In this extended Dawgman Radio, Thurmond talked candidly to Dawgman.com's Chris Fetters about his U.S. Open experience, why the USGA should bring the Open back to Chambers Bay, how this past week will help him on the road recruiting, and what happens when recruits want to visit Montlake. Having just finished his thirteenth season as the UW Men's Golf Coach, Thurmond also talked about what it's going to take to get the Huskies over the hump in their quest to win a National Championship - and so much more.
Click on the box above to listen to the whole 47-minute interview. For those looking for the highlights, below is a selected transcription.
On what the last 96 hours has been like: “It’s been awesome. I told my wife when we were driving home from the U.S. Open - somehow, someway cool stuff just seems to happen to me. I get to do a lot of cool stuff, and I very blessed and fortunate. I pinch myself all the time thinking wow, what an amazing experience just being the coach at U-Dub, growing up where I did and how I did and having the chance to be the coach at U-Dub. And then it just so happens the week of the U.S. Open was in town I had an amazing player graduating (Cheng-Tsung Pan), making his pro debut who qualified in dramatic fashion…and he asks me to caddy for him. Then he makes the cut. It’s like wow! That’s pretty dang cool. So I still get a kick out of all the things I get to do and it’s been super fun.”
Give me your pitch to the USGA as to why Chambers Bay should host another US Open: “There’s so many reasons. I thought the fans and the whole community were amazing. The number of volunteers and the quality of the volunteers and the people that were engaged at every level of this thing…it was just awesome. It sold out quickly. So the fans supported it, the volunteers supported it, sponsors and tents and the whole community supported it. You’ve got an airport right there, you’ve got the infrastructure to handle it. I don’t think there were any real transportation problems. So all that’s that. You’ve got a golf course that identified the number-one golfer in the world. The best player in the world won the tournament. He may not be ranked number one currently, but I don’t think you’d find anyone that would say hey, he’s not currently the top player in the world - or at least 1B. Dustin Johnson’s been playing better…so you had the best players in the world coming down the stretch…it identified the best player. It tested driving, it tested iron play, it tested short game. It was different. It was big and modern, like they like nowadays. It’s public.
“And I think in a funny way, the greens and the things that are perceived weaknesses end up being a big strength. Imagine if they announce that Chambers Bay is going to host the Open in 10 years. Let’s say they announce that in the next two years. Imagine the discussions that are going to take place, the hype and drama about what are they doing with the greens? Are they going to keep the fescue greens? Are they going to do anything different? It will be a discussion for many years, and a lot of it will be negative but it will draw everyone’s attention to it. The fact is, the US Open this year was as good as any that any of us remember. People cite 2008, and that was awesome - and maybe better, and also on another public course, by the way - but it was an exceptional US Open. The weather was perfect.
“I think it’s a no-brainer to go back to Chambers Bay. I think they’ll fix the spectator issues that they had. I think that will be easy. And the greens? It might be the same story again next time. They are going to look funny. That’s just what they are. That’s the way they are built. Fescue is that way.”
When did Pan tell you he wanted you to caddie for him? - “I had never caddied in a major before. I have caddied in four PGA tour events and I caddied for Pan in the US Amateur at Cherry Hills (Denver) a few years ago, and he played very well when I caddied for him. He was second in the stroke play and made the quarterfinals. So he at least knew that it was fine. I walked with him the final round at the NCAA Championship and that went well.
“So when it was time to think - ‘Okay, I’m making my pro debut at Chambers Bay - who do I want to have on the bag walking every second - six straight days - with me’…I appreciate that he picked me and asked me to do it. That meant a lot to me. I knew the course. I told him at the British Open, you definitely don’t want me to caddie; you’ve got to get a local guy. And at Merion (2013 US Open) he got a local guy, and that makes a lot of sense.
“In this case, he and I had seen the course a lot and were very, very close friends as coach-player. Hopefully it was a good fit for him and I think he did pretty well.”
What are the biggest memories from your US Open experience that will stick with you over time? - “I’ll definitely remember the reception that Pan got on every hole, and maybe one spot specifically - on hole 17. For some reason, Pan kind of let his guard down on 17 the last two days. He would occasionally wave to people or acknowledge a little bit, but he was very focused and didn’t necessarily look around or respond when every person would call his name - because there was a lot and he needed to stay focused. And I would kind of wave to people or whatever and acknowledge it, but he was all business.
“But the final two days on 17 - for some reason - he just totally relaxed and took his hat off. He did the ‘W’ with his fingers, kind of looked around - scanned the whole crowd - and threw his ball up there and waved his arms to everybody. Everybody loved it and appreciated it and he kind of stood on that green bigger than life and acknowledged them in his own way. That was really, really special. So I’d say that was the most memorable part of the week for me.
“The greens discussion has been memorable because I’ve been so aggressively defending the greens because I was so annoyed by everyone’s approach. But just a great day to be there with Pan, a great week to be there with Pan. I’ll remember trudging up those hills with that bag. That is hard work what those caddies do.”
Two days later you’re out on the road recruiting. How does the US Open experience translate to your recruiting pitch? - “There’s a lot of great schools, and a lot of great coaches, so I’m not the only one caddying for one of his players in a great event. I think they see that, but for us and part of our big draw and what we preach and sell to our recruits is that we are a family here and we do care about our players as people and as men, and not just their scores or their golf swing. It adds to that narrative. They already know that if they’ve talked to us at all, but it does validate it a little bit, that this guy that was here all four years wanted me to caddy and anyone that’s around us would know that we have a special bond. We have a real relationship that will last forever, probably.
