Catching Up With Matt Thurmond

SEATTLE - After getting swept last week in the NCAA Championship quarterfinals to eventual winner Texas, it was a good time to catch up with UW Men's Golf Coach Matt Thurmond. In his 11 seasons leading the program, Thurmond has been able to amass some fairly impressive accolades for a team shrouded in relative obscurity up here in the Northwest.

As Thurmond explained in this comprehensive Q&A session, his team doesn't possess a Husky Stadium-like home-field advantage but they've been able to survive and thrive in a unique way, creating a national brand in the process.
On why there has been consistent success the past dozen years or so - "I could talk for days about that. I think the hiring of OD Vincent was the turning point for our program. No disrespect to any successes before, but if you look back that's where the sustained success began. He really did a tremendous job and made it a real option for recruits to come here. In 1999, behind a second-place performance by a freshman - Troy Kelly - the team finished fourth, the best finish we'd ever had at the NCAA Championships. And that was another key moment. It was shortly after that when OD went on the road and got Brock Mackenzie to commit to come to Washington, joined by Corey Prugh and Dan Potter and a strong Northwest class of kids that said 'hey yeah, let's go to Washington'.

"I came in at that point. I was hired by OD to be his assistant in 2000, so I worked for him in 2000 and 2001 and my first year (as head coach) was 2001-2002. This is my eleventh year. And just to add fuel to your argument, for NCAA Championship results the last 11 years, there's not another team in the country that has a better average finish than us. We've been there nine times; there's five teams that have been there more. Florida has been there all 11 years, and then there's Oklahoma State, Georgia, Texas and UCLA that has been there 10 times. And so we've been there as much as anybody. Over that time we have more top-10 finishes than anybody and the best average finish. So we've been consistent now - and I can take it back further because OD started it - and I think we're long beyond that now. We've been more consistent than anyone in the country in terms of finishing high at the end of the year."

On building the program from the inside-out (recruiting local first) - "I think there's a lot to that, no question. It's interesting, but our Husky supporters know how good we've been and they know how great our program is and are really into it, but people outside the state of Washington have a much greater understanding and view of how good we are than the average guy within the state. It's a strange thing. If you go around the country, they would know Washington as one of the top, elite programs in the country. You poll a random kid in the state and they think their first choice should be UCLA or Arizona State. It's strange. I think every pro and instructor that teaches these kids, they grew up in an era where all the good players went south. It was accepted dogma; it's almost built in the DNA to feel that way. And secondly, the football program and what draws kids into a university in a lot of ways, hasn't been at the top of the heap. And I think the overall sentiment among 14, 15 and 16-year olds for the University of Washington a lot of times ebbs and flows with how well the football team is doing and how cool it is and all that.

"That being said, we've had a lot of good local kids here and we've done incredibly well in British Columbia. But it is an interesting story that have left the state. I take a little personal satisfaction in the fact that our teams have always beaten their teams. But perception, by far, has been our biggest foe. I had a coach call me, a close friend in California. He called me last summer and he had a kid come in and I asked him what he was looking for in a school. And he said, 'I don't really want to go to one of those really big golf powerhouses, like Oklahoma State or Washington'. And I thought, 'Okay, we're getting somewhere here." And to have a (Cheng-Tsung) Pan to come from Florida or Taiwan and choose Washington out of all the schools he could have chosen, that shows that we're there. I think four or five years ago our record was better than our perceived record, and now I don't feel that way anymore.

"And you talk about the recruiting thing, there is that dogma that you need to go to the south to play your best golf - and I think that is faulty thinking. If we are so disadvantaged for our weather, as people say we are, then I must be the greatest coach in history, because we are beating the teams in the south consistently. So either that's the case, which I don't believe it is, or maybe the whole concept is the wrong way of thinking - which I think it is. One, we have a year-around climate; we're not a Big-10 school that's off for months. We can play golf almost every day of the year. Now you have to have some guts to do it on certain days, but you can do it. Second, the golf here is tough golf. You get so much better playing the type of golf…and I'm not even talking about the weather. I'm talking about the type of golf course and golf - you have grass that grows year around. We don't have grass that goes dormant. We have rough year-around that you have to learn to play out of. We have greens that are pure and fast year around and they are small. So you have to chip and putt and they often have a lot of slope so you have to be accurate. They are soft greens, so you can't bounce it in in the winter. You have to know exactly how far your ball flies; you can't fake it. When it's 44 degrees and it's the middle of January and you're hitting No. 16 at Aldarra, you better know how to hit a solid shot, or it's not going to make it over the jungle. We play on uneven lies all the time; every hole is a tree-lined fairway of some sort.

"When you compare that from a skill standpoint and developing skill, it's so much more effective than playing in 80-degree weather on a flat course where you can get away with a lot of mistakes. It's the equivalent to playing against a really good basketball team all the time, you're going to get better. Everything in life, you're made better by having to push your skills to the limit and developing new skills on the edge of your ability. We are faced with that every day. It's hard golf. The weather adds another element to it to where I think we develop skill here quicker than other places."

