Texas native Mike Holder, 61, is the athletic director at Oklahoma State University, where he was the golf coach for 32 years, amassing eight national championships and 25 conference titles. The Oklahoma State men are competing this week at the National Championships at the Honors Course, near Chattanooga, Tenn.
Since retiring as men’s golf coach in September 2005 to take the reins as athletic director you’ve tried to stay away from the team.
I’ve been to a couple Nationals since I retired because I’m always on the NCAA golf committee, but I’ve tried to stay away out of respect to the new coach, Mike McGraw. If I see the kids at all during the year, it’s early in the morning in the weight room. I don’t go to tournaments or practices. They know who I am and I know who they are, but until every kid that I recruited is gone it’s probably best that I stay away. Although I wish I had gone to the Nationals this year because I’m a big fan of the Honors Course. I wish that the NCAA Tournament were held there every year.
Do you miss coaching?
I try not to think about it.
What’s the hardest thing about being athletic director? Is it firing people?
No. It’s the same thing that bothered me when I was golf coach and that’s losing. Losing is still difficult even when you’re not the head coach. But I will say that being golf coach is probably not the best path to take if you want to be an athletic director.
What’s the biggest change in college golf since you started in 1973?
There are a lot more universities and athletic departments that are serious about fielding a winning team. They have hired better coaches. The pay is better for coaches. All that has conspired to make it a lot more competitive.
A lot of golf coaches through the years seemed to be more like bus drivers and chaperones than real coaches.
A guy ended up being the van driver because he had to have another job. Coaching was just something that they did on the side. Now virtually everyone is a full-time coach with an assistant. For the first 20 years of my career I didn’t have an assistant and I had to do everything.
You had a reputation with your players as being very technically minded about the golf swing, right?
I always had an interest in the golf swing because I wasn’t a better player. I got better by working hard and studying the golf swing and doing the extra things to close the gap between the competition and myself and I just carried that over to when I became coach.
Where did you get a lot of your swing philosophy?
Years ago I spent a week in Seattle with Homer Kelley in a class based off of his book The Golfing Machine. Through the years I shared a lot his teachings with my players.
You raised millions to build Karsten Creek, the golf team’s home course. How did that happen?
It took us about 20 years to get it done from when I was first got the idea to build the golf course. The golf course opened in 1994. T. Boone Pickens was one of 18 people who gave $150,000 to build a hole. But the real benefactor of the golf course was of course Karsten Solheim.
In 2006, Pickens pledged to donate $165 million to the Oklahoma State athletic department. Did you play a role in his decision to give OSU the money?
T. Boone and I are very good friends. He’s given more money to collegiate athletics than anyone. He’s given a lot to the golf program. But he’s also given a lot to academics.
Do you guys still quail hunt together?
T. Boone doesn’t hunt as much as he used to. He’s old and he doesn’t see very well anymore.
In 2009 the Men’s Division 1 National Championship went to a match-play format after many years of stroke play. Why was the change made?
It was done partly in an effort to try to better package it for television. Just about every other collegiate sport is televised except golf. This doesn’t make since considering the popularity of golf and the number of other golf tournaments that are televised. Since the mid-1960s we had a 72-hole medal event. Through all the years we rarely had spectators except for one year in the early ’70s when had a crowd of 10,000 when we hosted the championships at Stillwater and when Tiger was playing for Stanford in ’96 at the Honors Course. But, by and large, it’s been primarily friends and family who’ve come out, which is funny because I think you’ve got a great product.
What was wrong with the previous format?
It was hard to follow. It was hard to keep score. I gave up on it when I was coaching. I forgot about watching the leaderboard. I tried to concentrate on getting our team to the finish line and then look at the scoreboard to see who won. So you can imagine how frustrating it would be for spectators who always want to know who’s winning. But everybody understands head-to-head. The popularity of the Ryder Cup and the Presidents Cup made everybody think that if we made this change for the NCAA tournament we might spur some interests and get it on television.
Your Cowboy squad was winning by 13 shots last year after 54 holes but lost in the first round of match play. How could you like a system that lets that happen?
I still prefer the new format but I would make some changes if I were still on the NCAA Golf Committee. You should seed the teams and once you get to the match-play portion you should revert back to what your seed was at the beginning of the tournament. Under this format you wouldn’t have what happened last year when the No. 1 and No. 2 seeded teams, Georgia and Oklahoma State, played each other in the first match. Those teams should have been on different sides of the bracket.
