It’s a cool, cloudy September day at Boulder Country Club, and the Colorado Buffaloes men’s golf team is mounting a final-round, back-nine charge to defend its title in the 6th annual, 12-team, 54-hole CU Mark Simpson Invitational. Head coach Roy Edwards is ping-ponging among his players, helping his ace Jeremy Paul coax in a short birdie putt on the par-3 11th, then offering Ethan Freeman advice to get up and down from the needles beneath the greenside pines.
The Buffs are playing leapfrog for the tournament lead with the University of Missouri-Kansas City Roosters, and no other coaches are as visible—or nearly as involved—as the gregarious, bespectacled Edwards, who is helping his Buffs read putts, select clubs, and decide strategy. Such interaction might be overbearing or unwanted from another coach—or with different players—but here it is welcome, natural and productive. The coach rubs his thumb and fingers together in the universal money sign and breaks into a big smile before Freeman confidently rolls in a birdie on the par-5 12th.
Deep into the back nine, the Buffs fall two shots behind. The outlook appears bleak. It will all come down to the 18th, with Paul and then Freeman in the final two groups. With the pin nestled in the front left corner of the devilish, elevated green, Paul gets too cute with his lob wedge approach, it sucks back 10 yards off the green. Paul, an exceptional shotmaker from Viernheim, Germany, is disgusted with himself.
Above: Roy Edwards talks with CU golfer Jeremy Paul
“It’s OK, it’s a makeable chip,” counsels Edwards, and moments later the ball bounces softly, checks, and curls into the cup for a birdie (and a 68, which gives Paul an even par 210 total for three rounds and third place individually). Now it’s Freeman’s turn, and he dumps a wedge into the right greenside bunker. The coach hustles up to the green to confer, and Freeman eventually converts on a slippery four-foot par putt to tie Missouri-Kansas City, with both schools at +7 for four players over three rounds.
Edwards approaches the rest of the celebratory Buffs’ team with an infectious smile and offers heartfelt congratulations for pulling off a miraculous comeback to defend the home turf. The players are anxious to go straight to the first tee for a playoff, but thunder is rumbling overhead, the Roosters have a plane to catch, and the Buffs will have to settle for a co-championship.
Later, at a hastily convened luncheon and awards ceremony in the clubhouse, Edwards informally addresses the contestants as if this was the nine-hole beer league at the local muni, not an elite-level Division I contest. He hands out prizes for a long-drive contest, and congratulates a contingent of local high-school players that he’d invited to play alongside the collegians in their own prep event.
“Thanks for coming out, and good luck with the rest of your season,” Edwards tells the assembled players. “More importantly, good luck with your grades.”
“He has a very human side to him,” reflects Paul, who is on pace to shatter CU’s career stroke average record. “He understands what we need to succeed in golf, but also what we need to succeed outside of golf. We all get along really well on this team, and he makes you better.”
Respect for Edwards isn’t confined to his players: In a 2015 Golfweek magazine poll in which college golf coaches ranked their peers, Edwards finished an impressive No. 18. “If you have ever spoken with Edwards at length,” wrote the magazine’s editors, “you know that he is a student of the profession.”
Thirty-nine-year-old Roy Edwards, now in his tenth season at the Buffs’ helm, is just the third full-time head golf coach in CU history, following legends Les Fowler (1948-1976) and Mark Simpson (1977-2005), both of whom had U.S. Open champions on their teams (Hale Irwin and Steve Jones, respectively). Edwards arrived in Boulder after a playing career at the University of Kansas, followed by coaching stints at Vanderbilt and KU.
Edwards’ predecessors would certainly be mystified by @RoyEdwardsCU, the coach’s super-active Twitter account (“I’ve learned a lot of things from you,” he retweeted from a former player. “But nothing is as valuable as your methods to combat chafing”). However, they would be unduly impressed by his accomplishments both on and off the course.
“There's not a coach in America who's going to trust you as much as I do,” Edwards tells recruits.
Right out of the gate, Edwards fulfilled their dream of securing a true CU home course in a partnership at the renamed Colorado National Golf Club in Erie, which also built the indoor facilities needed for a winter-weather school to compete, including a 2,000-square-foot putting green and five open range bays. (The team also practices at BCC, where the Edwards family, including two young sons, lives on the second hole. Edwards’ wife, Shelly, who played for the University of New Mexico, has won the club championship there five years in a row.)
Operating with a roughly $550,000 annual budget, Edwards launched a Colorado Partners program that has drawn more than 100 supporters to raise much-needed money for the team, and established the Colorado Golf Day, an annual fundraiser and celebration. He and assistant Pat Grady, a former CU standout, are currently ensconced on the fifth floor of the cavernous new Champions Center just north of Folsom Field. But along with CU women’s head golf coach Anne Kelly, Edwards raised $400,000 to renovate the teams’ old offices at Gate 10 of the football stadium. The 2,300-square-foot space, with offices, a putting green and a simulator, is set to open this fall—and will finally give the golf teams a visible on-campus presence.
