According to the Chinese zodiac calendar, we recently transitioned from the year of the rabbit to the dragon. But in golf circles, the past 365 days have felt more like the year of the Bulldogs.
Georgia golfers have experienced an unprecedented year of universal success spanning a couple of Augusta-area events in April 2011 to April 2012. The string of accomplishments have run the gamut from amateur to Nationwide to PGA Tour to major championships.
“I’m kind of getting goose bumps thinking about it right now,” said former Lakeside golfer Brian Carter of the litany of triumphs his Georgia mates have hung up. “It really has been the year of the Bulldog.”
The crescendo was Bubba Watson’s spectacular playoff victory at the Masters Tournament, fittingly earning the first major title by a UGA golfer in the old home state. Watson even tossed out a “Go Dawgs!” during his green jacket ceremony speech.
The run started with a three-week flurry of victories between April 23 and May 8 of 2011. First came Georgia signee Nicholas Reach winning the inaugural Junior Invitational at Sage Valley. A week later Watson beat Webb Simpson in a PGA Tour playoff in New Orleans. The next week Bulldog star Russell Henley became only the second amateur to ever win a Nationwide Tour event at the Stadion Classic on UGA’s home course.
That the quick series of fortunate events would signal a worldwide explosion of Georgia golf didn’t shock anyone inside the program.
“I guess it doesn’t really surprise me,” Henley said. “I’ve always said we had the best players when we were here. I’m just not that amazed.”
Henley certainly played a big part in the whole year. A week after winning the Nationwide event, he beat out eventual PGA Championship runner-up Jason Dufner in a playoff for a spot in the U.S. Open, where he contended deep into Sunday for a second consecutive low amateur medal a week after leading Georgia to a runner-up finish in the NCAA Tournament.
Henley’s Nationwide victory also inspired his long-time friend and teammate Harris English to match his feat with a victory of his own on the tour’s July stop in Ohio. Henley and English both were selected to compete on the prestigious U.S. Walker Cup team.
“It was incredible to watch Russell win first hand,” Carter said. “Then a couple months later you see Harris winning another tournament – two amateurs winning the same year. They were teammates and it’s only happened three times.”
Meanwhile, another teammate Bryden Macpherson was making a name for himself wearing the red and black when he won the British Amateur at Hillside Golf Club in England, earning himself a coveted spot in the Masters and a bunk in the Crow’s Nest.
The Bulldog pros were none too shabby themselves. Last summer included maiden victories by former Georgia golfers Erik Compton (Nationwide Mexico Open) and Chris Kirk (PGA Tour’s Viking Classic). The Compton victory propelled the double heart transplant recipient to his first full-time status on the PGA Tour.
Then in December at the final stage of Q-school, the Bulldogs once again dominated the proceedings with four guys earning cards led by the six-round medalist Brendon Todd. Two other UGA graduates – Scott Parel and Hudson Swafford – came within a shot of joining Todd, English, Brian Harman and Kevin Kisner in the big league this year.
“The knock on the Georgia program for a long time was we didn’t put many guys on the PGA Tour,” said Harman, who made headlines himself in March when he threatened to become only the sixth tour player in history to shoot 59 before settling for 61 at the Honda Classic. “We’ve had a lot of great players play at the University of Georgia and I think you’re just now starting to see the kind of talent the guys have out here. It feels good to be part of representing the program and showing how far its come.”
The development is certainly on display this week with eight UGA representatives in each of the top two tour events. Henley, Parel, Swafford, Reach and Carter are joined by Richard Scott, Justin Bolli and Paul Claxton in the Nationwide field in Athens.
Kisner, Harman, English, Compton, Todd, Kirk, Ryuji Imada and Patrick Reed are in the field at Quail Hollow. “It’s really great for our university and definitely puts us on the map,” Reach said. “All of the success we’ve had in the past year has been really great for us. All the guys here have one thing in common, and it’s the coaches. They know what it takes to get us to the next level and that’s one of the main reasons why I chose to go here.”
Head coach Chris Haack runs a meritocracy where playing status is based on qualifying and scoring averages and not favoritism. The process is proven and helps prepare golfers for a career in which you constantly have to fend for yourself.
The only team misfire the Bulldogs had in the past year came in the NCAA championship match against defending champion Augusta State. Yet even then, it came to the last match between English and Reed, who originally played for the Bulldogs before transferring to Augusta State.
Reed, who is tied for fourth at Quail Hollow, is a shot ahead of former teammate Harman. The Bulldogs might be glad to claim him to extend the streak.
Or perhaps this might be the culmination of the year of the Jaguars instead.