Bubba Watson is just one of several University of Georgia alums who are hitting it big on Tour thanks to Chris Haack
The old iron safe in the corner stands out amid the organized clutter of trophies, putters, fishing gear and framed memorabilia, like a potbelly stove in a tech tycoon's lair. "The safe was my grandfather's," Chris Haack explains, "and it was made in Lafayette, Indiana, which is where my wife is from. So when my grandfather died, I was the one who wanted the safe." Leaning back from his desk, the man known as Hacker flashes a droll smile. "I'd like to say that's where I keep all the secrets to our success, but there aren't many in there."
That's the man's claim, anyway. There are college coaches who wouldn't hesitate to send in a box man, under cover of darkness, to filch the formula that has produced seven SEC men's golf championships and two NCAA titles during Haack's 18-year reign at the University of Georgia. Who knows, that safe might harbor a schematic for Bubba Watson, the Georgia alum who recently won his second Masters, or a flow chart detailing how, heading into the Zurich Classic, five former Bulldogs had won seven PGA Tour events and more than $13.8 million in this season alone. Maybe the coach scrawled margin notes on the latest Golfweek/Sagarin Ratings, which have Georgia senior Joey Garber at No. 1 in the country and the Bulldogs at No. 3, behind Alabama and Georgia Tech.
Truth be told, the easygoing Haack — whose Southern drawl belies his Wisconsin roots — is not that secretive. Take the fishing rods over by the window.
"Well, we've got a lake down here on the 12th hole," he says, smiling again. "One day, on a whim, I took a fishing pole out during qualifying and threw something out there — I didn't even know if there were any fish! — and sure enough, a big ol' six-pounder hit my line. So that immediately inspired all my players to fish. They keep their stuff here in a tackle box, and if we have recruits in — well, most golfers like to fish, so we've always got that available."
Pressed to explain why so many tournament players prefer the company of fish to that of people, Haack shrugs. "I guess it's the peace and tranquillity of it. Golf can be a lonely sport, and fishing seems to be therapeutic."
Equally therapeutic, if you're a Dawgs fan, is a guided tour of the Boyd Golf Center at the University of Georgia Golf Course, a mile or so south of the Athens campus. Here's an autographed marshal's paddle from the 2008 AT&T Classic, won by Georgia alum Ryuji Imada. Here's an autographed flag and five final-round scorecards — all 71s! — from Georgia's '05 NCAA championship team. Here's a caddie bib from the '11 British Amateur, won by Bryden Macpherson, class of '12.
"This is when we went to the White House and met President George W. Bush," says Haack, pointing to a 2005 photograph in the Boyd Center's spacious lounge. "That was cool." Nearby is a photo of Harris English hugging his trophy at the '13 FedEx St. Jude Classic.
Clearly, Haack can pick 'em. But how does he pick 'em?
"He recruits personalities," says Garber, a Petoskey, Mich., native who transferred to Georgia after an unsatisfying freshman season at Michigan.
Garber, who sports a Duck Dynasty-style beard, is a perfect example. His swing is too long, his drives are too short and he barely draws a glance when he practices on the range. "But he's a shotmaker, he's a grinder," says Haack, "and he loves the team concept. He's everything a college coach could want."
Before he took the Georgia job in 1996, Haack was a tournament director and executive for the American Junior Golf Association, a nonprofit that cranks out sweet-swinging college prospects the way Apple makes iPads. So it's worth noting that he prefers offbeat swings — like Watson's balletic, up-on-his-toes swipe — to the copied techniques of the TrackMan generation. "The guy who can really play is the homegrown guy," Haack says. "That guy can repeat his swing when the pressure's on, because it's the same old swing he's had all his life." As for personality type, Haack looks for two-legged versions of the Georgia Bulldog. "You like to see that aggressiveness, the guy who doesn't flinch and is just bound and determined to get to the winner's circle."
Chris (the Assassin) Kirk, who at presstime was one of five Georgia alums who had earned a spot in next week's Players Championship, fit the profile. "Chris had no fear," says Haack. "He'd fly at any flag. Brian Harman had no fear. Russell Henley, when the pressure's the greatest, gets better because he can hyperfocus. It's all about winning."
|Player||Chris Kirk||Harris English||Patrick Reed*||Russell Henley||Brian Harman||Brendon Todd|
|PGA Tour wins||2||2||3||2||0||0|
* Reed transferred to Augusta State after two seasons
Once he's assembled his portion of borderline fanatics, Haack pits them against one other in deliver-or-stay-home qualifying matches. A school is permitted only five players in team competition, so this forces even his best players to fight for playing time. Consequently, only three of Haack's 51 All-Americas have gone their entire career without missing a tournament. "You have to play your way in," says Garber, whose captaincy and national ranking didn't protect him last fall when he was beaten out for a tournament spot. "It definitely motivated me to get better," Garber adds.
"I've just always believed that competition is what makes you better," says Haack, who played his college golf at Division III West Georgia College. "You've got to be able to hit a shot when the pressure's as high as it can get." The merit system also makes it easier on the coaches, who know that even a hint of favoritism can undermine team morale. "I don't have to watch football practice and try to decide if this pulling guard is pulling a bit better than that pulling guard," Haack says. "With our game, 71 beats 72 every time. It's quantifiable."
But to really understand what makes Georgia's golfers so good, you have to watch them on the practice tee on a typical afternoon. That's when they smash their way through a couple of range-ball pyramids and huddle around the launch monitor to compare spin rates and….
O.K., they don't do that. Haack's players typically warm up on the range and then head for the 1st tee, ready to compete. "We don't put our players into cookie-cutter situations," says associate head coach Jim Douglas, Haack's longtime assistant. "We're trying to identify what makes a golfer tick, instead of everybody just hitting 5-irons and drivers on the range."
By way of illustration, Haack cites sophomore Lee McCoy, a gifted but easily frustrated player who needed an attitude adjustment to achieve his potential. "Lee thought I wanted to see a smile on his face whenever he hit a bad shot," Haack says, "and it finally dawned on me that he wasn't getting what I was saying. So I changed it to 'I want you to be more of a fighter. When something goes bad, be a fighter.' And for some reason that clicked with him."
Clicked like this: With DWF scrawled on his golf glove (for Don't whine, fight!), McCoy recently shot a course-record 64 at New York's Met Intercollegiate on a cold, windy day on which the average score was more than 77. McCoy won medalist honors by 11 strokes, and the Bulldogs won by 33.
"Golf is not a game of great shots," says Haack, shifting effortlessly into teaching mode. "It's a game of bad shots and how you handle those bad shots. So when they come in as freshmen, I tell them, 'If you want to play this game at the next level, you'd better understand that you're the only person that's going to get you there. You can have your swing coaches and mental coaches and everything else, but it has to come from here.'"
The two-time national coach of the year taps the middle of his chest, indicating where the secrets are really kept.