The Art of Varsity Golf

The Art of Varsity Golf

When Cory Renfrew, BA’09, walked up to the green at the 16th hole of the Phoenix Open in February he had no idea of the ruckus he would cause. Golf fans are usually as demure as tennis spectators, maybe more so, but the Phoenix Open has traditionally been a rowdier event, especially in the bleachers behind the 16th green, known as “the loudest hole in golf.”

Renfrew, a star during his time as a varsity player at UBC, and a regular on the PGA Canada tour, made it into the Phoenix Open by shooting a 66 during a qualifying round. He ultimately tied for 59th (ahead of the likes of Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson), but during his final round he placed his second shot on the 16th just off the green, 55 yards from the pin. Renfrew sussed the shot, lined it up and popped a little chip toward the pin. The ball took a couple of bounces then rolled, rolled and rolled, right into the cup.

Fans in the bleachers roared and leapt to their feet, throwing cups and cans over the edge in a waterfall of beer. Renfrew pumped his fist, then watched the crowd in amazement. It’s a moment in his golf career he’s never likely to forget.

Contrast that scene with one of an older gentleman practicing chip shots at Shaughnessy Golf and Country Club in Vancouver. He struck a lovely shot that arced up, bounced a couple of times and dropped into a hole 30 feet away.

“Wow, great shot,” said a member of the UBC women’s varsity team, practicing on the same green. He smiled at her and said, “it would have been if that was the hole I was going for.” Those two examples pretty much cover the joys and the agonies of the game of golf.

Golf is a strange game. As a varsity sport it’s not like volleyball, football, basketball, soccer or hockey. For one thing, not many people who play varsity in any of those big five are likely to still be playing in their 40s, 50s or 60s. The knees go, the back hurts, or the lungs just can’t keep up. A reasonable golfer, on the other hand, can play well into his or her 80s. Surveys show that more Canadians golf than play any other sport.

Another aspect about golf is that the very worst player – one who will never break 100 in his or her lifetime – can hit at least one shot per round that would make any pro proud. It might be a putt or a chip or a shot out of a trap, but that one shot will be great. Better golfers will make more of these shots, and it’s the hope of all golfers (or firm belief) that they will be able to hit even more great shots the next round. Golf doesn’t demand great prowess in the weekend player, just determination.

But of course the players on UBC’s team aren’t weekend players. They’re the university equivalent of pros, performing in the top five per cent, or better, of all golfers in the world. These are golfers who consider par the bare minimum of adequate achievement, who can consistently reach a green in regulation and aren’t daunted by sand traps, rough or undulating greens. They are to weekend players what Milos Raonic or Eugenie Bouchard are to occasional tennis players. As they say on The Golf Channel, these guys are good.

The players on UBC’s team aren’t weekend players. They’re the university equivalent of pros, performing in the top five per cent, or better, of all golfers in the world.

The Thunderbird varsity golf team is made up of 11 men and six women, and plays in tournaments against the best university golfers on the continent. T‑Bird golf joined the NAIA (National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics), a North American league of 175 medium‑to‑small schools, in 1999. Since then, the team has won a total of five championships. For comparison purposes, neither UVic nor SFU, when it competed in NAIA, have won a championship. UBC is ranked number one among Canadian varsity golf teams. The men’s team is ranked third in the entire NAIA, while the women’s team is ranked fifth. As head coach Chris MacDonald says, UBC’s program is the gold standard for collegiate golf in this country.

Coach Chris MacDonald (right) with Nate Ollis. Photo credit: Wilson Wong.
Coach Chris MacDonald (right) with Nate Ollis. Photo credit: Wilson Wong.

MacDonald joined the program in 2000, and is generally credited with its growth and success. He played at the high amateur level for many years, then turned to teaching and player development. He was an assistant pro at Nicklaus North, where he ran the Sea to Sky Junior Golf Tour, and is currently associate pro at Shaughnessy, a position he’s held for 11 years. During his time at UBC, he has been named NAIA Coach of the Year four times.

