Kristi Knight and Grant Robbins have been busy this summer trying to recruit, prepare and lead their programs through the longest stoppage in play for college sports since World War II.
The difference is that their student-athletes never stopped.
“To play at this level, they have to be competing year-round,” Robbins said. “Golf is a unique sport where you have your tournament season with the team and then they’re kind of on their own during the summer.”
K-State men’s and women’s golfers are playing in – and in many cases, winning – tournaments against top amateurs and professionals this summer. They are among the only Wildcats in the world still able to compete in their sport.
You’re telling me you wouldn’t hop on a plane to Northern Ireland and watch Niamh McSherry tee off on a links course? Or how about the Swiss Alps, where Riccardo Leo finished as the top amateur at the Olivier Barras Memorial at Crane-Sur-Sierre Golf Club last month.
The hardest part for Knight isn’t just imagining her student-athletes competing at these postcard golf courses in European destinations.
It’s walking by Briony Bayles’ car in the parking lot as she prepped for this week’s Kansas Women’s Amateur tournament, knowing she can’t watch Bayles play due to NCAA regulations.
“I would have loved to have gone and that would have been very helpful,” Knight said. “Unfortunately, we can’t because there are prospects in the field.”
As their players look to stay sharp over the summer, Robbins and Knight are limited in how much contact they can have with their teams. Even so, the progress that student-athletes from both teams have made during this strange and challenging offseason is undeniable.
When the NCAA golf season came to a close in the spring, senior Jacob Eklund was at the top of his game in what he thought would be his final college season with K-State men’s golf.
“He had just finished second with a chance to win a tournament at Colleton River and played really solid in Puerto Rico before that,” Robbins said. “Jake was definitely trending up and playing really well, so the timing for him wasn’t great.”
Eklund will return to K-State after deciding to take advantage of the extra year granted to spring student-athletes who missed out on their final season.
He’s been busy this summer, with his most impressive performance coming last weekend at the East Side Amateur Championship outside of St. Louis.
On the 18th hole of Gateway National Golf Links, Eklund was tied for the tournament lead and just one stroke ahead of his second-place competitor and playing partner.
Both golfers reached the green with eagle putts, Eklund with a chance to win the tournament and his playing partner looking to force a tie. Eklund stepped up first and drained a 15-footer for eagle that secured the tournament championship.
Knight has seen similar strides from K-State women’s golf, even as standout upperclassmen like McSherry have faced challenges just to make it onto a course.
“She flew to home on St. Patrick’s Day and as somebody from Ireland, she told me that was the worst St. Patrick’s Day she’s ever had,” Knight said. “They didn’t open the golf courses where she was in Northern Ireland until around late May – coming from the U.S and going back home, she had to quarantine for 14 days and then she could only be outside for 40 minutes a day.”
“As a coach, I’ll be honest, you throw practice out the window. Not that it isn’t important, but this is more of a life thing,” she said. “I’m proud of how my ladies have reacted to this.”
Knight said that members of the women’s golf team organized a Google Doc where they can post their scores and hold each other accountable over the summer.
Knight will welcome three new members to the K-State women’s golf team in 2020, including Texas Tech graduate transfer Brooke Nolte, who grabbed a top-ten finish at the CGA Stroke Play Championship in June.
Nolte also squared off with K-State freshman Gabriela McNelly at the Texas Open in June, shooting a practice round with her future teammate ahead of the tournament.
Robbins will bring in a two-man recruiting class to the men’s golf team this year, with freshman Cooper Schultz defending his title at the Kansas Junior Amateur Championship in June.
“For Cooper to win the Kansas Junior by as many shots as he won by and then he played really well at the Konza Amateur here at Colbert Hills and The Railer down at Sand Creek Station, he’s had a really good summer and I’m excited for him,” Robbins said.
Schultz will return to action in Manhattan next week at the Kansas Amateur Championship at Colbert Hills, where he could be a contender alongside fellow Wildcat Jack Baker.
As Knight and Robbins track the progress of their golfers, the importance of the summer in preparing their team for the upcoming season is obvious.
Whether you’re a graduate student like Eklund and Nolte or an incoming freshman like McNelly and Schultz, the time away from classes and college life is too valuable to waste.
“During the school year, you’re balancing the academic side of it and fitting into the team structure. We want them, when they come back from the summer, to be ready to go,” Robbins said. “Their two months off are usually around November and December, but in the summer, it’s competing in tournaments, staying sharp and being ready for the fall.”
Knight broke it down into a simple message for her team.
“Do everything you can, because there’s so much going on around us that we can’t control,” Knight said. “I think this summer is going to benefit all of our student-athletes, no matter what sport, because what they’re all dealing with and working through is all going to pay off.”