It was hardly two good brassie shots ago that the majority of college athletic directors were classing golf somewhere between meat-loaf baking and fossil hunting in the spectrum of collegiate activities, and there are still a few who think only in terms of the crammed arenas of football and basketball. But most of those have come to agree in recent years that a par-smashing golfer is almost as good for prestige as a bone-crunching fullback—or a second-string bone-crunching fullback, at least. The result has been a much more kindly reception when thin young men appear in a registrar's office and confess that they may have dubbed a few courses in high school Latin but are consistently long and straight off the tee. What this has all meant is a new way for the golfing talent of the country to refine its skills.
It is not clear whether promising young golfers suddenly discovered that colleges were the best places to build their games for serious professional or amateur play or the colleges decided that good golfers were likely to make fine future ambassadors for them. Whatever the case, it is becoming obvious that America's campuses are producing today's good players. Not many years ago they came only out of the caddie shacks, they fed on soda pop, and old, bent clubs were the tools of their education. The Hogans, Nelsons and Sneads, who clawed a special kind of immortality out of hard times, came no closer to a campus than today's collegians come to the caddie houses. It is a new day, and a better one all around, because the universities have become the high minors of major league golf, and the prospects are that everyone concerned will continue sharing the benefits of this evolution.
A recent survey by the National Collegiate Athletic Association shows that 225 colleges now have access to a total of 259 golf courses in the U.S., and the colleges are using them. The NCAA golf championships, which 10 years ago drew a field of only 135, had 215 entries last year. In 1950 only 25% of the pros on the PGA tour had come up through the college ranks. Now 70% of the players on the tour have been exposed to college. If the scoreboards at tournaments were to list the players by universities instead of resort hotels and real estate development offices, sports fans who have never shed their old school ties would find plenty to whoop about. For example: LSU has Freddie Haas, Earl Stewart, Jay and Lionel Hebert, Johnny Pott and Gardner Dickinson; Duke has Mike Souchak and Art Wall; North Texas State has Billy Maxwell and Don January; Florida has Doug Sanders, Dave Ragan and Tommy Aaron. Wherever he plays, Bobby Nichols is nearly always followed by the familiar, if quite distracting, Texas A&M cry of " Gig 'em, Aggies."
Moreover, for the past several years the big amateur tournaments have been completely dominated by collegians. Jack Nicklaus was barely a junior at Ohio State when he first won the U.S. Amateur in 1959, and he was a decrepit 21-year-old senior when he won again in 1961. In between, Deane Bern an, who was not yet out of the University of Maryland, was the winner. Last year at Pinehurst, Labron Harris Jr., son of the Oklahoma State golf coach and just four months removed from that campus, swept through a dazzling field almost as if he were winning the Stillwater, Okla. city championship. Tucked away in the Ozarks at the University of Arkansas is a tall young man named Richard H. Sikes. Sikes is a senior there and already has won two U.S. Public Links championships, has made a trip to Japan for the World Amateur and has competed twice in the Masters. Ahead is a journey to the Walker Cup matches in England—which adds up to a pretty good education in itself for Sikes, who says that if it were not for golf he would be a chicken plucker in Springdale, Ark.
"The best amateur golf in the world is played in college," Labron Harris, the stern Oklahoma State coach and father of the Amateur champion, said recently. "Let me pick a team of college players and I'll beat the tail off the Walker Cup team. These college boys play every day and they play good. Some of those fellows on the Walker Cup have to work for a living."
A more fascinating experiment might be for either Harris' hypothetical all-stars or the Walker Cup team to try to beat the one college that has gone into the game the way the Yankees went into baseball. That is the University of Houston.
Houston has won 51 of 68 tournaments it has entered in the last 10 years. It has won six of the last seven NCAA team championships and five of the last six individual trophies with such players as Phil Rodgers, Jacky Cupit, Rex Baxter, Dick Crawford and Kermit Zarley. Zarley is the team's current star. He has won six straight collegiate titles, beginning with the NCAA last year, where he defeated teammate Homero Blancas in the finals. ( Blancas is just good enough to have once shot a 55 and to have finished third in the recent Houston Classic, where the field included most of the PGA tour's best.)
As with any other highly successful team, Houston has seen glamorous (and not so glamorous) stories rise out of the moss and oaks of its sprawling campus. It has been claimed by rival coaches that Houston certainly ought to win, because it gives 20 full scholarships for golf, the Houston players hit 800 practice balls a day, play the entire year, get more deals than half of the winners on the professional tour and are forced to go 54 holes after dark if they happen to be caught carrying textbooks.
"We don't condone their methods of recruiting," says a Big Ten Coach, "or the amount of golf they play. We can't reach their level, so unless something is done about them they'll continue to dominate college golf."
Labron Harris, probably Houston's bitterest rival, says, "I'm convinced we could have a national championship at Oklahoma State if we wanted to use the money. Apparently those Texas boys don't have to spend much time in class."