Golf on the collegiate level in America has been around since the late 19th century, and it’s produced professional players such as Tiger Woods, Jack Nicklaus, and Phil Mickelson. While some players forego the college experience to jump straight into the pro ranks, most find that the team atmosphere and coaching instruction are invaluable to their development as a competitive golfer.
NCAA college golf takes place on three different levels. In this section, we’ll look at the differences between these divisions.
The biggest difference between high school and college golf is the number of holes played within a day. During the first day of competition in college events, students play two rounds for a total of 36 holes. This requires more mental discipline and physical endurance, so it marks a major step up in overall difficulty.
The team concept is also emphasized on the college level, with student-athletes being told who to room with, where to eat, and which tournaments they’ll be playing in. At the lower levels (and again in the professional ranks), players are often able to make these decisions themselves.
Another major departure is the overall tone of the events. While junior golf isn’t taken lightly, it pales to the seriousness of the college level. A player who consistently underperforms can lose their scholarship, and coaches can find themselves out of a job and being forced to relocate their families.
Each year in late May or early June, the top event in men’s collegiate golf takes place. While the lowest-scoring individual competitor is recognized, the game focuses on the team concept.
The tournament begins with a stroke play competition over the first 54 holes. Afterwards, the best eight teams are seeded and placed into a match play playoff.
Prior to the creation of the NCAA, the event took place from 1897 to 1938 between various Ivy League teams. The most successful during this era was Yale, as they managed to win 20 team championships out of 41 tournaments.
From 1939 until 1964, the emphasis was on match play. This marked the beginning of the NCAA era, and the most successful program was the University of Houston Cougars. They captured seven team titles during this period, including five straight wins from 1956 until 1960.
Stroke play became the preferred method from 1965 until 2008. Dominance during this period was shared between the University of Houston Cougars and the Oklahoma State Cowboys, with both programs taking home nine titles during a 43-year span. Individual champions during these years included recognizable names such as Tiger Woods, Justin Leonard, Ben Crenshaw, and Phil Mickelson.
The modern era of the championship started in 2009 and involves a combination of stroke and match play. Augusta State and Alabama have been the most successful programs as of 2015, with both schools winning a pair of national titles.
Some might assume that all college golf players are just one step away from a professional career, but that isn’t always the case. Yes, the best collegiate golfers often post sub-par rounds, but it’s also not uncommon to see them playing alongside male teammates who shoot in the 80s or above and female players shooting in the 90s or 100s.
If a college has a golf program, they’re often allotted a certain number of scholarships to give out. While each school would love to find the next Tiger Woods, they’re often willing to settle for far less in order to field a team and justify the continued existence of their program.