In his 31 years as a golf coach, Indiana’s Mike Mayer can’t think of a more difficult six months.
A pandemic halted the finish of IU’s men’s golf season in the spring. Then, when the Big Ten postponed fall sports, it took away the first half of their next campaign.
Their sport is about as socially distant as possible. Competitors want to compete, and in the not-so-distant future, the Golf Channel will be airing college golf tournaments. And the Hoosiers won’t be in them.
Frustration was inevitable. Emotionally and mentally, the Hoosiers have been taxed. But as Mayer runs down a list of challenges, Mayer does find some relief.
In six words.
“Thank goodness for this golf course,” Mayer said.
IU’s new Pfau Course, which opened in mid-June, is a massive silver lining for a golf program in need of one. If it wasn’t for this $12 million project, constructed over two and a half years, this unforeseeable pandemic and sports shutdown could have been much worse for Mayer’s program.
Two of his better players are freshmen, Drew Salyers and Clay Merchent. They’ve played all over the country, and they can see how the Pfau Course stacks up.
“They say ‘Wow, coach, this is unbelievable,’” Mayer said. “The chance for us to play this golf course is going to be such a benefit for our development. If I had the old golf course, I don’t know what we’d have left at this point.”
At least until this coming spring, the Pfau Course’s 8,000 yards of greenery, dotted with 147 score-punishing bunkers, will be the Hoosiers’ only proving ground.
At least it’s a worthy one. “Believe me, this golf course is going to make you better, or it’s going to make you give up,” Mayer said. “And we refuse to give up.”
The loss of tournament golf is still a hard thing to reconcile. Mayer said his athletes are leaning on IU’s sports psychology resources more than ever. Conversations about what’s next are still ongoing. But this time is also a learning opportunity.
As the fall semester continues, IU’s golfers are on the Pfau Course. They can’t compete in tourneys, but they can turn the competition inward, honing in on skill development. Clint Wallman, coach of the IU women’s team, has compared the disappointments of recent months to a round of golf.
“Balls bounce certain ways, you have certain lies. After you hit the shot, everything after that is out of your control,” Wallman said. “This is a similar situation. This isn’t something anyone had anything to do with, so we are just trying to put the best spin on it.”
For now, Wallman has his golfers playing short-game rounds, charting their proximity from the hole after every shot. How far away are they? How far left or right? They log that on short putts, medium putts, and long putts. Chips, bunkers, and pitches. And wedges of various distances.
In a normal semester, packed with qualifying rounds and tournaments, Wallman’s squad wouldn’t have time for so much number-crunching. But now there are hours to input data into an Excel spreadsheet and identify weaknesses.
“The numbers on tour are just staggering,” Wallman said. “A PGA tour player at three feet will make 99 percent of their putts. At four feet, they make 92 percent. That’s a foot. At eight feet, they make 50 percent.
“So you take a less-skilled player, a college player, and you put them on a less-groomed course, and those numbers go down dramatically. It gives us an opportunity to say, if you want to have a higher conversion rate, your wedges and chips need to be two or three feet closer to the hole.”
If challenges are what the Hoosiers need, the Pfau Course will present an assortment.
There are multiple tees, making the course anywhere from 4,586 to 7,908 yards long, depending on the player’s needs. Add in a myriad of bunkers, of various widths and depths, and the course is akin to a mousetrap.
It’s a thinking person’s golf course, as Mayer puts it. And a shot-maker’s course.
“It requires you to play within your capabilities, whatever they may be,” Mayer said. “If you don’t play within your capabilities, it can be extremely penal.”
That will be to the Hoosiers’ advantage when they are finally able to compete, hopefully as soon as February. Every other course should feel just a bit easier, when, in the past, IU had the opposite adjustment to make.
At the same time, the wait won’t be easy. Mayer recognizes that. He continues to have conversations with athletes about sticking it out at IU, and he figures when live college golf begins to air on television, frustrations will surface again.
“I fully understand where the student-athletes are coming from. It’s a hard conversation because a lot of their points I have to agree with,” Mayer said.
“Again, thank goodness for this wonderful new golf course, which is a game-changer for the program.”
Going into a period when athletic department budgets will be strained, and much is uncertain, the Pfau Course came at just the right time for IU’s golf programs.
It provides Mayer and Wallman’s athletes with a vision of the future. It gives them a place to develop and prepare. It’s a home turf that they hope will soon be recognized as one of the top college golf courses in the country.
“There are a lot of things we can’t control, but I know what we can control, and that’s the development of our student-athletes. We are doing everything we can to make this situation as positive as possible,” Mayer said.
“Thank goodness for this golf course.”