Whether Duke’s men’s golf team is playing a tournament round or practicing on the range in mid-March, each day is an integral part of a process leading to a larger goal.
A few miles away, North Carolina calls that same progression “Play for May,” a simple reminder that the end game is qualifying for the month’s two-week stretch of tournaments — the NCAA Regionals and NCAA Championships.
Of no less significance, though, to the Blue Devils, Tar Heels or any of their conference brethren is the ACC Championship in late April.
“I think the ACC Championship is huge for every team,” said Andrew Sapp, the third-year Tar Heels coach who also played for UNC from 1991-93. “Our sport is kind of rare in that there isn’t a regular season champion like you might have in volleyball or basketball or baseball. So it all comes down to one weekend as to who is the ACC champion.”
Fifty-four holes played out over three days at the Old North State Club in New London for the past dozen years and 17 of the past 19 — in essence a Vegas crapshoot.
“Sometimes the best team in the league based on the national rankings wins and sometimes they don’t,” Sapp said. “But you always put an emphasis on the ACC Championship.”
In the championship’s 60-year history, Wake Forest has won a league-best 18 titles, followed by Georgia Tech’s 12. North Carolina has won 10 and shared one, while Duke has won seven outright and N.C. State has shared just the 1990 title.
Duke coach Jamie Green says winning the league title is not easily quantifiable other than it validates the process and aids in recruiting.
“I think it did a lot for our program,” said Green, whose Blue Devils will be the reigning champions at next month’s 61st ACC Championship on April 25-27. “To know that our team and this program can elevate the players to that level, and can recruit the players that are capable of winning that championship on a stage that has that many good teams and individual players says a lot for us. It helps for recruiting and helps all across the board.”
Georgia Tech has become the gold standard of ACC programs early in this century. Since 2000, the Yellow Jackets have won or shared eight ACC Championship titles and finished second twice.
Georgia Tech’s dominance of the conference is no fluke.
Save for 2009, the years in which the Yellow Jackets won or shared the championship, their lineup featured at least two All-Americans. And since the Golfweek/Sagarin Ratings was introduced in 2000, Georgia Tech has been ranked outside the top 10 only once in years it won or shared the title.
Still, Tech’s mastery of the Old North State Club does raise eyebrows.
Green does not shy away from saying that Georgia Tech’s frequent play at the Golf Club of Georgia in Alpharetta, Ga., perhaps prepares the Yellow Jackets better than any other team.
“They’re a terrific program, they recruit excellent players and they develop them, and obviously they’ve got guys out there on Tour, so they’re doing a lot of things right,” he said. “But the reality of it is that the golf course doesn’t hurt them. They get out there and see something that looks familiar. And if they have done their job at the Golf Club of Georgia, then they have shot plenty of under par scores by the time they get to Old North State. So, who knows, they may just feel a whole lot more comfortable.”
The numbers do not lie. En route to winning or sharing five of the last seven ACC Championships, the Yellow Jackets are a combined 141-under par. Duke, which has finished among the top three fives times during that stretch, is a distant second at 76-under, followed by Florida State (56 under), the 2008 champion, and Clemson (48 under). Wake Forest, North Carolina and N.C. State are 15-, 28- and 40-over par, respectively.
From 1967-1986, Wake Forest (12 titles) and North Carolina (5) combined to win 17 of 19 ACC Championships. The Demon Deacons reeled off 10 straight to start the streak, while the Tar Heels won four of the last six.
During the Demon Deacons’ run of 10 consecutive titles under Hall of Fame coach Jesse Haddock, they won on a variety of courses ranging from Pinehurst No. 2 to MacGregor Downs Country Club in Cary.
Sapp believes the muscle Wake Forest and North Carolina flexed during those years reflects a different era.
“When you look at the landscape of golf, even back when I played in the early ‘90s, you had teams like Wake Forest and N.C. State and North Carolina that had 15, maybe 17 up to 20 players on their team. There weren’t as many good options as there are now.”
Today, rosters are much leaner. Among Big Four schools, N.C. State’s roster is the biggest with 12 players; Duke’s the smallest with eight.
Sapp and Green agree there is more parity in collegiate golf and that is evidenced by the fact that the talent pool is greater because of the emergence of junior golf tours and universities are willing to invest into their golf programs.
In 2005, UNC Charlotte advanced to the NCAA regionals for the first time. The 49ers have since made nine consecutive appearances, and made three consecutive NCAA Championship appearances under Green from 2006-2008. Charlotte tied for third in 2007 and eighth in 2008.
Thanks to an NCAA Bylaw, Augusta State plays at the Division I level in golf, while the rest of its program is considered Division II. The Jaguars won back-to-back national titles in 2010 and 2011, the first program to do so since Houston in 1984-85.
“I tried to go out and find five or more really good players or players who really wanted to get better and hoped it would pay off when they really did get better,” Green said. “But we don’t need an offensive line or defensive backfields, it’s really only a few guys.
“So if you do the right things and have the attention to detail in recruiting and help the players you’ve got, then you can turn a program around pretty quickly.”
It’s the winning an ACC Championship that is the hard part.