This story appeared in Issue 4 of Golfweek magazine.
Jay Seawell, head men’s golf coach at the University of Alabama, met his players face to face mid-August for the first time in five months. When the team gathered for that first time after an extended break amid a global pandemic, they wore face masks and spread out around a large room.
“I just didn’t want to do a virtual meeting,” Seawell said. There have been so many of those since March.
Testing protocols have begun in Tuscaloosa and Seawell is hopeful to start practice, in some form, in September while still waiting to see what the fall season will look like.
There is no easy road map, much less a definitive one. Ultimately, each conference made its own decision about the fall golf season and in some cases, each university made its own decision.
More than half of conferences had eliminated the fall golf season by mid-August. The SEC, of which Alabama is a member, was among the conferences that hadn’t (the SEC later announced a three-tournament fall schedule). Some teams will compete in the fall while others won’t, and players on non-competing teams likely will branch out to play individually.
There are still some constants in college golf. Seawell, who has coached the Crimson Tide for nearly two decades and amassed two national titles in that time, for example, still believes competition is key even if it’s non-traditional.
His fall plan includes scoreboards in practice and inner-squad 54-hole “events.”
“I do think it’s very important that we re-energize the competitive gene in them,” he said.
The fate of the many long-standing fall competitions, like the Landfall Tradition, is one indicator of the fall landscape. For the first time in 18 years, the Landfall won’t be played.
The North Carolina-Wilmington-hosted tournament is something of a phenomenon in women’s college golf. Tournament week includes a college-am and a formal banquet. Community support at Landfall Country Club in Wilmington, North Carolina, is enormous, with some volunteers and scorers even driving 75 miles from Myrtle Beach – or farther – just to support the event.
When the Atlantic Coast Conference canceled fall golf, it wiped six teams from the field. Cindy Ho, head women’s golf coach at North Carolina-Wilmington, lost five more from the Big 10. There were also safety concerns for an older volunteer base amid a pandemic.
“We stalled as long as we could,” Ho said.
The Colonial Athletic Association was among conferences that left it up to member schools to decide how to proceed in the fall. Ho worked the phones with other coaches in the region trying to devise a plan to play safely. Every time a conference nixed the fall, or closed ranks within itself, that became more challenging.
“I’m on the phone with anybody,” she said. “…I’m trying to figure out how to play even if it’s our own pod four times.”
Ultimately, she decided UNCW wouldn’t compete as a team in the fall.
By that point, players in the ACC already knew the feeling. The ACC canceled the fall portion of several split-season sports, golf included, on July 29.
Virginia Tech senior Emily Mahar had spent the summer trying to play events she knew would prepare her for the fall season, even though she knew there was a possibility that season wouldn’t happen.
“We didn’t really know what to expect so we tried to plan for a normal return,” she said by email. “When we heard that the season was canceled, it was difficult to hear, but in the end, we know that the university, the conference and the NCAA are doing what they believe is in the best interest of everyone involved.”
In Austin, Texas, Cooper Dossey felt himself wince at the ACC’s decision, and every subsequent conference announcement.
“The thought in my head is, ‘I guess we’re next,’” said Dossey, who is returning for a fifth year at Baylor. The Big 12 had not restricted fall golf as of August.
Dossey deleted his social media accounts during this pandemic and tried to temper his expectations for the fall season – even though that had no bearing on his decision to return to Baylor for a fifth year. As he pointed out, college seniors had few better options for the next few months, and a rather bad taste with which to end an undergraduate career.
“I’m a pretty emotional person and I didn’t want to go out like that,” he said. “I wanted to have that fourth chance and hopefully we get it. If not, that’s just how it’s supposed to be.”
Dossey underwent safety protocols upon returning to the Baylor campus mid-August that included two COVID tests and a self-isolation period.
After that? More waiting, but always with an eye on what he can do to make the situation better for his team.
“It’s hard to be a leader on a team when you don’t have any information to lead with,” he said. “I think it’s hard to lead guys who don’t have anything to work for right now.”
Coaches might feel a similar burden.
Colorado is among teams without a fall schedule after the Pac-12 Conference, of which it is a member, voted to postpone all sports competitions through the end of the 2020 calendar year. For Roy Edwards, head men’s golf coach at Colorado, not hitting the usual fall stops will sting. He’ll miss opening the season at the Gene Miranda Falcon Invitational at the U.S. Air Force Academy.
“There’s always an excitement going to the first tournament of the year, going down to the Air Force Academy, which is a special place and a special golf course,” he said. “… A lot of times, there’s a football game that’s happening literally right next to the golf course while we’re playing.
“Just that pageantry of college athletics. Getting that back as soon as possible I think is important for everybody.”
Creativity will be key. For the Buffs, that might take shape as mini inner-team tournaments at a variety of local courses – anything to keep players engaged.
Edwards points to PGA Tour players like Collin Morikawa, Justin Thomas and Bryson DeChambeau who came back from their three-month break stronger than ever. College players, particularly those who won’t have fall team competition, must find a way to mirror that.
Edwards is helping provide those opportunities. He and Wyoming men’s golf coach Joe Jensen chair the Saguaro Amateur Series, normally a four-event West Coast amateur golf series that has grown to at least nine events in 2020.
Most coaches will have lists of such individual events in their back pockets for players seeking playing opportunities. The frequency with which players compete will vary greatly, just as it did in the summer season.
Justin Silverstein, head women’s golf coach at USC, had six players compete in the U.S. Women’s Amateur in August, including Gabi Ruffels, who nearly pulled off a title defense with Silverstein on the bag. He was asked all week about the likelihood of fall college golf before the announcement came down from the Pac-12 that no sports would compete through the end of the year.
“Was I and am I confident that tomorrow if we decided to have college golf events that we’d be safe? Yeah, I am. Because I’ve seen what our school is doing and I’ve heard what other schools are doing,” he said. “Once the rumblings about the Pac-12 shutting down football and contact sports came about, I had a bad feeling that we were going to be included in that.”
USC student-athletes can opt out of returning to Los Angeles and continue classes from home. Until normalcy returns, Silverstein is trying, as he has since March, not to overdo it out of sheer boredom. Coaches have been off the recruiting trail and separated from their players for nearly six months.
“As a coach right now, you have to be super aware that you’re not trying to do too much because you’re bored,” he said.
Randy Keck, head women’s golf coach at Troy University, used virtual meetings to encourage his players to prepare for the upcoming season as if it were just like any other.
Keck is expecting at least some amount of team competition as a member of the Sun Belt Conference. Troy’s fall lineup is regional and, more importantly, drivable.
There is a financial component to fall college golf just as much as there are lingering COVID-related health concerns. All along, Keck has had a consistent message about what to prioritize, financially. In conversations with Troy administration, Keck explained that his team didn’t need new uniforms, shoes or workout gear. Like many coaches, he just didn’t want to see tournaments trimmed.
“The main thing is, we need to play the golf tournaments,” he said. “All that other stuff we can work around. The golf tournaments are the reason the kids come to school here. They come to compete.”
Competition will happen in the fall of 2020, and in some cases, it will be team-to-team. The only certainty is that the fall season will look like it never has before.