What You Can Learn From a College Golf Program – Checking in With the Columbia Lions
College golf has gotten more and more competitive over the years. The youth movement on the PGA Tour is jam packed with standout players from the NCAA ranks. Recently I spoke with my former coach Rich Mueller to catch up, and see what’s been going on in his world.
It has been 15 years since I played under Rich at New York University. Since then he has moved uptown to head up the Columbia Golf program. He has lead the Lions to five Ivy League Championships and three individual titles since 2005.
I wanted to find out how his role has changed throughout the years, and any trends he has seen in the way teams are preparing for tournaments. More importantly, I wanted to gain insight from how top-level amateurs are approaching golf, and how it could potentially benefit your game.
What Has Changed?
The first question I asked Rich is what major changes he has seen in college golf over the last two decades. His response was quick and unequivocal. He believes the quality of play is higher than it’s ever been. College golfers are more athletic, skilled, and are shooting better scores on the whole.
As an example, the Columbia Lions’ final score at a tournament held at Baltusrol Country Club won the tournament back in 2014. This year that same score set them back four places.
It is no surprise since we are seeing many college players having success on the PGA Tour almost immediately. I asked Rich why he thought college golf is arguably at its highest level of competition. He believes that it’s a mixture of the Tiger Woods effect and that golf as an institution is doing a wonderful job of competing against other junior sports.
Programs like the First Tee and the PGA Junior League are doing great work with children, and getting them interested in the game at a young age.
Another theory that he floated is that there might be a cultural shift occurring amongst parents. It is no secret that contact sports like football are becoming harder and harder to support because of the worry over concussions and long-term brain damage. Golf offers a safer outlet for parents that have children who want to compete.
Coaching vs Instruction
One of the largest shifts in college golf that has been occurring is the emergence of technology and statistics. Conversations about the technical elements of the swing are now shifting towards how players can practice more effectively, and plan out a strategy in tournaments based on statistics. In other words it is less about instruction and more about coaching.
The Columbia Lions have a unique perspective into the statistical world because Mark Broadie is a professor at their business school. Rich Mueller has learned a lot from Mark’s strokes-gained analysis, and used it as a metric to help coach his players more effectively.
“Coaching has a completely different connotation now. In the past a coach would project his own beliefs and philosophy on how to plan out a strategy on the course. Now we have the tools to measure each player’s performance and make specific plans for them as well as the team as a whole. It is not a subjective conversation anymore, we have factual information to back up our plan.”
At the beginning of every season Rich will benchmark each player’s shot dispersion and club distances using a Foresight launch monitor. He then takes this information and combines it with strategies he has learned from Mark Broadie and Scott Fawcett’s DECADE system. Everyone has a plan for how to play the course before they even show up.
For example, if one golfer can prove that their dispersion with a driver can fall within a certain range, then it might impact their club selection off the tee based on the architecture of the course. All of this preparation can be done beforehand using Google Earth and satellite imagery. Each player will have their own distinct plan based on their playing performance and launch monitor data.
This is a far cry from how college golf teams used to prepare, and it is certainly a more efficient strategy.
One of the hardest things for any golfer to do is properly simulate the pressure of a real round and a tournament situation. Rich Mueller credits the introduction of competitive practice games as the reason for their multiple Ivy League titles over the years.
“Years ago I was looking for a way to understand separated players under pressure. I came across a book called Golf Scrimmages by Trent Wearner, and it was a real game changer for me.”
Most practices are centered around games at Columbia (and many other programs around the country). It accomplishes two primary goals – making it more fun, and more importantly getting players used to being under pressure.
Rich believes that this kind of practice has his teams better prepared for tournaments than they used to be. While it is not a foolproof strategy, many of his players throughout the years believed they had a competitive advantage because they just felt more comfortable being under pressure with a golf club in their hands.
Rich gave me examples of two putting games he uses in order to develop the skill of focus.
The first game is somewhat of a torture chamber. You need to make 21 putts in a row from three feet, ten in a row from six feet, six in a row from 10 feet, and then one from 20. It is incredibly hard to complete, but it helps players give more focus and meaning to each putt.
Additionally, he uses a team-based putting competition that penalizes the whole team if any one player three putts from outside of 15 feet. This introduces the concept of camaraderie for a sport that is typically only focused on the individual.
As a coach Rich Mueller’s core philosophy is not to go down the rabbit hole too far with any one concept. He instead learns from multiple resources like AimPoint for putting and DECADE for course management. The goal is not to overwhelm a golfer with too much information, but rather enhance their current abilities.
He is also not one to tinker too much with a player’s swing. “When I recruit a player, I am committing to their swing. I liked what I saw in their athletic ability. A lot of what we do is simply fine-tuning fundamentals such as posture and alignment.”
I asked about how he sees the role of fitness in golf. Rich believes it is certainly not a flash in the pan. The overwhelming majority of college golfers are athletes now, and they are spending some time in the gym. He sees it as a no brainer to help prevent injuries and improve performance on the course.
What Can You Learn from College Golf?
Overall, college golf coaches have a unique set of challenges. The NCAA restricts the amount of practice time throughout the year, so they have to be more efficient with the time they do have. Practicing more effectively, working on strategy, and coming up with an overall plan are perquisites just to keep up with the competition.
While their level of play is far superior to the everyday golfer, I believe there are some parallels many of you reading this can draw from. We all have our unique set of challenges when it comes to golf, and how much time we can devote to this game. There are certainly pearls of wisdom to be drawn from what is going on in college golf, and how to apply it to your own game.
Take some time to compete against yourself. Think about your strategy on the course. These are concepts that can be applied to any golfer’s game.