“So of all the things I would want people to know based on this; somebody came to Washington and rose to become the best amateur in the world and turned pro and played four majors before he left college. When he turned pro, his coach was the one caddying for him at the US Open and the crowds were going crazy for him. That’s pretty cool when you think about what that could be for a kid if he comes in and does things right.”
Does the cliche about Washington weather still come up from prospects and their families? - “It used to all the time but it doesn’t anymore. There’s a lot of schools doing well in the north. In fact I was out recruiting today and talking with a school from a very awesome climate, a power program. He was like, ‘Man, the fact is - kids that go up to your program…it’s so good for them. It’s so much better for their game. It’s such an advantage for you. Now, does it suck at 7 in the morning when you’re going to class and you’ve got to put on all these clothes? Yeah, it does, but like everything else in life - having to stretch yourself and get out of your comfort zone and deal with some adversity is actually better for you. He compared it to growing up rich. He goes, ‘Everyone knows it’s kind of bad for you to grow up rich, it’s not the best thing for you. But everyone still wants to do it. That’s kind of where we are with the sun. You kind of know it’s not good for your game, and it’s not going to help you and you’d be better off playing in some more conditions, but when you have the option of playing in the sun every day, most people are going to take it.
“So I found it interesting that, here’s a guy I compete against from a school in one of these traditional perfect weather places that’s saying man, I’m jealous of you guys because your guys get to play in different conditions and get to develop that crucial toughness that comes from it.”
We hear in football and basketball how the current players and former players often interact, like with open gyms or in the weight room. Do you see that dynamic take place between the current players and your alums? - “Absolutely. I’m really proud of that. You had Chris Kilmer practicing with Richard Lee and Chris Williams was out watching them. So was Trevor Simsby. Those guys are playing golf together in town at the same time. A lot of times they’ll travel together on the tour, on the road. Richard Lee and Pan played a practice round at the US Open together and have actually become pretty good friends. So yeah, there’s a lot of that.
“They love to come practice with the team and they do it from time to time when they are in town and frankly those guys miss it. When you’re out on tour, you’re all alone. You kind of practice by yourself. But it’s fun to be out there with 10 guys and have coach yell at you and making you do certain things you don’t want to do and getting beat up in some competition and realizing you’re maybe not as good as you thought you were. It’s just fun to be part of a team.
“They come back and a lot of them support our program financially. They are starting to do that more. It was pretty cool that, the day after we got back from the NCAA Championship, Pan came into my office and said, ‘Hey, I want to become a Husky Golf Foundation member’, which is our key donor program of a thousand dollars or more. He immediately joined.
“These guys - they are Huskies for life.”
Please give me your take on how you felt this past season went and give fans a glimpse into how you think the 2015-16 season will fare - “The ending was tough, but it really wasn’t as bad as you might think. I think we kind of played at the end how we played all year. What really gets you as a coach is when, at the biggest moments, you’re far different than what you’ve been.
“In our case we finished 15th. We were ranked about that. That’s still a really good golf team with a lot of talent that’s winning tournaments, that’s contending in most tournaments - but it’s not great. And that’s about what we were.
“I kept thinking at any time we were going to break through, but we just didn’t. We didn’t respond to the pressure like some of our teams in the past. We didn’t embrace it quite enough, or didn’t love it quite enough. We tried to, and I wish we would have. The guys played hard. They worked harder than any team I’ve ever had. But when push came to shove, when it was that crunch time, we weren’t as good as we needed to be.
“So disappointing, yeah, to not make match play at the end (of the NCAA Championships), but we were inconsistent with what we’d been doing all year. It was kind of what we were. That’s unfortunate, but at the same time - when an off year is 15th in the country, that’s still really good. I don’t to be at a point where the only way we can feel good about our year is where we win a national championship. It’s tough. Other teams are working hard and they’ve got good players that work hard too. Finishing 15th in the country is nothing to be ashamed of.
“Looking forward, we lose Pan. We pick up two really nice recruits: Carl Yuan comes in from China. He’s a top-20 recruit for sure in the class. Matt Marrese is from Bellevue. Matt’s a really good player, getting better all the time. He’s won a lot of stuff locally and has a great passion for the game. I think he’ll be a factor too.
“You trust that everyone is going to get a little bit better. You hope that’s the case. I think we’ll be a very solid team next year. How good we are? Losing Pan is a big blow. Guys are going to need to step up, but what we’ve found is that guys usually do. I think they will. I’m not going to say we’ll be the top team in the country next year, but I think we’ll be fine and I think we’ll get better as the year goes on.”
What do you think it’s going to take to get over the hump and win that first National Championship? - “We just have to keep getting good players, and have more of them. I think recently, our 4 and 5 man play has not been where we need it to be at the national championship and throughout the year. So building that depth…we’ve had superstar after superstar, but we need to do better at our 4 and 5 position. And that’s a challenge our coaching staff is taking on. We need to be better there.
“I wish there was some easy answer…do this and we will win the National Championship. That’s just not how it works. I think we keep doing what we’re doing. We work extremely hard. We’re always trying to find new, fresh ways to do things better, but still maintain the things we do well. We do a lot of things really well, and our guys work hard and we have a great culture.
“But we can improve and we will keep improving, and I have to keep getting great recruits. Hopefully it all comes together and we can win some of these (National Championships).”
To read more on Thurmond and his time at Washington, below is a link to his official UW media biography:
Washington Men's Golf Coach Matt Thurmond