UH Golf Coach Mike Dirks Interview (Fall 2001)

An in-depth interview with UH Golf Coach Mike Dirks.

I recently had the opportunity to interview our golf coach, Mike Dirks and what follows is our conversation on the state of the program and other golf items of interest. Coach Dirks graciously gave me one and a half hours of his time for this interview.

I opened the interview by asking Coach Dirks about his background and he said, "Luckily, in 1994 the job of University of Houston golf coach came open when Keith Fergus resigned and decided to give the PGA Tour another try. As coach at Tulane University from 1990-94 we had never bought a house, then we closed on one two weeks before he resigned here at Houston. I thought about the opening and said, man, how lucky would I be if I could get that job. It is one of the best in the country, so I sent my resume in ASAP. At that time, I was one of those guys that if I didn't send in a resume, I wasn't going to get a phone call in regards to the position. We had done a lot of good things at Tulane, especially with only 1.75 scholarships available at a large school, with big costs like Tulane ($28k tuition/year). At Tulane, with 1.75 scholarships, you kind of had your hands tied behind your back. Most golfers have some money, but they have egos as well and you have to give them some scholarship money even if they don't need it.

Basically, if you had two guys on 80% scholarship everyone else was a walk-on. We had done some good things, placed second in the conference, won three tournaments and had a little success with just a few scholarship players. We did a good job of making the kids better. I called and sent my resume in and talked to some people. I knew Bill Dowling up in Dallas and he knew Billy Ray Brown when he was a pro here in Houston, and Billy Ray and I knew each other from playing in college.

When you are trying to find a job, you are trying to find an in. You then hope that you have done a good enough job of selling yourself and hope that they believe in what you can do and that you will get the opportunity and all that came to pass. I still remember an article that I have in my closet, from Golf Magazine, that said ‘Houston Cut Adrift'. Not many wanted the job here and the big names didn't seem want it. I still keep that article and get it out from time to time and marvel that the job was not as hotly pursued as I thought it would be. I thought of Houston as one of the top five jobs in the country."

I then asked Coach Dirks if some of that sentiment was because of the incredible success that Dave Williams had here and not wanting to follow in the legends footsteps. "It was some of that and college golf was changing. I think, people thought that to be successful, you needed the university golf course and a practice facility, something that we do not have and takes a while to plan and develop. They saw a big city school without the traditional rural campus setting and college atmosphere although we were not that far removed from our last NCAA Championship in 1985 at that time, from football being very competitive and basketball as well. Now, the kids want everything, the great college atmosphere, they want football, basketball, sorority and fraternity row, establishment on or near campus, places you can walk to and all those kinds of things.

The college golf atmosphere was changing a lot from what it was in the 70's and 80's, what was really important had changed and they were not going to get all of that at Houston. They were not going to get the university golf course, the big following that Coach Williams program had, the surroundings and some people said ‘I don't want to fight that', people thought that there were not a lot of good things to sell here at Houston."

I commented that I was surprised that the tradition of UH golf did not overcome some of that sentiment. "They said, ‘what have you done for me lately'. People don't understand all that is involved with college golf, a coach can win the NCAA title one year, lose a couple of players and then all of then sudden be ranked 25th and everyone wants to know what's wrong and that's just the way it is in college golf these days. There are going to ebbs and flows, you play 4-5 guys and then you lose a couple and you have to regroup with guys who haven't played much competitive golf recently and you suffer somewhat. I think that people saw that it was going to be a lot of work here and thought that it would be much easier just to stay put. It worked out for me, I was the second or third choice, I don't know, but I saw it as a great opportunity for me to move up. I saw 4.5 scholarships compared to 1.75, I thought that was huge, the tradition and that Houston people believed in golf. Houston was football, basketball and golf the way I saw it and I thought that was a great situation. I saw the good and wanted to sell that so I was very fortunate to get the job here in April of 1994 and was very excited to get it. I worked both programs (UH and Tulane) for a few weeks because I had an individual, Lance Combrink, who ended up following me here, had a chance to go to the regional championship and was our conference champion and I needed to finish that commitment. We are in it for the kids and fortunately the people here at Houston were open to that. We teach the kids how to deal with life, golf and to win with all the things that make the guys better prepared for when they leave the program. So they gave me the chance to do that a while and it was good. Thanks to Billy Ray Brown and the members of the golf coach search committee we were able to get it all done."

