UGA golf’s Chris Haack keeps competition at program’s core

Chris Haack promises one thing to players he recruits to the University of Georgia golf team: Every one will get the chance to compete for one of the five starting spots, every day, every week.

That also means no one is safe from getting bumped from the lineup, regardless of where they finished in the previous event.

“None of them gets a free ride,” said Haack, who has coached Georgia to seven SEC titles and two national championships since he arrived in Athens in the summer of 1996. “They have to earn it every step of the way.”

Haack’s theory is that it breeds competition. That steels nerves for the real deal when the Bulldogs get to tournaments, and there’s little doubt the philosophy has carried over when UGA players reach the professional ranks.

Russell Henley, the national player of the year and the SEC player of the year for Georgia in 2011, became the seventh former Bulldog to win on the PGA Tour (the third under Haack) when he broke the Tour’s rookie scoring record with a 24-under-par 256 to win last week’s Sony Open.

Last October, Henley won the Web.com Tour Jacksonville Open (he made a 30-foot putt on the final hole of the TPC Sawgrass Dye’s Valley to force a playoff with B.J. Staten). It was his third Web.com Tour title and his second in a row in a playoff.

In Henley’s last five professional starts, going back to the 2012 Web.com Tour season, he has won three times and finished third and tied for sixth. Those three victories are among 16 won on the PGA Tour and Web.com Tour in the last four seasons by Georgia players Haack has coached.

On the way to his record stroll among the palm trees of Waialae, Henley was trying to remember part of Haack’s philosophy.

“Chris was always preaching about having fun,” Henley said during a news conference last week. “He always said, ‘It’s just golf.’ ”

Haack said the balance between fun and getting the ball in the hole — and doing it under pressure — is what he seeks to instill in all of his players.

“Russell knows how to play when the heat is on,” Haack said. “It’s part of the system we have and how we try to teach guys that there’s a difference between playing well and being a great player.”

Henley is one of nine players coached by Haack to have won on the PGA Tour or Web.com Tour. Bubba Watson, who won three times at Georgia during his junior year in 2000, won the 2012 Masters for his fourth victory. Chris Kirk and Ryuji Imada, who led separate Georgia teams to national championships, also have won PGA Tour events.

Harris English, Erik Compton, Justin Bolli, Kevin Kisner and Brendon Todd have won on the Web.com Tour.

Brian Harman qualified for the PGA Tour at the 2011 national qualifier and while still seeking his first victory, he reached the third leg of the PGA Tour Playoffs last year and finished 51st on the FedEx Cup points list.

Not to be overlooked is another impressive stat for Haack: Eight of the 10 players currently on the PGA Tour or Web.com Tour have their degrees. The graduation rate for the golf program under Haack is 85 percent, according to NCAA figures.

“Georgia golf is flourishing right now,” said Billy Kratzert, a four-time PGA Tour winner and the first Georgia player in history to win on the Tour. “(Haack) is pushing all the right buttons.”

Not bad for a guy whose first coaching job was the one he has now. Haack, a native of Newnan and a West Georgia graduate, was a tournament director and executive with the American Junior Golf Association for 16 years.

He applied for the Georgia vacancy job in 1996 on the urging of former AJGA players who had gone to Athens.

He’s never wanted to go anywhere else. Haack is entering his 18th season with the Bulldogs and his assistant, former Georgia player Jim Douglas, has been there for 12 years and that continuity has likely helped build the ‘Dog Dynasty.’

Here’s the Bulldog Way:

— Haack doesn’t tinker with players’ swings, leaving that to private coaches.: “They’ve already shown us something, or we wouldn’t have recruited them.”

— Players must be, as Haack said, “golf junkies,” wanting to play or practice nearly every day.

— Haack isn’t impressed by four-hour sessions on the range. He’d rather the team spend time on the short game and putting, then playing golf at one of the three courses in Athens on which Georgia has playing privileges. All three courses present different challenges, the better to make a player more versatile.

— Haack sometimes has the team play 18 holes from the forward tees (“to teach them to be aggressive”). He also requires his players to negotiate “The Gauntlet” — a series of chips, pitches and bunker shots at the short-game area.

— Georgia players must compete, every day. Whether it’s a simple putting game or a team qualifier, there’s a goal to each practice or playing session.

— The past is out the window. Georgia players must qualify each week to stay among the starting five and aren’t assured of being in the next tournament on the basis of a finish in the previous event — sort of. College coaches often exempt their players from qualifying for tournaments if they had finished among the top-10 in the previous one. Haack has a variation on that theme: a player making the top-10 in a tournament can’t use the exemption until he wins a weekly qualifier.

No favorites are played. Haack’s system resulted in Bubba Watson not qualifying for a tournament for the spring of his senior year in 2001. Watson couldn’t crack a starting lineup of Compton, Brian Odom, Michael Morrison, Nick Cassini and Ryan Hybl, a group that eventually would win the SEC title and finish fifth in the NCAA Tournament. All five players were named first, second or third team All-American, the first time an entire lineup was so honored under the current system.

“It was tough on Bubba,” Haack said. “It would have been tough on any of those guys. I hope, at some point, that motivated him after he turned professional.”

Haack readily admits he may not the only college coach with variations of his methods.

“There are a lot of good programs with good coaches,” he said. “What we do works for us.”

 

BULLDOGS ON THE LINKS

Former Georgia golfers have had much success in the pro ranks, highlighted by Bubba Watson’s Masters win last year, and — most recently — Russell Henley’s dominating performance at the Sony Open last week. Here’s a look at what these players have done on the Web.com Tour or PGA Tour since 2010:

  • Bubba Watson won the Masters title last year his fourth Tour victory since 2010.
  • Chris Kirk won as a PGA Tour rookie in 2011, also has two Web.com Tour titles.
  • Russell Henley’s Sony Open win last week was third in last five pro starts.
  • Harris English won on Web.com Tour as an amateur in 2011, on UGA course.
  • Hudson Swafford followed English by winning Web.com Tour event in Athens.
  • Justin Bolli had to win Web.com Tour Championship last season to secure Tour card.
  • Kevin Kisner earned two Web.com Tour titles, finished one shot shy of getting 2013 Tour card at Q-School.
  • Erik Compton, a double heart-transplant recipient, returns to PGA Tour after T7 at Q-School.

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