Hall of fame coach secret to ETSU golf
Published: Sunday, January 27, 2013
Updated: Sunday, January 27, 2013 23:01
Convincing Irish golfer Rory McIlory to play on your college golf team and gain a letter of intent from him is a feat unto itself.
Defeating Tiger Woods’ Stanford team in the NCAA championship in 1996 to finish third overall is astonishing.
But when referring to his career, ETSU men’s golf head coach Fred Warren said while he cherishes those moments, he still believes the future could hold bigger and better endeavors.
“I honestly believe our future is brighter,” Warren said. “I think our best is yet to be.”
Warren has been head of the ETSU men’s golf team for 27 years. Even though the Golf Coaches Association of America Hall of Fame inductee has to compete against bigger programs, like the SEC and ACC conferences, on the recruiting trail Warren has built ETSU’s program into one of the top programs in the country.
The reason players like 2012 PGA Champion Mcllory, professional golfers Rhys Enoch and Rhys Davies along with up-and-coming Irish sophomore Rhys Pugh chose to join Warren’s program is a bit of complex matter.
One could point to the state-of-the-art golf facility that Warren pushed for in August of 2004 as the center stone of the golf program. Warren said he had the idea for the facility in 1994 after spending his early coaching days at the “fancy” facilities Oklahoma State had to offer. Warren’s vision finally came true when he received financial support from a private donor. After constructed, the center was voted as the No. 1 collegiate facility in the country by Golf Digest in 2005.
But that facility wasn’t even built in the ‘90s when Warren was leading a team, which consisted of NCAA All-Americans Garrett Willis and Keith Nolan, to consistent top-10 finishes in the NCAA tournament and at one point was ranked the No. 1 program in the country.
“The interesting part of it (our success), we didn’t have that facility back then,” Warren said. “We were practicing down at the intramural fields.
So maybe Warren’s success at ETSU could be traced back to what he likes to call his “Irish pipeline” and his connections with McIlroy.
“I had Irish players for a number of years. Interestingly — this is total coincidence — the first Irish player (ETSU had) was John Paul Fitzgerald, who is caddying for Rory now,” Warren said. “But he actually wasn’t the reason I got my Irish pipeline.”
Warren said it was when Nolan joined his squad that he really began getting connections with players from The Emerald Isle.
“He wasn’t proven but he was good. Then he came here and became a three-time All-American,” Warren said.
After Nolan’s time was over, Warren’s connection to Ireland was not. For the next 15 years, Warren made sure he had an Irishman on his team, and he almost scored the most successful one yet, McIlroy.
It all started with two players Warren had recruited, Gareth Shaw from Northern Ireland and Cian McNamara from Limerick, Ireland. Both were McIlroy’s best friends at the time and told Warren about the soon-to-be golf star.
“I actually started watching him when he was about 13 years old because they said he was going to be a star,” Warren said. “When Rory decided he was going to play college golf, it was one of those things where we have two of his best friends here and they had a great experience. So, he visited because he wanted to see it for himself. He was a prodigy then.”
McIlroy came and signed a letter of intent, but unfortunately his talent may have developed too soon. Agents began contacting him and convinced the winner of the 2012 Dubai World Championship to turn pro.
“I’ve been to a few majors, and he will always come up and talk to me. I think he felt a little ... ” said Warren before taking a long pause. “I don’t want to say guilty, because he never told me he wasn’t coming.”
Warren said he thought the Irish golf prodigy was coming until he started hearing from some of McIlroy’s family members that he may just wait a year and turn pro. So Warren had to tell McIlroy that he would like to save a spot for him, but if he waited until August and decided he wasn’t coming, Warren was going to lose a scholarship.
“I still remember him saying, ‘Go ahead and give my scholarship to somebody else, I’ll just pay my own way,’” Warren said. “So that was his way of saying ‘I’m probably not going to be coming.’”
Even though Warren did not get to coach McIlroy, he has gained a lot of assets from the situation.
When McIlroy was first getting established in the United States, people began wondering if the young phenomenon ever considered playing college golf in the U.S. And anytime that is mentioned, so is ETSU and Warren’s golf program, which really assists with recruiting and getting national recognition.
But what ETSU has is an asset in Warren. Warren believes that his connection with the visiting prospects is what really convinces them that ETSU should be their school of choice. The UCLA graduate has brought experience and recognition that other athletic programs at ETSU strive for. Before his time is over, Warren may be scouting out the next golf superstar to join ETSU’s ranks.