Proposal jeopardizes valuable golf program

When the University hired me to be the head women’s golf coach in August 1999, it was my first job as a head coach. It was a job I had looked forward to since the day I chose to get involved in college golf.

I was very young, but as the assistant coach for the men’s and women’s teams at Washington State University, I was confident I had the experience and energy to take on a Big Ten program.

My goals were simple: Have a program that competed for conference championships, a program that would be recognized nationally and student-athletes that excel in the classroom. These were also the goals of my athletics director, Chris Voelz. It was a good fit.

From before my start here to a few months following, people often said: “It will be tough to be successful in golf at Minnesota, right?”

I responded, “Have you noticed what the men’s program has done in the last few years?”

John Means and Brad James had built a top-20 men’s program. I told myself, “If they can do it, I can.” They built their program with a mixture of foreign, out-of-state and Minnesota kids, but I knew the women’s program could be built exclusively with Minnesota kids. I knew this because there were some great college players who hailed from the state of Minnesota.

I went out and recruited the best golfers I could, but also the top-scholar athletes. Female golfers tend to have good academic records, and academics are important to them when choosing a college or university. And that’s what I truly believed this University was about: a great school in all aspects of the college experience.

The team in place was young, but had the talent to lay the foundation. They have done just that. What made the job even easier was that the academic foundation was already in place – the women’s golf team had the best grade point average in the department for several years. In fact, we have had an Academic All-American in my first two seasons and expect to add to that this year. Currently, one of the players is a top-five women’s scholar athlete. In the last two seasons there have been 10 Academic All-Big Ten performers.

As time passed, it became more evident to me that my goals as a coach and the department were achievable. With aggressive recruiting, a better tournament schedule and more awareness of “Gophers Golf,” it could happen.

This year, we have signed two junior honorable mention All-Americans. One is set to join us in the fall; she is the best high school player in Minnesota. And knowing what I know, keeping the best players in the state here at the University is a good thing.

The other All-American is now a freshman from Oregon. She was a Compaq Scholastic Junior All-American as well – only 10 players in the nation receive that award annually. She is on pace to have the best-ever season for a first-year player in Gopher women’s golf history.

The program is on its way.

Then on April 5, when we were preparing for a tournament at Indiana, I received a phone call from my assistant coach who shared with me an article from the Star Tribune about the possibility of our program being eliminated.

I was shocked. My dreams, the dreams of 13 student-athletes and three high school seniors became a nightmare.

Why would they cut golf? It’s the least expensive sport in the department. And it’s a women’s sport. I am not an advocate of eliminating any sports, but when was the last time you had ever heard of a major Division I school canceling any women’s program?

I further thought: I have never overspent my budget. I play by the rules. What did I do?

I had to act quickly for the welfare of my student-athletes. At first, I decided not to tell them, yet I knew once they found out – and they would find out (everyone has cell phones these days) – they would be in a panic.

So I thought it would be best to do some damage control and let them know. But what would I tell them? No one told me anything. I knew nothing more than what had been reported in the paper.

I did the best I could, calling it all speculation and that all non-revenue sports could be on the blocks. Less than a week later, I was in a meeting at Morrill Hall, finding out that my worst fears were likely a reality.

I can’t describe the devastation visible in these young women’s faces later that night when they were told of the recommendation to terminate golf. These are kids who have put their heart and soul into golf and the University. I feel the worst for them. For me, it’s a job, and I can move on if needed. But, for them the college experience is short-lived. And most of them don’t want to be here any longer.

For now, these student-athletes must focus on preparing for their end-of-the-year exams. The fact is our season is on the bubble as far as reaching our goal of playing in the NCAAs. They have to try not to think about the fact they might be the last group to hit a golf ball for the University.

The uncertainty has caused the foundations to falter. If golf is saved, those future Minnesota high school and junior golf stars will have a hard time committing to their state’s only Division I school.

And there are plenty of them. Minnesota ranks third in the nation in high school teams and players. There are 365 teams and 4,306 players, and none of them will dream of carrying a Gophers bag down the fairway.

How can I recruit someone to commit to this University – the great students, the great golfers? Will they believe? Can the damage be repaired? Those future Minnesota girls who could make up that Minnesota team and be recognized among the best in collegiate golf – will it ever happen?

Three weeks ago I would have emphatically told you, “Yes!” But, right now Ö I have no idea.


Melissa Arthur Ringler is coach for the women’s golf team. Send comments to [email protected]