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Golf: Making the Turn - How will COVID-19 affect college golf?

Dan McDonald, The Daily Advertiser, Aug. 5, 2020

Most of the talk, speculation, discussion and rumors about the restart of collegiate athletics during the pandemic has been justifiably focused on football. That’s only fitting, since not only is it the most popular spectator sport on a national level, it’s also an economic engine that — along with the NCAA basketball tournament — drives finances for every major athletic program.

But football isn’t the only college sport dealing with major issues. All have been impacted, and maybe none more than college golf because of the way the sport is set up.

“Things are going to be absolutely different going forward,” said UL golf coach Theo Sliman. “In fact, if we don’t compete this fall, I think there’s a possibility you could see the landscape of college golf change for the future.”

Golf is the only college sport that has meaningful competition throughout the academic year. Most sports other than basketball are slotted into fall or spring semesters for competitive purposes, while basketball spans the two but doesn’t begin games until November and teams not selected for the NCAA tournament are done in early March.

Golf, on the other hand, traditionally begins competition in early to mid-September, takes a break between semesters and then runs until conference tournaments in late April and postseason play in May. Golf, as well as all other sports, was shut down last March in the wake of the coronavirus, but the rest of the sports don’t have true competition until next spring and hopefully won’t be as negatively impacted when their season rolls around.

Golf is different. Each tournament, regardless of when it’s held, directly impacts rankings and selections to postseason play.

When UL’s golf team takes part in its season-opening tournament Sept. 13-15 — if it is played — at Squire Creek outside of Ruston, that event will count just as much toward the Ragin’ Cajuns qualifying for the NCAA Tournament as any of its six spring-semester events.

“I really don’t know if that tournament’s going to happen or not,” Sliman said.

Even if it does, it will be in a radically different format, and not just the other protective measures that have been put in place by the PGA of America — no flag removal, no bunker rakes on the course and other regulations to prevent up-close personal contact and maintain social distancing.

Instead of players pairing up with golfers from other teams in threesomes or foursomes, teams will play together in a fivesome group with their own teammates. The format is similar to the historic Perry Maxwell event hosted for years by Oklahoma and Oklahoma State between conference and regional tournaments.

“I played in that as a college golfer,” Sliman said. “We’ll play all of our five together. You’ll have 15 schools and shotgun start them, and you don’t have to interact with anyone outside your circle. You warm up together, play together, stay together everywhere. We can do that in college golf.”

The Squire Creek tournament hosted by La. Tech is the first of a 10-event schedule for the Cajuns in 2020-21, with four fall and six spring events prior to the Sun Belt Tournament April 25-28 at Mystic Creek in El Dorado, Arkansas, and the NCAA regionals in mid-May. All 11 events including the league meet will be driving trips for the UL team this season, a departure from recent years when trips to Hawaii and other far-flung locales were common.

“That’s pretty much across the board for the whole department,” Sliman said. “You’re not going to see a lot of Cajun teams flying this academic year. Dr. Maggard (UL athletics director Bryan Maggard) got well ahead of that with all of us, and I think it’s very smart not only from the pandemic standpoint but the financial future. We’re looking to save and conserve as much as possible.

“Not having the NCAA basketball tournament hurt, and who knows what’s going to happen with football. Bringing the seniors back is a great thing but it’s also a cost. I’m glad we have that nice van, it’s going to get a lot of miles on it. But that’s good … I would hesitate to get on an airplane with my team right now.”

The one thing solid in the UL program is Sliman’s team. The squad returns intact and will also have senior Micah Goulas of New Iberia for an additional year after his “first” senior season was cut short with the pandemic and he like all NCAA spring-sports seniors received an additional year of eligibility.

The team’s other senior, Lafayette’s Jack Tolson, is not returning, as he focuses on finishing school in the fall semester and hopefully getting into medical school. (Note to whoever is looking at those med school applications: There’s not a better young man anywhere and no one that I would trust more to treat me if I was ill or needed medical attention.)

Tolson’s roster spot will be filled by incoming freshman Jake Marler of Shreveport-Byrd, continuing a string of state standouts joining the Cajun program — a streak that continues into next year with the early commitment of Broussard and Ascension Episcopal standout Eli Ortego.

Several of those Cajuns, notably Peter Hinnant of North Carolina, Cole Kendrick of Natchitoches and local product Matt Weber of Scott, have been regulars at the UL golf facility at Oakbourne throughout the late spring and summer. Others will arrive back over the next couple of weeks, including senior Bjorn Gudjonsson of Mosfellsbaer, Iceland, who was a question mark because of pandemic travel. As per NCAA regulations, Sliman hasn’t had any coaching contact with any of them during the pandemic, but it has allowed Sliman to think more about the future of college golf.

Specifically, he’s envisioning the possibility of a drastic change in its scheduling, with limited fall competition and a heavier emphasis on the spring season.

“I don’t think that’s a bad thing,” he said. “Look at a college golfer … they compete all spring for a school, the good ones compete individually all summer and then they come back to school and get thrown right into qualifying and competing. There’s no time for development.

“What if in the future, you bring players in the fall and develop them, maybe play some individual tournaments. The kids get an opportunity to get comfortable in school, take their harder classes in the fall, and have a little bit of school life. They can focus on studies, get a slower transition into college, maybe attend a football game or two, mostly feel more comfortable.

“If you have a player that needs a grip change or has distance issues or anything like that, he has a couple of months to really work and change things. I changed my grip in college and it took me a whole summer to get comfortable with it. Having a fall would open things up for those kids.”

“Making the Turn” appears each Wednesday in the Daily Advertiser through November. Clubs, courses and individuals with information about local golf events may email Dan McDonald, editorial director at Golfballs.com, at danmcdonald@cox.net, FAX to (337) 857-8763 or call (337) 857-8754 and leave a message with phone number.

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