On UW's biggest advantage being the courses they play - "The golf we play up here is huge and the courses we play and facilities we have (Washington's 'home' courses are Washington National, Broadmoor, The Members Club at Aldarra, Gold Mountain, Overlake, Sahalee, Inglewood and the Seattle Golf Club). I tell all the recruits that I think our biggest advantage is our team culture. We have a dynamic and inspiring team culture that people like to be a part of, and are happy within it. I think it's hard to duplicate. Our facilities are awesome, but I tell recruits that they are not going to define your experience. They will help you get better, but I think at times they can get a little overblown.

On some insight within the UW golfing culture - "When I first got the job there were a couple of elite recruits in the area - Alex Prugh and Reid Rader - and I'm trying to get these guys. Alex was being recruited by all the top schools in the west and Reid was really looking at Stanford. I'm thinking, how am I going to beat these guys in recruiting? What do I have that's better than them? At the time I felt that the recruiting conversation everyone had was on the history of the program and how many PGA players they had, or facilities. In Stanford's case, their academic excellence. Or weather - weather is another one that gets talked about. There's all these things that people think are what makes a recruit want to go somewhere. I realized if I talked about those things like everyone else, I would lose. There's always somebody better - there's always better weather, there's always better history, there's always better facilities, there's always better academics. Those were things I had no control over. So my thought process went to - what really is important and how could I change the playing field and change the conversation? I realized that we have great everything, so we sell that you can have it all here. We have great academics, we have a year-around climate with amazing facilities in a really cool city. And now we have this tradition and we play at the best tournaments and all of that. So we do have it all.

"But I decided that what we were going to be most about - what was going to define our program - is who we were…the people that we are and how we interact with each other. I decided that I was going to be a very active, hands-on, caring, passionate coach that put my players first. That we were going to have an environment that was going to be a lot of fun to be a part of and that players liked each other and interacted a lot with each other and their coaches and enjoyed signature experiences that are memorable forever. We put a high value in the type of relationships that we have with each other, that I could stand to sit in a living room of a family and say look, your child is going to be better taken care of by me and this program than anywhere else they could go.

"Of all the things to sell in recruiting, that seemed to be the hardest. Good luck trying to beat us in this, because it's pure will and love. That's one thing I knew I had; I knew I had passion and a will to put more time and energy in it than anyone else. It's easy to build a facility and say come because of that, and it's really easy to refer to Mother Nature, because you don't have to do anything. But to build a culture that is what it's purported to be, where every person has a great experience and loves most every day they are a part of it - now that's hard to do. I think we've done pretty well."

On getting that coveted first National Championship - "The fact that you even ask and you feel bad about asking - like asking the best tour player without a win - I get great satisfaction in the fact that someone even asks the question. My first year on the job we finished 11th in the country, and at the time it was the second-best finish ever in the program. At the time I was like, 'I'm the man! We just did so well!' Everybody was ecstatic. The fact that in 11 years - just talking about my time - that the question even comes up is a beautiful thing. We've won more Pac-10 championships during that same time; regionals, we've won three of those too, so it's not like we can't win big tournaments or win a championship. But I'm the head promoter AND head coach, so I've tried to help create an image of us winning a national championship. I want those expectations and I want the question to be asked, but at the same time as I coach…are you kidding me? Do you know how hard it is to do? You just have to be careful. I know what I'm doing by talking about a national championship and winning.

"And the fact is in a year like this year, we were not the best team. We probably got about as far as we should have. Could we have won it? Sure, but I like the fact that people think this is the year. That just shows where our expectations are. When we do get over the top, I'll give you the answer (laughs). I think there's only been a few years where we should have or legitimately could have. If anything, we've been a little bit overachieving. If anything, we've had an image of rising to the occasion and playing our best in the most pressure. It's another thing I find interesting about the question, and I do get asked about it all the time - we've quickly gone from this underdog team that over performs to…when are we going to win one? That's a great question to ask. I love it."

So is next year the year? - "Absolutely! (laughs) I don't know. Sure! Why not? I think Chris and Pan both have the potential to be first-team All-Americans next year. Chris was this year, and I think Pan will probably be a third-team All-American, but I think both could be in the top-10 players in the country next year. I think Trevor ends the year kind of a top-100 player, and I would not be surprised to see him develop into an All-American next year. Charlie Hughes needs to play better, and he can. He had an okay year and got better at the end, but as that third, fourth guy we need him to play better. And we've got a couple of freshmen coming in that can hopefully step in right away and be in our starting five. I think they can. There's a kid from LA named Jonathan Sanders, he's a pretty big recruit from a rankings standpoint. He is currently the 13th-ranked player in the class. But you never know how freshmen are going to do when they come in. I also think the kid from Enumclaw, Tyler Salsbury - he hasn't been playing as well the last month or two, but is a really solid player - by the end of the year could be helping us. But on paper I'd would love to have a more established five guys than we have. I think we're still going to be really strong, but I think it hurt us not being as strong at the bottom of our lineup. I think we'll be better next year, and hopefully a lot better."

