The first question to Harris English after his four-shot PGA Tour victory in Mexico was delivered in Spanish, so perhaps it got mangled in translation.
“Your first appearance in the Masters, how important is it to you to be a Georgia Tech alum being in Georgia?”
The former Bulldog had just won more than $1 million, so it wasn’t too hard to be gracious.
“First of all, I’m not a Georgia Tech alum, I’m a University of Georgia alum,” English said. “Bubba Watson, Kevin Kisner, Chris Kirk who won last week, Brian Harman, Hudson Swafford, Russell Henley ... We’ve got a lot of alumni out here.”
Ex-Georgia golfers have certainly risen to prominence in the pro ranks, with back-to-back PGA Tour wins only the latest accomplishment from a crop of recent alums that are setting a high bar. English was teammates with Henley and Swafford on the squad that lost to Augusta State in the 2011 NCAA Championship final, and all three of them won Nationwide Tour events while still amateurs.
Kirk – who won last week at Sea Island to book his first ticket to Augusta – won an NCAA championship with teammates Brendon Todd and Kevin Kisner, of Aiken. Both those guys also won Web.com Tour events this year.
Bulldogs are indeed succeeding at every level: majors (Watson, 2012 Masters Tournament), PGA Tour (Erik Compton, 2011 Mexico; Henley, 2013 Hawaii) and Web.com Tour (Kisner, Todd and Augusta’s Scott Parel, 2013 Kansas).
“It’s fun seeing so many different guys getting to the winner’s circle and not just play well,” Georgia golf coach Chris Haack said.
Haack has created a system at Georgia that seems perfect for churning out players ready to win on professional tours. With first-class facilities and pleasant year-round weather, he has no problem coaxing many of the nation’s best juniors to Athens. But it’s what Haack does with them once they get there that is relatively unique.
Instead of installing a lineup based on pedigree and reputation, Haack’s system somewhat mirrors the tour’s. Everyone has to qualify every week, and only a top-10 individual finish in one tournament earns an exemption into the next.
“Pretty much every day while they were here we had them in a pressure cooker and had them in situations where they were always having to perform,” Haack said. “They really never had a free ride into playing. They were always very used to the competition and at some point they learned how to handle it. In some form or fashion they embraced that and it’s helped them be more successful.
“It always put a premium on finishing strong and if you didn’t you had to win your spot again.
“It was a way of creating great team chemistry because nobody felt that they were being picked over somebody else. You made it because you earned it.”
Kirk credits that for making him able to handle the pressure when others were crumbling around him two weeks ago at the McGladrey Classic. Likewise, English stayed steady at Mayakoba while his nearest rivals faltered.
“Coach Haack has the best philosophy, I think, of any college coach there is,” Kirk said. “We just focused on competition amongst each other. So, I was first-team All-American my junior year and one of the top‑ranked players in the country, and I was playing in qualifying my senior year to get into the next tournament, and I knew I had to play well to make it. So I think that’s really big, you know. We always were very competitive against each other, and that sort of got everybody going And everyone’s continued to compete really well at the pro level.”
Henley won his debut as a PGA Tour member in Hawaii last year. English has won twice in six months, adding his Mexico win to his breakthrough in Memphis in June. That makes English and Rory McIlroy the only players younger than 25 years old with multiple PGA Tour wins.
“That’s pretty cool,” English said. “It’s hard to put myself in the same category with Rory. We’re the same age, but he has established himself as one of the world’s best. I’m working toward that.”
English might not be that far off, considering as a rookie in 2012 he played with McIlroy in the final group at PGA National when he won there, and with Matt Kuchar in the final round when he won the Players Championship.
“So I knew how they won the tournament and how they finished it off,” he said. “I watched it in person.”
English, a Valdosta, Ga., native, didn’t have to sweat out trying to win his way into the Masters, having already qualified with his Memphis victory. But he’s eager for April to arrive.
“It’s been my dream since I was a little kid to play in that event,” he said. “I remember going with my dad and some of my friends every so often. I was there in 2004 for Phil Mickelson’s win on Sunday. It’s very special to me, and it’ll be special to be in Augusta, which is really close to Athens. I’ll have a lot of friends and family there and a lot of Georgia people to root me on.”
Kirk, from Atlanta, didn’t get to go to Augusta despite winning the Viking Classic his rookie season in 2011, so the automatic invite that came in Sea Island was on his mind as he tried to close out his win.
“Augusta is THE tournament to me,” Kirk said. “So, I mean, obviously winning the Masters would be the greatest thing that I could ever do in my golfing career. And you can’t win if you’re not playing.”
With past champion Watson, that means at least three ex-Georgia golfers are locked into the 2014 Masters field, which poses a nice logistical problem for their old coach.
“It’s gonna be nice to have a few more Bulldogs down there, no doubt,” Haack said.
At the rate things are going with Haack’s kids, there may be plenty more coming.