UNLV coach Dwaine Knight practically oozes corn. When he smiles—which is often—his lips curl back so far they disappear into his gums. He starts every third sentence, "Gosh, I mean...." To hear him talk, you would think there's no mountain of adversity that can't be scaled with a platitude or a proverb. "You have to be willing to suffer to reach something great," Knight says. "Suffering helps you build character. If you develop character, you can have hope. If you have hope, you have everything."
O.K., he's no Patton, but the man might be on to something. After all, if you're going to ply your trade in Sin City, you had best have your wits about you when the chips are down. Knight's players certainly did last week in Albuquerque, where they won the school's first NCAA golf title, at the University of New Mexico Championship Course. The Rebels, who have been the nation's top-ranked team since February, entered last Saturday's final round with a 10-stroke cushion over Clemson, but had to grind out the last few holes to win by three. Corny aphorisms aside, this particular group of golfers has done more than its share of suffering the last few years, which only served to render its achievement all the more satisfying. "Sometimes you have to hit rock bottom before you can appreciate something like this," said junior Chris Berry, who was 16 under par for the four days and finished in a four-way tie for second in the individual competition.
It was fitting that Berry turned out to be the difference for UNLV, because two years ago at this event he was the poster child for pain. Not only did he go 56 over at the Honors Course in Chattanooga, to finish dead last, but he also had to watch his teammates—without his help in the five-play, four-count format—gain a tie for the lead with three holes to play, only to lose to Arizona State by three strokes. "That was probably the worst experience in my life," Berry says. This time he got to play the hero. UNLV had only two scores over par during the first three rounds last week, but Berry's 67 was the Rebels' only sub-par score on Saturday. "I wanted to win this for Coach," he said afterward. "I owed him one."
The NCAAs were UNLV's school-record seventh tournament victory this spring, but most of the Rebels believe that this team is not as talented as the '97 edition that also entered the NCAAs as the No. 1 seed but somehow shot 17 over par during the first two rounds and missed the cut by six shots, marking only the second time in the history of the event that the top seed didn't make it to the third round. "I can remember sitting by the 18th green with a towel over my head so no one could see me crying," says UNLV sophomore Jeremy Anderson. "It's a feeling I wouldn't wish on anyone."
How different were things this year? UNLV's two-round total of 23 under tied the NCAA four-round record, held by Stanford and Arizona. "I saw they were at 20 under [for the tournament], and my jaw dropped," said Georgia Tech freshman Bryce Molder after the second round. Even with Saturday's stumble the Rebels shattered the tournament record by 11 strokes, finishing at 34 under. Low scores were par for the course. Georgia Tech, led by Molder's 15 under and U.S. Amateur champ Matt Kuchar's 12 under, was third at minus-30, and the fourth-place finisher, Oklahoma State, also broke the four-round record, by two strokes.
No golfer was more impressive than Minnesota freshman James McLean, a 19-year-old Australian who shot a 17-under 271 to win the individual title. McLean, whose father, Graham, played Australian rules football professionally, didn't arrive in Minneapolis until December because he was finishing a stint at the Australian Institute of Sport. "When I left home in Melbourne, it was 120 degrees," he says. "I got off the plane wearing shorts and a T-shirt. When the cold air hit me, it was a shock."
After three-putting the 18th on Saturday for bogey and a 69, McLean figured he might be in a playoff and headed for the driving range. His excruciating 1�-hour wait there ended when the last of his challengers, defending champ Charles Warren of Clemson, missed a 20-foot birdie attempt. Finally McLean could call his parents back in Melbourne, where it was 8 a.m. "G'day, Dad," he said. "Guess what? I won."
Knight has longed to say those words for 20 years. It was a strange turn that he would win a championship at New Mexico, where he had played for four years and coached for 10. Knight, 50, left for Las Vegas in the fall of '87 largely because he believed that the school and the city were eager to support a topflight program. He has since persuaded local businesses to create a $3.5 million endowment, the interest from which pays for the program's expenses, save for coaches' salaries.
Twice in the last six years Knight has flirted with other schools, most recently with Texas last fall. ( Tom Kite personally tried to recruit Knight.) Though he says his interest in the Texas job was not related to a desire to win a national championship, Knight concedes that his failures in the postseason were starting to eat away at him. "When you get so close to something but don't win it, it's tough," he says.
An hour or so after the tournament, the Rebels were posing for a photo underneath a scoreboard when an announcement came over the P.A. "Coach Knight, Steve Wynn is on the phone, long distance." Knight instinctively started to get up to answer the page, but Anderson would have none of it. "Tell him to wait," he said, and everyone laughed. Then they all bounded back to the 18th green to pose for another picture. On a phone Wynn was waiting, but the Rebels were determined to have their moment. For once, the rest of the world would have to suffer.