On the course, Edwards’ Buffaloes are establishing themselves as a Top 50 Division I program (out of 300-plus schools), and have won 10 tournaments under his stewardship, a pace that will soon eclipse Simpson’s record 16 tourney wins collected over 29 seasons. The Buffs ended the previous season (2014-15) ranked 39th in the nation, their best in the past six years.
CU’s recruiting tends to focus on players who won’t be fazed by Colorado’s unpredictable winter weather, which often means in-state kids and self-reliant foreigners. Edwards looks for student-athletes who are dedicated to the school and the program, and in return for that commitment he tells them, “There’s not a coach in America who’s going to trust you as much as I do.”
CU golfers such as Ethan Freeman (above) benefit from the hands-on approach Edwards takes with his players.
Those who come to Boulder all have intentions of playing professionally, and usually have a reliable swing coach, so Edwards avoids fiddling with their mechanics. “We are experts at high-level golf,” he says of the program’s strategy. “We give them a snapshot of what it’s like to be a pro.”
The team’s practices are goal-oriented and include incentives (and disincentives) to keep the players engaged. For example, all eight players must two-putt from 50 feet, or they run the length of the driving range and back. “It’s a reminder that every shot matters,” Edwards says. On a recent Saturday in March, the contest du jour was a two-man, two-balls-per-player “worst ball” scramble on BCC’s par-3 course. “We do all kinds of fun games,” Paul says.
Through 23 tournament rounds in this 2015-16 season, Paul is averaging a sporty 70.96 (a cumulative 10 under par), and is ranked in the top 80 of NCAA Division I players nationwide by Golfstat. Last fall, he shot 65-68 at Ballyneal Golf Club to win the Ballyneal Challenge and lead the Buffs to the team victory. With a 71.95 average in 95 tournament rounds over three seasons at CU, the junior is almost a full shot ahead of the CU career stroke average mark established by Australian Kane Webber (72.90 from 1999-2004).
Another international player, Philip Juel-Berg, a senior from Vedbaek, Denmark, is shoulder-to-shoulder with Paul. He shot 69-67-68 last fall at the Eisenhower Blue course in Colorado Springs to win the Air Force Academy Gene Miranda Falcon Challenge and is averaging 71.13. Freeman, a junior out of Kent Denver, is the solid No. 3, posting three 67s this season en route to a 72.78 scoring average.
In college golf, five players tee it up in each event, with the best four scores counting: Juel-Berg’s and Paul’s scores have counted in every round, while Freeman is 22 of 23. To reach their goals, the Buffs will need consistent play from the back end of the lineup, particularly from two in-state freshmen, Wilson Belk from Colorado Springs (Cheyenne Mountain), who is averaging 74.05, and Castle Rock’s (Valor Christian) Ross Macdonald (74.10). Kade Crossland, a sophomore from Buhl, Idaho, with a 74.27 stroke average, plus sophomore John Souza (75.00) of Phoenix and freshman Pierce Aichinger (76.76) of Cherry Hills Village (Valor Christian) are also in the mix to help CU.
The Buffs, who were ranked 68th in the country by Golfstat in mid-March, are looking to close strong at The Country Club in Salt Lake City on April 29-May 1 in the Pac-12 Championships, and to qualify for one of the six NCAA Regionals on May 16-18, which they have done the past three seasons. The challenge is to finish in the top five at regionals and advance to the 30-team NCAA Championships.
Last year, the Buffs led the first round of regionals with a blistering 11-under par 277, then ballooned to a 300 and a 302, finishing sixth, one spot short of qualifying. Edwards told his team then that their disappointment needs to be channeled into “tomorrow’s excitement of working hard towards improving,” and that sentiment has loomed in the background at every Buffs practice and tournament since.
The finals, which now feature a medal qualifier followed by match play to determine the winning team, will be played at Eugene Country Club in Eugene, Ore., May 27-June 1. The Buffs haven’t qualified for the finals since the 2001-02 season, when they finished T14.
Coach Edwards, who avoids predictions or publicizing singularly specific goals, will only say “I like our chances” when pressed. “What matters,” he adds, “is that we get better. That’s what we concentrate on.”
Contributor Andy Bigford, a longtime CU football and basketball season-ticket holder, ranks attending Buffs golf tournaments as a superior spectating experience.
This article appears in the May 2016 issue of Colorado AvidGolfer.
Visit our News page for more Colorado golf news.