I brought up Keith Fergus, the three time All America and our golf coach prior to Coach Dirk's arrival. "Keith was the best collegiate player, when you look back at the records, to ever come through this university. Pressure comes from within and with what he was tying to do here and trying to follow in the in the huge footsteps of Coach Williams, well it wasn't easy. After 1985 the talent level dropped a little and if you don't catch it quickly it gets a lot harder to fix. Keith had some good players, but had so many guys with different backgrounds and were broken up into little groups going different directions and that caused some problems. I thought that the team should be a little smaller, like a little fraternity instead of 15-15 guys competing fiercely trying to make the travel squad."

Coach, does the team live on campus? "When I got here we moved to Cambridge Oaks and lived there for quite a while, the last couple of years we moved off campus to control expenses better. We wanted to live someplace close to cut down on travel so that there was plenty of time for school and practice, so we moved to Holly Hall near the Astrodome we are only 10 minutes away. We now have most of the guys there and a couple on campus. Having everyone close and together helps them to learn to rely on each other and has made us a better team. We have a small team and that allows us to know what makes each other tick."

Tell us a little about your recruiting philosophy. "Our philosophy on recruiting is to go after the players that we fill certain we can get here, if I do everything right can I sign this player? Sometimes you can spend all your time chasing kids that you have no chance of signing and we don't want to do that. I decided to recruit what people perceive to be the second tier Texas players, not the top 2-3 kids in Texas, if we get in that battle and lose it hurts the program for a while. We work hard to get good players and work equally as hard to make them better players."

Do you send these top 2-3 Texas players letters, make calls, etc.? "Yes and we see how quickly they respond and with what kind of enthusiasm. We try to keep the best players in Houston here, we started with Victor Schwamkrug, then we got BJ Staten and Chris Morris, that was a start. We didn't get in the battle for Aaron Brooks and Brad Elder, we hadn't won enough lately to get in those battles. We want to play a national schedule, it has drawbacks, but it is how we want to get to where we want to go. These guys were really good players, at that stage could they beat Elder and some of the others, probably not, but every year they got better and we beat those guys every year. After we got started, for example, BJ came in as a freshman and played 72 holes in the NCAA Championships four years in a row. The Fab Five that Texas got played in 72 holes only once, Texas hasn't beaten us in five years. We tried to get Eric Compton, who went to Georgia Tech, we thought we had a chance. A year later, I asked him why he chose Georgia Tech and he said that he could ride his bike to play and practice. He liked the college atmosphere there and we couldn't offer that. We find guys who want to be Cougars. Coach Williams told me right after I got here that these guys have to want to be here and if they don't you don't want them anyway. He said if they bleed Cougar Red then they will want to be better and will become the best that they can be. We have had a lot of success the last 5-6 years and we play one of the top five schedules every year, but are hurt by the Conference USA Championships although there is not much we can do about that. There are a lot of really good teams out there, you don't see dynasties like before, we want to play the best schedule we can with a smaller team. We want to win CUSA, but the NCAA is our goal. College golf has changed there used to be only 4-5 teams that had a chance to win the NCAA Championships, now there are at least twice that many every year. The AJGA (American Junior Golf Association) has produced a lot of good players and that has changed the college game greatly. Getting our golf course built is a big thing, we may never have the traditional college atmosphere with the huge turnout for football, etc,, but we work around that and a course and practice facility will be a big boost to the program."

Where does the team practice and play? "We play at Royal Oaks on Monday, River Oaks on Tuesday, Lochinvar on Wednesday and Thursday and we play other days at Houston Country Club, The TPC at the Woodlands, Bay Oaks CC, Golfcrest CC, Meadowbrook Farms and others. It is imperative to build a practice facility, you can tear up a lot of grass with 8-9 guys hitting balls for a few hours and the clubs don't like that. We have a great variety of golf courses in the area to play."

I know Southwyck GC was our home course for a while, what happened to that arrangement? "The Southwyck people were great to us, but we just couldn't recruit with that course as our home. Texas was using Barton Creek, UNLV was using Shadow Creek and we needed to step it up with the courses we used to play and recruit. Golf has changed, when I played we went to a lot of mediocre courses, Billy Ray tells stories of playing courses like El Dorado, that just doesn't work for these guys any longer. We show recruits where, how and why we do what we do and we are very upfront about the program. In recruiting there can be a lot of negative things being said and we just won't do it."

What part of the game does the team work on the most? "I would have to say course management and the short game.

