Originally created 02/23/03

Shooting for No. 1



When you're small, you have to speak up to get noticed.

When you're a small school, you have to be consistent and persistent to garner attention.

And when you're a small-college golf program, sometimes you have to beat the big guys over the head with a 3-iron to get what you deserve.

The heavyweights of Division I collegiate golf have been served. Augusta State is the best college golf team in the nation. The national powers just needed a little extra time - and a couple more good beatings - to admit it.

"We want to became the Gonzaga of college golf," said Augusta State coach Josh Gregory, referring to the small private school that has earned a respected reputation in college basketball. "Maybe a little higher than that."

When the next batch of national rankings come out Wednesday, Augusta State should rightfully take over the No. 1 spot from Clemson. The coaches and computers that determine this kind of thing will have a hard time ignoring the most dominant and successful team in the country, which has beaten Clemson three times in four meetings this season.

"I want to see how they respond to being No. 1 and having that target on their backs," Gregory said of his team. "We definitely should get that chance."

The Jaguars have won five of the past six tournaments they've entered. Three straight times they've beaten Clemson, finishing second to the Tigers by two shots in September, when Augusta State competed without two of its best golfers. Yet, when coaches voted in recent polls, Clemson got 26 first-place votes in one poll and 13 in another. Augusta State got two in each and was ranked No. 2.

That should change after consecutive victories in the Gator Invitational and Mercedes-Benz Collegiate. The latter was a dominating 10-stroke win against an elite field that included Clemson, Florida, Wake Forest, Texas and Oklahoma State.

"We were up 10 after the second round, and I said, 'Let's go out and make a statement,"' Gregory said. "You can hold on and win, or you can show these guys how good we really are."

They showed them, all right, by being to only team to break par all three rounds.

"This week was very big for us," said Oliver Wilson, the top-ranked player in the nation. "We wanted to win, but the style in which we won was more important. To overpower the field like we did got their attention."

WHAT WOULD BEING ranked No. 1 in a major college sport mean to a small school such as Augusta State?

"It would mean the world to the school and the community," Gregory said. "To the guys, it would validate what they've done. We're still known as somewhat of a little-man school."

Ten of Augusta State's 11 varsity sports compete at the Division II level. But in a town that is home to the Masters Tournament, the Jaguars golf team has never backed down from Division I. Recent successes have allowed them to beef up the competition as invitees to the best tournaments in the country.

With five wins already and six tournaments remaining - including the NCAA regional and championship - Augusta State is getting into heady territory. Georgia Tech, unquestionably the best team in 2002, won six tournaments.

"To win five times in a year is the equivalent of Tiger Woods winning 10 events," Gregory said. "Who's to say we can't win each event?"

Any reluctance on the part of the national coaches and media to admit Augusta State's prowess is diminishing. Ryan Herrington, the college golf reporter for GolfWorld magazine, said Augusta State is coming close "to teams you think about as dynasty-type teams," such as Arizona during the Phil Mickelson era.

"They've battled the small-school reputation," Herrington said. "Everyone knows they've been good, but to a certain extent most people thought they were a bit of a fluke. Maybe with the last two weeks, people are finally going to give them credit."

TO SAY THAT having the top-ranked individual and team would signal Augusta State's arrival as a major golf power would be somewhat disingenuous. The Jaguars arrived a long time ago, qualifying for the NCAA regional each of the past 10 years and reaching the NCAA final six times in the past eight years.

Augusta State finished seventh and fifth in the NCAAs the past two seasons; former Jaguar Jamie Elson placed second individually in 2001.

Wilson, a medalist twice this year, said the recent successes have earned the Jaguars their due respect.

"Last year it changed," the senior from Mansfield, England, said. "But we still know we have a lot to prove to other people."

What makes this Jaguars team stand out is its depth. With the addition of England's James Heath this semester, the five-man traveling squad is full of talent. Four of the players are international - Wilson and Heath of England, Scott Jamieson of Scotland and Kalle Edberg of Sweden. The top American is Emmett Turner, the medalist at the PING Preview in the fall.

"I realized the first day I got here that this was a great team," Gregory said. "I think it's the best ball-striking team in the country."

Gregory also likes the team chemistry. The 11 close-knit players don't get hung up on ego and enjoy each others' company. It goes a long way to making them relaxed in tournaments.

"I don't think there's a team in America that has as much fun as we do," Gregory said.

JUST HOW DID Augusta State become such a significant player in a sport dominated by larger schools? A big part is the international appeal. Young Americans might get caught up in the prestige of playing for a major college program. To Europeans who wouldn't know the Big Ten from the Pac-10, they feel comfortable playing golf in Augusta.

"It's the best golf program in the country," Wilson said. "It's small but it doesn't act that way. Augusta's a great place for golf anyway. The school is very much focused on golf."

The European pipeline into Augusta State started under former coach Ernie Lanford and has continued flowing mostly on word of mouth. Gregory plans to take a more active role by traveling to Europe this summer to recruit. He'll have a brand new practice facility to help sell the program.

Gregory - the 27-year-old former assistant hand-picked by the team to succeed Jay Seawell - arrived in September from North Carolina State, a program that's produced rising professional stars Tim Clark and Carl Petterson. From the minute he was introduced at a news conference, he knew Augusta State was different.

"Having worked at a big school, it didn't matter what the golf program did," Gregory said. "All that mattered was football or basketball. This is the only Division I sport here. When do you see golf used to promote other sports?"

Augusta State gets tremendous support from the local golf community, including Forest Hills Golf Course and the Augusta Golf Association. Players are gawked at like stars around their home course. One of the perks is an invitation for the team to play Augusta National Golf Club once a year - a generous benefit that resonates well in the mind of a potential recruit.

Just the name Augusta speaks golf to top young players around the world.

"It means a lot," Gregory said. "The first conversation is always the same. They ask about the Masters and if we get to play Augusta National."

IN THE END, the Jaguars will be judged by their performance in the NCAA Tournament. As Georgia Tech has proved in recent years, having the best players and the best team doesn't guarantee an NCAA title.

Is Gregory worried that his team might have peaked too soon?

"We haven't peaked yet," Gregory said. "We still haven't had all five guys play well at the same time."

Wilson agreed: "We feel like we have a lot left to give. If the whole team plays average, we have a very good chance."

Augusta State won the PING Preview at the Oklahoma State course where the final will be in May. It's a gruelling track that won't concede gaudy scores and rewards balance and ball striking - Augusta State's best traits.

"To have gone out there and won gives us confidence and the belief that we can do it," said Wilson. "The mental side is taken care of."

The best part is, now everybody else knows it, too.

Reach Scott Michaux at (706) 823-3219 or scott.michaux@augustachronicle.com.