Watching the Open golf tournament, from Sandwich, England, a couple of weeks ago got me thinking about collegiate golf and Ohio State golf in particular. The announcers would give the American university affiliations of the top U.S. (and many international) players: Collin Morikawa, Cal; Jordan Spieth, Texas; Jon Rahm, Arizona State; Brooks Koepka, Florida State. Etc., etc. They all went to southern universities or to ones on the west coast. Where’s the Big Ten? When I looked up the top 30, or so, ranked golfers, only Matthew Fitzpatrick had attended a school outside the south or west coast. He went to Northwestern — and left after one semester to turn pro.
Is it just the weather? Do golfers go where they can play year around? Do they start earlier if they grow up in Florida or California or Georgia? What happened to collegiate golf in the Midwest?
Every year at the Memorial tournament, we see Jack Nicklaus again and are reminded of his association with Ohio State and with Columbus. Not only did Jack play golf for the Buckeyes, but he renovated one of the two university golf courses and remains active in the program.
Jack’s a bit older than I am, and I don’t play golf, have never played a round, in fact. But I, too, have a connection to the Scioto Country Club, Jack’s home course when he was growing up. In 1961, the year that Jack was winning the Big Ten championship (both individual and team), I spent winter days at Scioto — sledding! I vividly remember once falling through the ice on a stream at the bottom of the hill. Maybe that’s how Midwesterners use a golf course; maybe it’s the weather after all.
There were many glory years for OSU golf, however. The Bucks’ men’s team won NCAA championships in 1945 and 1979, a team on which later PGA great John Cook played. The men lead all Big Ten teams with 23 conference titles, but the most recent one was 2004. Illinois is second with 18 titles, and, after winning the 2021 championship, has a six-year streak going.
The Ohio State women’s team has been even more dominant in the conference. Since women’s play began in 1982, the Buckeyes have won 15 Big Ten championships, with Michigan State a distant second with eight titles. But nothing on the national level. In fact, since 1982, Purdue — which won the national women’s championships in 2010 — is the only team to win it not from the south or the west coast, just like the men’s game. After the OSU men won the NCAA title in 1979, only BYU (1981) and Minnesota (2002) broke through the regional barrier.
Ohio State has outstanding facilities in golf. The famed Scarlet course (the one that Nicklaus had a hand in re-designing) and the Gray course are first-rate, professional-quality venues. And the Golf Club itself, with its semi-private status, allows those with university associations — students, faculty, staff, alums — to become members. A great way, I think, to involve both the university and the Columbus community in the game and to generate revenue for the programs. Also, of course, Ohio State has a long history of competitive success for both the men’s and women’s teams. The great names, however — Nicklaus, Tom Weiskopf, Cook — go back pretty far now. It’s hard to point to them as models when recruiting.
And recruiting must be a problem. Can either team promise recruits a realistic future on the pro circuits? Probably not. Unless that situation changes, Big Ten golf looks a lot like college football’s Group of Five conferences; the top high school players are beyond reach.