State Of The Hogs: Golf

I watched with excitement as the men's and women's golf teams at Arkansas played well at the end of the spring, and then as Amanda McCurdy made the cut at the U.S. Women's Open last week. I have a theory on why. And, it is more than just solid recruiting by both Mike Ketchan and Kelly Hester, the coaches of the respective UA programs.

Oh, there is solid talent on campus. I believe that. And, I think it's obvious that both Ketcham and Hester can coach. So there should be some credit put at their feet, too.

But, I think you have to give a nod toward what John Tyson has built at Blessings Golf Club in Johnson. After playing it a couple of weeks ago, it is obvious to me that Blessings offers the kind of test and difficulty that will prepare top players for about anything that can be presented by either the NCAA or the USGA.

The golf course offers some short tee boxes that aren't unreasonable, so let's make that clear, too. I broke 40 on the back nine (don't ask about the front nine) on an easy set of tees two weeks ago. And, that was with a bad knee set for surgery two days later.

However, it's obvious that architect Robert Trent Jones Jr., with encouragement from Tyson, also built a couple of sets of tees that will test anyone. Those are the ones that Ketcham sends his troops to play on a daily basis.

"We don't play four of the back tees," Ketcham said. "We play the course at about 7,200 yards and I think you can stretch it to 7,500 or 7,550 if you want. The course is long, but it's not the length that is so important in developing our players. It's the shots that are required on and around the greens. I love that part of this course and it's really helped us.

"There isn't anything we see anywhere we play or anywhere you could take us that we haven't seen here. It's a great, great golf course and it really helped our team as we played it more and more this year."

Of course, Ketcham's squad dazzled in the stretch run at regionals, going under par as a team over the final round under difficult circumstances to lap the field and earn a trip to the NCAA tournament. That was with two freshmen, two sophomores and a junior.

"Our guys had trouble with this course when we first started playing it last fall," Ketcham said. "We were shooting between 75 and 85. As the year went along, our scores went down, although I will admit that some of the guys shot higher.

"Matt Bortis and Scotty Campbell got to where they could shoot around par as they got comfortable with it. Matt has had a 68 and Scotty has had a couple of 69s. It's interesting, it was about when Eric Shriver and Beau Glover began to get comfortable (at Blessings) that they began to do well on the road.

"I just love this course. The greens and the undulations on them are fabulous. I just love what you can simulate out here. This has been great for us."

Blessings is tight off the tee, although it's gotten a lot more playable over the last several months after the arrival of Tom Jones, newly hired Director of Golf. Jones, a former PGA Tour player with Tulsa roots, came to Blessings from Karsten Creek Golf Course, Coach Mike Holder's tough Oklahoma State-owned golf course. I'm guessing that Jones had to convince Holder to soften Karsten Creek just the way he's convinced Tyson to soften Blessings.

"You can see Tom's influence out here already," Ketch said. "They've taken some trees out and made more room in the fairways. It's a lot wider than it was before. We don't have so much tall rough close to the landing areas anymore, either."

Members probably like the new look, but Ketcham liked the difficulty of the course from the start.

"The tightness isn't what affected our guys, nor the length," Ketcham said. "We've got guys who can bomb it. The trouble around the green and the bunkers is what got them. That's good, too. We need to improve our putting and our short game."

Of course, Blessings has a great practice facility, perhaps the nation's finest. I haven't been everywhere, but I've never seen anything close to it. With the help of famed teacher Peter Kostis, Blessings was designed with something special as far as a practice range and several short game areas. Blessings can boast of both bent and bermuda grass putting greens.

"When we go to Florida or Hawaii, and we did once in each area this year, we knew we would be on bermuda greens and so this place prepared us for that," Ketcham said. "We've got the hitting bays to work in the winter and we are able to use the laser pointers to determine distances throughout the landing area. Visually, it's a wonderful practice facility.

"This place has helped us as far as recruiting. It's allowed us to reach some players we couldn't in the past. I can't begin to tell you what it's worth. Our last two recruiting classes have both been ranked (by Golf Week) in the nation's top 10.

"And, we are far more efficient with our practice time because of the facility. We are just eight minutes from campus. If we have a 90-minute break between classes, our guys can get out here, get something done and get back to class. In the past, they might come by my office (in the Broyles Center) and we could maybe talk a little while, but that's all we could do. We are getting things done in those breaks now."

It all makes for exciting times for Ketcham. There's only one problem. He lost his office on the second floor of the Broyles Center, in the middle of the UA football coaches. He is a huge Razorback football fan. Now, if he thinks he might gain a morsel of football information from you, expect about 50 questions. I learned that the hard way last week. Making it to the parking lot at the end of the interview was almost as tough as hitting some of those pin settings at Blessings.


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