Coach what is your biggest hurdle in recruiting? "Texas got all those great players a few years ago, they have a great coach, great atmosphere and school, but they haven't been able to beat us and maybe those things take away from their focus on golf and getting better as a player and get it done in the classroom. Oklahoma State has Coach Holder and a great tradition and they were in need of a facility, now they have one, I believe that if Coach Williams were still here things would not have changed as mush as they have. We need the course and practice facility to happen. That's the main thing right now."

Recently the USGA changed their rules in regards to amateur status, how do you feel about this change? "It is great for the kids, but in the end college golf will suffer, it can decimate a team if one or two of a good team leave, you can't replace a star at mid-term. You still need 4-5 thousand dollars to go that route and not all these guys have access to the money. As a coach, you need to realize why you are doing what you do and that is to make the kids better, to make them great young men before they leave the program. We want to push the players to be the best they can be in school and on the course and some will see this opportunity as what's best for them. Like basketball, if the guys have a chance to make millions it is hard to say no don't do that, it is the same for these guys to have a shot at the PGA Tour. For these young men it is the best of both worlds, if they try Q-School and don't make it they just come back to school. It is going to hurt some college golf programs, no doubt about it. A school maybe ranked in the top five and then not make the NCAA Championship the alumni are going to have a hard time with that. All in all, it is really good for the kids, there will be less pressure than before when you had one shot at making the Tour when you got out of school. I'm worried about it as a college golf coach, but I don't see a whole lot of kids trying it. We want to make sure that they have a great experience here and are a good ambassador for our program. Not everyone is going to graduate, I wish they would, I think it is important, but as a coach sometimes you will have a great player and he now is the time for them to go play, well, timing is everything."

Is there anything that any of the many former Cougar golfers can do to help with recruiting? "Legally, they can't do a thing, I think it is a shame, especially if it could happen on campus. I wish that they could, but they can't help with phone calls, visits, etc.

Who is the best collegiate competitor that you have had here? "There are two that, I think, are the best, that's Andy Sanders and Anders Hansen."

Anders has done well on the European Tour lately. "It took a while for Anders, but he is doing great. The pro tour is a lot different than college team play."

Coach, who is or will be the best professional? "Well, I think, Andy will be. He understands the game. A lot of young guys just think it is about hitting one good shot after another, in reality there is a lot more to it than that. Andy understands that it is more than hitting great shots, he's learned how to ‘play' the game and learned that you are not always going to have your best stuff, but still knows how to get the ball around the course and score."

It's not a beauty contest out there is it Coach? "So many young guys think that. I want the other team's guys going back to their coach and saying ‘how did that guy shoot 70 when it looked like he shot 74'. I don't want them saying ‘that guy looked like he was hitting it great, but he shot 75'. I want our guys to be overachievers and shoot as low as they possibly can. Tiger talks about not having his ‘A' game and our guys chuckle, but there's something to knowing how to score when you don't have your best stuff. This game is easy when you're swinging it well and know where the club is during the swing. However, the scoreboard doesn't care and your opponent doesn't care. It just doesn't matter because you still have to post a score.

Andy understands all this and how to play away from trouble. He knows what he can and can't do from day to day. That's why he is going to be successful. Andy has all the shots but hits the ones he has that day and other players just try all the shots whether they have them that day or not. This game is weird. Each day is different and our job, as teachers, is to convey this knowledge to the players and to help them know the difference. I think we have done well, we have not won title #17, but we have been very good. People come up to me and say ‘why don't you get out, you have done all you can do at Houston, when you took the job no one thought you could do what you have done', I think we can do a little better."

The standards are set very high here at Houston because of what Coach Williams was able to accomplish. "But the perception on the outside is that we have done all we can do here without the home course and practice facility needed to take it to the next level."

That's very hard to hear as a long-time Houston golf fan. Winning CUSA Championships is nice, but NCAA Championship #17 is all that really matters here at UH. At Auburn in 2000 with Chris Morris placing second, if we had a little more help from Andy and the others that might have been it. I thought, with the course being Bermuda, that it was a great venue for us. "Chris, BJ, Andy and Edmundson, no one wanted some of those guys, but look what they were able to do. I think some other programs have faltered by going after the high profile players and then not getting them. We changed our thoughts on recruiting and have done well with it. Next, we have to get the course and practice facility. That's something that just has to happen."