Under his leadership, the women’s team has won three NAIA championships, three silvers and three bronze medals, and won the Royal Canadian Golf Association’s Canadian University Championship ten of the last 12 years. In mid March, they won the 2015 Battle of Primm tourney in California by ten strokes, carding the second best round in school history. A week later, they placed third at the Montana State Bobcat Springs invitational against an all‑NCAA field.

On the men’s side, MacDonald led the T‑Bird team to the 2008 NAIA National Championship, the first championship won by a team outside the US. The men’s team is also a consistent winner at the Canadian University Championships and places top ten in the majority of its NAIA competitions.

Coach MacDonald has strong ties with some of the best golf courses in the Lower Mainland – Shaughnessy, Point Grey, Beach Grove, Musqueam and Marine Drive particularly – where team members get to play and practice at no charge. “Learning and playing at home on top calibre courses like these gives us a real edge over other Canadian varsity programs,” he says, and is part of the reason the program attracts Canada’s top golfers.

He’s also built relationships with teams and leagues across North America, which helps him book courses and tournaments other NAIA teams might not have access to. “We get to play against Division 1 NCAA teams,” says MacDonald. “The NAIA has no limitations on who we play, and NCAA ratings aren’t affected by NAIA teams, even when we beat them. We get to play the best university teams in North America and our players get to compete at the highest level.”

Exposure to top‑ranked NCAA teams pays off. Not only does the team rank near the top in both men’s and women’s divisions, current players are considered some of the top university golfers in North America. “Evan Holmes, one of our third year players, ranks in the top 50 in North America,” says MacDonald, “and Jack Wood ranks in the top 100. This is pretty impressive for a Canadian school.”

The women’s team has also had a big impact. “Over the years we’ve built a strong women’s varsity team,” he says. “Players like Kyla Inaba and Eileen Kelly (both ’09) were stars during their varsity years, and have gone on to work as professionals in the golf world. It’s a great training ground.”

Women’s captain Reagan Wilson holds her finish. Photo credit: Rich Lam
Women’s captain Reagan Wilson holds her finish. Photo credit: Rich Lam

Reagan Wilson is both a typical and an exceptional member of T‑Bird golf. A fifth year Kinesiology student, she has been playing varsity golf since her freshman year. “I started playing golf in Calgary when I was five,” she says. “My dad was a fanatic and he showed me how to play. Even as a little kid, people told me I had a great swing. I played a lot of hockey and volleyball in high school, but when I was 17 or so, I decided golf was my game.”

She didn’t compete or play on the high school team, so she had no official golf resume to qualify her as a potential scholarship golfer at any university. “I looked around at various schools, but if you want to stay in Canada and play golf, UBC is the only place. UBC has the best varsity golf program in the country, and one of the best academic reputations, so I came in to talk to Chris. He watched me play and invited me to join the team as a developmental player. He took me on faith, but I think I’ve done pretty well.”

Pretty well, indeed. She struggled her first year, trying to get a rhythm going with her studies, the gruelling travel for tournaments and the need to practice, but by third year she was winning tournaments, and was named captain of the women’s team. “It is demanding,” she says, “but it’s been a great experience.”

Wilson graduates this year and unlike many new grads, has a job to go to. “I start as an assistant pro at the Calgary Golf and Country Club on June 1st,” she says. “My goal is to get my pro card and become a fulltime golf instructor. My coach at UBC, Keri Moffat, has been an inspiration. Teaching is what I want to do. I can’t wait to make other people love the game as much as I do.”

Players in all varsity teams are committed to high achievement in academics as well as their athletic endeavours, and graduate with degrees from every faculty and department. And while many grads, like Wilson, will pursue employment in the golf world as course pros, administrators, teachers and broadcasters, many others go on to become doctors, lawyers, teachers, accountants and professionals in all fields. “I got a call from one of our grads in California,” says MacDonald. “She’s an engineer in Los Angeles, and went out for a round of golf with her boss. She shot a 67.” Maybe not the best way to get on the good side of your boss, but what can you do? These guys are good.

Reagan Wilson’s Golf Tips

  • “Have fun! Golf can teach you a lot if you don’t let it get you mad.”
  • “Keep your head down and hold your finish. That’s from my Dad. It works.”


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