College golf probably has the most international players in any collegiate sport. How long have you been recruiting players outside of the U.S.?
My first year as coach I did a summer tour to South America to Brazil with my predecessor, Labron Harris, and on that trip I heard about a player named Jamie Gonzalez and I talked him into coming to school that fall. So that’s the way I recruited from day one.
One of our writers did an American Junior Golf Association story in this week’s Sports Illustrated Golf Plus and he found a 100 little Tour pros there. What’s your take on the professionalization of junior golf?
It’s kind of a good news-bad news thing. The good news is that if you can recruit one of those juniors who have played in national competitions, you’ve got an almost-finished product. The bad news is that their expectations are through the roof. They’ve already been getting equipment from manufacturers and they already have one eye on the PGA Tour. A lot of them aren’t staying in school for very long. Instead of having him for four years may only get him for one or two. At least you have the one-and-done rule in college basketball. You can leave anytime you want to in golf. The catch is that with golf there is no guaranteed money or spot on the Tour. You have to earn that card just like everybody else. It doesn’t matter what you’ve done before.
How do you advise your players about leaving school early?
There are a lot of players who are ready physically. But the real question is, “Are they mature enough to deal with all the things that go with being a professional?” I would say that 99 percent of the kids coming out would be better off staying in school. It doesn’t matter how good a player they are. Tiger Woods probably would have been better off staying in school.
Perhaps your greatest player, Scott Verplank, won at the Western Open on the PGA Tour the summer before his senior year, but he still came back to school that fall.
Scott came back because he wanted a chance to win a team national championship. Ironically, Scott and Phil Mickelson are the only two players to forego an exemption to play on the PGA Tour to stay in college after winning a Tour event. You see all the kids leaving school now and they don’t have any place to play.
You won eight national championships and had great players like Verplank and Bob Tway who went on to have success on the PGA Tour. What was your best team?
It was the 1977 team when we didn’t win. I had Tom Jones, David Edwards and Jamie Gonzalez on that team, Brett Harrison playing the fifth man. We had won the national title the year before. I may as well have left Brett at home because his girlfriend had broken up with him a week before the tournament.
Who was the greatest college player you saw in your 32 years of coaching?
Tiger Woods. He was the best player when I saw him when he was 13. He should have been on the Tour physically when he was 13.
Did you try to recruit him?
Yes sir. I watched him play more than any other coach. But he made it pretty clear very early on that he wasn’t leaving the West Coast and he was gracious enough to let that be known as soon as his recruiting process started.
You and Tiger are featured in a new book on the 1995 national championship, The Last Putt: Two Teams, One Dream, and a Freshman named Tiger, by Neil Hayes and Brian Murphy. What do you remember about that epic battle between your Cowboys and the Stanford team that ended with your team winning in a playoff?
We never could get anything going. We were behind from day one trying to play catch up. On the last day I let one of my players leave after regulation to catch a plane to go play in the British Amateur. So we did the playoff with Stanford with just four players, but fortunately our guys won. Otherwise, I would have looked like the dumbest coach in the world.
You are depicted as a really tough, hard-as-nails guy in the book. Legend has it that you once took out Bob Tway in a wrestling match.
Oklahoma State is a wrestling school. Bob was a freshman and the team was at a tournament that didn’t have a practice range. So I brought my backup practice balls for the kids to hit into one of the course’s fairways before they played. They would hit them and I would pick them up. But Bob was complaining about the poor condition of the balls. “Show a little appreciation,” I told him. “They’re mine for one and I’m here shagging them for you.” So the next day he complains some more and one thing led to another and we had a little wrestling match. I think I got the best of him, but he’s gotten a little too big over the years for me. I wouldn’t want to mess with him now.
You had nine runner-up finishes in the nationals. Which one that got away still sticks with you?
In 1986 we had a 12-shot lead with nine holes to play. Scott Verplank was a senior. Brian Watts, Michael Bradley and Tim Fleming were also on that team. We were by far the best team in the tournament. Wake Forest beat us on their home course with three freshmen. They finished an hour ahead us and posted a number and we just couldn’t get to the clubhouse.
How do you like Oklahoma State’s chances this week at the NCAA Championship?
I think we have the best team. But I don’t think they have necessarily played like it this year. There are a couple of Walker Cuppers on that team. There is a lot of depth. But who cares what you’ve done prior to this week? This is the only week that matters. I expect them to wipe the slate clean and win the whole thing.