Howard University is only 13 months into restarting its men’s golf program, and coach Sam Puryear has to remind himself to be abundantly patient. Golf programs are not built in a day, and the team showed up to this week’s PGA WORKS Collegiate Championship at TPC Sawgrass still getting to know one another, having been on campus together for only 10 weeks.
Adding to the challenge, it had been so chilly in the nation’s capital that the Bison had been practicing in ski caps up until last week. But Howard, restarted largely because of the generosity of NBA All-Star Steph Curry, who committed to financially back the team for six years, and Puryear had some early signs that their first round might be special.
Puryear reached the 10th hole at the Stadium Course to begin the team’s round and was greeted by historical signage around the tee that displays important moments in history of this championship, an event that includes teams from Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs), Hispanic Serving Institutions (HSIs) and other Minority Serving Institutions (MSIs) from across the country. Puryear saw a picture of his college coach and team from Tennessee State, Dr. Catana Starks. In 1986 Starks became the first Black woman to coach a men’s Div. 1 team, moving from swimming and diving to golf. She was a legendary teacher, and this championship in 2005 was the last one she won.
Puryear’s pairing sheet showed that Howard would be playing alongside Tennessee State, his alma mater. Puryear looked up to the sky, gave a nod and thanked Starks, who died last year from COVID-19 complications, for all she’d done for him. “I’m paying it forward for you, Coach,” he thought to himself. “This could only be heaven.”
His day got even better when the Bison took the Day 1 lead on the Stadium Course. Gregory Odom Jr., a junior from Memphis, led the way, shooting 1-under 71. Howard leads Div. 1 competitors Prairie View A&M by four shots and Florida A&M by eight as they switch over to the Dye’s Valley Course on Tuesday. The tournament is 54 holes, with the teams returning to the Stadium on Wednesday.
“It’s pretty exciting to see the guys enjoying themselves,” said Puryear, who coached at Michigan State and Stanford before taking on the challenge of building a program from scratch at an HBCU school. He has an interesting perspective on the PWCC – he actually played in the forerunner to the event in 1988.
“Our guys have worked really, really hard,” he said. “For a new team trying to put things in place and to come out to a place like this and have a chance not to just be competitive … we keep saying our goal is to win.”
Texas A&M - Corpus Christi took the first-round lead among the women’s Div. 1 teams, shooting 14-over 302 on Dye’s Valley. Delaware State, led by Baipor Khunsri (71) and Estelle Verne (74), sits only three shots back.
Among the individuals competing, University of Alabama-Birmingham sophomore Khavish Varadan, coming off a runner-up finish at the Conference USA Championship, shot 2-under 70 on the Stadium to take a 4-shot lead over Timothius Tamardi of Appalachian State. Jose Garcia Jimenez is in third after shooting 75.
Jess Yuen from the University of Missouri, a fifth-year senior who missed all of last season with a wrist injury, is tied with Jahaanvie Walia of Louisiana-Monroe among women’s individuals. Both players opened with 74s on the Stadium. The men also have a Division II competition, with Livingstone College shooting 27-over 315 on Dye’s Valley to lead by two shots over Miles College and Savannah State.Puryear wasn’t surprised to see Odom jump out to a fast start for Howard. Odom isn’t the longest hitter, but he has listened to his coach preaching fairways and greens enough to know that smart play can lead to good scoring. He started on the back nine and made his first birdie at the Stadium’s signature island hole, the famed 17th, where he hit wedge to 4 feet. He also hit irons in tight at the par-3 third (wedge, 4 feet) and par-4 fourth (8-iron, 5 feet).
“Fairways. Greens. Try to make the putt, and if not, go to the next hole,” Odom said. “Boring golf. Boring golf wins the race.”
Odom said it was his best round of the spring. Puryear has enjoyed watching Odom’s team leadership skills blossom. Puryear said he will find himself starting to say something to a player, only to have Odom wave him off to complete the message.
“Greg and I, we vibe really well,” Puryear said. “He’ll jump in and say what I want to say. That’s when you know that you have a leader. I still have big expectations for him, for bigger things to come.”
For the Howard program, it had been a great first day. Something to build upon. Puryear noted that with each of the team’s stroke-play starts, the Bison have been just a little bit better than the last time he played. Small steps. Building blocks.
The women’s team at Howard will begin in earnest in the fall, but the Bison do have a couple of Players at the PWCC this week competing as individuals. Puryear will lead that team, too. He said this week is the very first time he has been with his women’s players at a tournament.
“I handed out their team shirts for the first time only last night,” he said, laughing at the suddenness of how all the pieces are starting to fall into place. “So when I say this all is new, it’s brand new.”
SHORT SHOTS: Varadan, the men’s individual leader from UAB, made eagle at the par-4 12th hole. It was playing about 330 yards, and he hit driver to 25 feet, knocking in the putt. … Jahaanvie Walia of Louisiana-Monroe, who tied for the day’s low round among the women at the Stadium Course, made four consecutive birdies starting at the par-5 ninth hole. Yuen kept pace with a hot putter, rolling in a 60-footer for birdie at the par-3 13th hole and following up with an 18-foot par save at the rugged 14th. After missing last season with a right wrist injury, she lost a couple weeks this fall to COVID-19. Three of her Missouri teammates also were sidelined. … Linda Wang of St. John’s, trying to win her third consecutive individual women’s title, opened by shooting 83. She is tied for 11th, nine shots behind the leaders.