four years later, they're still a part of the team.
"I know that can't be easy for them, because when they see us playing, I can only imagine they see their son out there," junior Charlie Saxon said. "I know that's rough on them, but we really appreciate their support, and I hope they know how much it means to us."
Despite the fact that very few of the players on OU's roster personally knew Kyle, his memory is preserved by the team. A few players, including Saxon, wore bracelets during a third-place finish at the Eugene Regional. The rubber band read, "One shot at a time." The name plate for Kyle's locker is displayed in Hybl's office. Lewis' bag stands in the Charlie Coe Center, along with the trophy for the Desert Shootout, a tournament that the team dedicated to his memory in what would have been his freshman campaign.
"Whenever I looked at the tee sheet and I saw I was paired with Kyle, I knew it was going to be a fun day," said Saxon, who competed against Lewis as a junior golfer in Oklahoma. "He was a great guy and a great competitor. Even though we were rivals, we were still very good friends. I'd be lying if I said I don't think of him on the golf course a lot."
But Lewis was more to OU than a promising recruit, a great kid or a number on a scorecard. He represented something bigger for Hybl and the program.
Coming out of Shawnee, Okla., Lewis and his family bled crimson and cream. Lewis was named the 2010 Jim Thorpe Boys Golfer of the Year, the highest honor for a high school golfer in Oklahoma.
He was the first recruit to sign under Hybl. He was the leader in what would become a program-changing recruiting class. He was the start of something new for Oklahoma.
"He was the first guy who committed to the program, so he kind of laid the foundation for some of the other guys to come," Saxon said.
The Sooners have a proud tradition, which includes 16 conference titles and the 1989 national championship. But the program had slumped before Hybl, a former AJGA Player of the Year and All-American at Georgia, arrived in 2009. In Lewis' senior year of high school, Oklahoma was ranked No. 80 in the nation, and rival Oklahoma State was ranked No. 1.
A native of Tulsa, Saxon understands the junior-golf landscape in the state and surrounding areas.
"For me, personally, I wanted to go to Oklahoma State," Saxon said. "I grew up a diehard Sooner – my parents and everybody went to OU – but I wanted to play golf at Oklahoma State just because it is Oklahoma State. That's where a lot of kids from Oklahoma grew up wanting to play."
Times have changed. Hybl and company persuaded Oklahomans such as Lewis, Saxon and freshman Max McGreevy to become Sooners. Now, the program has secured the verbal commitment of Brad Dalke, a class of 2016 golfer who is ranked No. 1 in Oklahoma and No. 4 in the nation in Golfweek's rankings.
"We've created a good foundation here at OU," Hybl said. "Fortunately we've had some great guys come through here. … But now it's time for us to make that next step and get one of these spots (into the eight-team match-play bracket for the NCAA team title). Our guys deep down believe that if we play good golf, we can go get one of the eight spots."
As much change and success as Kelly and Marty Lewis have seen in the past four years, they have not witnessed a championship. The couple have traveled to support the Sooners at the Big 12 Championship in the past four years and plan to make it to Kansas this week for the NCAAs. Oklahoma hopes the couple witness program history.
"We haven't won a Big 12 Championship, we haven't won a regional and we haven't won a national championship," Hybl said. "So we've got to start winning."
Heading into his third NCAA Championship, Saxon will be one of four Sooners to tee off Friday with experience at the event.
"Since coach Hybl has been here, we've had a steady climb up to where we are now, ranking-wise," Saxon said. "All the tournaments we've won were tournaments we were supposed to win. We were the best team going in.
"I feel like it's time for us to do something and really break out."