Coach can you tell us a little bit about this year's players? "Simon Robinson is a fourth semester junior from England and is one of the best ball strikers out there. He's long, he hits it really well, struggles now and then with the putter, but he thinks he should make every putt. He was runner-up at the English Amateur and won the Welsh Stroke Play Championship. He wants badly to be a professional tour player.

Scott Ferguson is from Houston, was not highly recruited, but went to the Ledbetter School in Florida to get better. When he got here, he struggled his first year as many young players do. Before these guys come here they were always the best from wherever they came and it takes some getting used to be just one of several very good players on our team. Scott works extremely hard and is going to be very good. He played a lot of amateur events this summer and placed second three times in a row. He just has to realize, like we talked before about how golf has to be played, he used to practice six hours a day hitting balls, now he practices an hour and a half and then plays, so he's learning. His attitude is changing and we expect great things from him this Spring. He's just a sophomore in his third semester.

Brad McIntosh is in his third semester as well and won the C-USA Championship as a freshman. He has more ability than anyone I've ever seen. He's very long, has a tremendous short game, has all the shots around the green and is not afraid to hit them. His bunker game is just unbelievable as well. Again, he needs to learn the game and strategy. In Australia it is wide open and he just crushes the ball, goes and finds it and hits it again. Here, you can't just go for it all the time, sometimes you need to lay back. In Australia he routinely shoots 62-63 and has had a 59. Brad is learning all the time, but he has so much talent it is just unbelievable.

Those three guys right there have a lot of talent.

John Wine is a transfer from Arizona, he went to Odessa Junior College for a year. He is another good player, very, very long with a great attitude, and he never gets down. John is a good putter and works extremely hard, and has an excellent bunker game. He needs to work on chipping.

Chris Cureton is a transfer from Oklahoma and has two years of eligibility left. Chris has played on teams that have gone to the NCAA Championships twice. He was a great AJGA player, has a very good short game and is a grinder.

Brett Callas came in as a freshman and is now a junior. He is an AJGA past winner beating Hunter Mahan when he was AJGA player of the Year.

We have a very good player coming in mid term and possibly another. These guys are players that we are very excited about having here at Houston. Also, we don't lose anybody."

Coach, what about Wade Ormsby? "Wade recently qualified for the Australian PGA Tour. He and his parents thought now was the time and I'm very happy that it worked out for him."

Tell us about the competition in C-USA. "UAB, TCU and our team are the best of C-USA. TCU has a lot of talent, but didn't make the NCAA field last year. UAB has Graeme McDowell for this Spring again. The C-USA Championship will be in Navarre, Florida again this year, which is a course we know well. TCU has not been there so it should give us an advantage."

Coach, what about the different ranking polls? "Well, Golfweek had us move up ten spots since the last tournament we played. I told the guys that maybe we shouldn't play anymore before the NCAA's. The Coaches poll has us 19th and we are probably somewhere around that right now. The polls don't mean much until everyone has played around seven tournaments. We scheduled three tournaments in the Fall and more in the Spring. We want to be our best at the end of the Spring season when it matters most."

Did it hurt to miss the Ping/Golfweek Preview tournament? "No, not much. At the NCAA tournament you get two practice rounds and that's enough. We already have the yardage books made up and then guys will know the course before they get there. We are a good driving team, straight and long. That's our strength and that's an advantage on a course like Ohio State's Scarlet Course."

What can you tell us about the proposed University of Houston Golf Course? The project is a Beazer Homes development and I think it has a good chance of starting soon, after September 11 things have been slow to move. It should take about two years to fully complete."

We once had the premier college golf tournament here in the AAII (All America Intercollegiate Invitational) started by Dave Williams. It was played from 1955-1997. Will we see the AAII return? "I have spoken with OSU's Mike Holder and he has said that if we hold it during Spring Break that they would be interested in resuming play in our tournament, which would probably start in 2003."

Finally, Coach there has been talk of starting a women's team at UH. What can you tell us? "I really don't know much about that, no news here." Do you think that you would coach this team as well, when and if it comes to pass? "Most likely, I would not, this job takes a lot of time to do the right way and achieve our objectives."

It was a pleasure to discuss Cougar Golf with Coach Dirks. Cougar fans are glad that he is our golf coach. Thanks Coach Dirks and here is to NCAA Golf Championship #17 for the Houston Cougars. Hail Cougars, Hail yes!

University of Houston Golf Facts

16 NCAA Championships
17 Conference championships
44 All-America players
13 Major Professional Championships

EAT'EM UP!


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