On what the program needs to get over the hump - facilities or otherwise? - "There are things that come up from time to time, but I don't think there's anything tangible."

Was the Husky Golf Center the final or missing piece? - "There was another thing we did. I have not publicized it, but we had a donor step up and purchase memberships for the team at Aldarra. That was a big deal. I don't mean it as any disrespect to any other courses, because we use those all the time and they have been huge and we continue to use them - but now with Aldarra we have a place to go on the weekends, anytime they want - mornings or any day of the week - they can drop in as a member would, which is a huge, huge benefit for our program. And at Washington National, the back end of the practice facility we've always talked about improving that and making that better. We have some plans to do so…they aren't immediate, but we're putting that together. That's one big project I have out there.

"But I don't think us winning a championship depends on any one physical thing. It's us getting better players, learning to make a few more putts and chip it a little closer when we need it. It's just improving our skill and quality of player."

On what allowed a donor buy memberships for the team - "The university purchased them, but the donor paid the money and made a donation in that amount. And that's kind of the movement around the country. You take both UCLA and USC are both members at Riviera, and that's a huge advantage for them. Georgia Tech are members at East Lake, Atlanta Athletic Club and the Golf Club of Georgia. In San Diego, the University of San Diego and San Diego State are both members at San Diego Country Club. That's kind of the direction things are moving.

"But when I can take a kid to Aldarra and walk them through the clubhouse and show them where our lockers our and tell them you can access all of this any time you want because you're a member? That's pretty incredible. The Husky Golf Center is huge. It's huge for how our program feels; it's big for us to have a place on-campus which we didn't have before. It's brought the guys even more into the campus community. We have to travel off-campus to practice, and so a lot of the kids never stopped by campus once they left class. Now they are inclined to spend a lot more time around the athletic department. They go to training table and interact more with the other student-athletes because they now have a home here. And it's big in recruiting. We're going to have three recruits here tomorrow, and most of the time we're going to sit in that Golf Center and talk about our program. For them to see how serious…again, this is a place that just 18, 20 years ago didn't even have a full-time coach, but now has a state-of-the-art golf facility/clubhouse built right in Hec Ed, that's a huge difference - right? We're obviously very serious about our golf program here, and recruits can feel that. Guys will come early to basketball games, hang out there - and then at halftime they'll go to the Golf Center and hang out together and then after half-time go back to the game. They go to just about every basketball game because they are already here. It's been huge. It's been as big a deal from a cultural standpoint as it's been for skill development for our players."

On his personal recruiting philosophy - "Originally when I started the whole model, you had to get the best kids in the state - and that's what we'll always try to do. We love recruiting kids from Washington, but there have been plenty of those top kids that go other places, and we're not going to be worse because of it. Our goal is to win, so we've made British Columbia a high priority and Asia a priority, as well as California and even Idaho and Oregon and Montana…we've basically expanded out to the areas that fit for us to the point where our recruiting is part geography but more the type of person and player. Instead of just taking the best from a certain region, we're trying to get a certain type of player and person to build our culture."

On recruiting Asia - "I fly over there every year, at least once a year to recruit. I'm already doing it. We had Choo (Tze Huang Choo), who is a Singaporean - he was our first guy. You have to look at these things from almost a geography standpoint…it's a direct flight from Seattle to almost any major city in Asia…you've got a quarter of the population of our student body is Asian. The largest, other than Washington - we had more applicants from China than anywhere else to U-Dub this year. California and China were the next two after Washington. Thousands of applicants from China. And not only that, even if I never went to Asia there's so many people of Asian decent and are attached to Asian culture in the areas that I'm recruiting - up and down the west coast and specifically Seattle and Vancouver - that it absolutely impacts our program, now and the future. The more I'm trying to be ahead in that, and I have a personal passion for traveling over there anyway. I just like it. I took my family to Thailand last year. So part of it is recruiting, and part of it is recruiting the local kids too. If I know where they come from and their culture, I think that helps. I welcome it and invite it."

On the perception of American college golf in Asia - "It's still kind of a mixed bag. Pan has the ability to transcend that. Kids in Japan all go to college and play college golf, almost all of them. They have a great college golf program, a legitimate one - so you don't get many Japanese kids that leave there. But the rest of Asia…our secondary education may not rank very high, but our colleges are still the best in the world, and people around the world know that and they want to come to the U.S. for the universities. So those that are educated throughout the world - and certainly in Asia - if they have their sights set on the U.S. and if a kid can play golf and get a great eduction, they want to do it. Now a lot of them still have in their culture where they will turn pro if they are good enough, but I think that's changing. And again, I think a guy like Pan can transform that type of thinking."

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