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Golf Royalty

The trophy that the National Collegiate Athletic Association hands its National Champion in a particular sport each year isn’t particularly ornate. It’s mostly wood, and its shiniest parts — if you even consider them shiny — are a subtle gold and not all that distinguishable from the silver and bronze-adorned trophies the organization gives second and third-place finishers.

But in collegiate athletics, the National Championship trophy, awarded to just 87 teams in their respective NCAA sports, is the most coveted prize of them all.

Some college programs have turned collecting National Championship trophies into a yearly rite of passage, an exercise that’s more force of habit than the close-your-eyes-and-wish fantasy. It just so happens that two of those programs are right here in Fayetteville.

Without nearly the fanfare and media hype that typically surrounds National Champions, the Methodist University men’s and women’s golf teams have together won an astounding 33 national titles since 1986. The Methodist women, owners of 23 of those National Championships, have won the crown 13 consecutive times. In the last 25 years, all but two National Championship trophies have come back to Fayetteville with the Lady Monarchs.

The Methodist men, the current defending National Champions, have been as dominant over the last two decades. The Monarchs won nine titles between 1990 and 1999. Even during the national title “drought” as Methodist men’s golf coach Steve Conley calls it between 2000 and 2009, the Monarchs remained one of the top teams in the country and contenders for National Championships.

Methodist’s remarkable run is even more incredible given the level at which the Monarchs compete. As a NCAA Division III program, Methodist doesn’t provide athletic scholarships, putting those programs at a disadvantage when trying to recruit standout student athletes.

“If you do some research in NCAA Division III, Methodist golf and Kenyon swimming would be considered the dynasties, but that’s really it,” said Methodist Director of Athletics Bob McEvoy.

Building a dynasty

So how did this happen? How did the little private university on Ramsey Street come to rule NCAA Division III golf? Thank longtime Methodist University administrator Gene Clayton for that. Clayton, a former coach and director of athletics at the school, spearheaded an effort to bring a Professional Golf Management degree program to the university. Designed to train future golf professionals and facility managers, Professional Golf Management degree curriculums had helped other smaller colleges make up for the absence of scholarship money by attracting talented golfers. Clayton took notice of this and in 1986, Methodist became the only NCAA Division III program in the country accredited by the Professional Golfer’s Association. To this day, the university has one of just 20 PGA-accredited Professional Golf Management Programs.

“I think you have to look at the foresight of Gene Clayton to find a niche program that really could help drive enrollment numbers,” McEvoy said.

The initial goal of Methodist’s PGM program was just that — to attract more students. Attracting some of the best golf talent from every corner of the country was the unintended perk. The Lady Monarchs’ first national title came the first year of the PGM program. They went on to take eight of the next nine National Championships, which were awarded by the National Golf Coaches Association until 1996.

Methodist men’s coach Steve Conley spurred his team to its first National Championship in 1990, then he utilized a very specific formula to help the Monarchs dominate the entire decade.

“The formula was that the team had to be first,” said Conley, who is in his 24th season at Methodist. “In golf, that’s a major shift in thinking. Not that someone hadn’t thought to do it before. I just made it a major point of emphasis for us.”

Conley began entering the Monarchs in the toughest golf tournaments on the toughest courses he could find. By the time the NCAA National Tournament rolled around, the coach found that his team was battle-hardened and ready for just about any situation. The result was nine national titles in 10 years.

And despite the coach’s emphasis on “team,” the Monarchs had plenty of individual success stories, too. Methodist golfers have won the NCAA Division III tournament a total of nine times, including three victories by PGA Tour professional Chad Collins and two wins by Ryan Jenkins.

There hasn’t been a singular philosophy driving the women’s success; the Lady Monarchs have remained NCAA Division III’s preeminent program despite several different coaches taking the helm of the program during this remarkable run. But Methodist’s current women’s coach, Tom Inczauskis, knew that he didn’t want to be the skipper in charge of a Lady Monarch team that ended the National Championship streak.

“It hit me during the interview process, the level of expectation everyone had,” said Inczauskis, who is entering his second season with the program after guiding Methodist to national title number 23 one year ago. “Definitely pressure came with the job, no doubt.”

But Inczauskis had one advantage that many first-year coaches don’t have — he already had a pretty good relationship with many of his athletes. The Illinois native was new to collegiate golf coaching, but when he took over for Vici Pate, the Lady Monarchs’ coach for seven straight National Championships, he had been serving as Director of Instruction and Head Golf Professional for Methodist’s PGA Professional Golf Management Program.

“It definitely helped that I knew the young ladies and they knew me,” Inczauskis said. “Switching over from sheer instruction to coaching was a big change for me. I had to get out there and start recruiting.”

Inczauskis was clearly a quick study, picking up where Pate left off by guiding the Lady Monarchs to capture the 2010 National Championship. It helps that the coach had access to Methodist’s customary arsenal of talent. The Lady Monarchs have earned First-Team All-American honors a total of 68 times — at least one each year since the national-title streak began in 1986 — and on 14 occasions a Methodist golfer has won the NCAA Division III national tournament. Susan Martin was the latest NCAA tournament medalist, winning the competition in 2008 and 2009. She joined Holly Anderson, Elizabeth Horton and Cumberland County native Charlotte Williams as the program’s two-time individual National Champions.

Student Athletes

Of course, the common denominator in Methodist’s golf success is the PGA Professional Golf Management program. Students in the program are enrolled in Methodist’s Reeves School of Business and earn a Bachelors degree in Business Administration with a concentration in PGM.

“The kids who come here to be a part of the PGA program because they want to have careers as golf professionals,” Conley said. “Our kids have the advantage of getting to play during the summer because they have internships and other opportunities to play during the summer at some really nice facilities. The students in the program show a level of commitment to the sport.”

PGM students have to have at least a 12-handicap to be a part of the program, and golf instruction at Methodist’s on-campus, 18-hole golf course and other state-of-the-art facilities is an important part of their studies.

Oh, and there’s one more perk of being enrolled in Methodist’s PGA Professional Golf Management program — you can earn your way onto the men’s and women’s golf teams. Students that Conley or Inczauskis never recruited or saw play before their arrival on campus might wind up playing for the Monarchs.

“It can be so competitive,” McEvoy said. “I’ve seen kids who don’t make the golf team until their junior year, and then they wind up being two-time All-Americans. Our coaches are going to find the kids who really want to play college golf and are willing to work at it.”

Said Conley: “Every year there might be one or two kids who make the team that kind of came out of nowhere. It can be a positive because kids know that they can come to Methodist and try out for the golf team. They are looking forward to that opportunity ... That competitive environment really helps us continue to be a top golf program.”

by Khary McGee