SALT LAKE CITY — Exactly 30 years today BYU captured the school's first-ever outright NCAA championship when the Cougars won the 1981 men's golf championship at the Stanford Golf Course in California.
It was actually BYU's second national title, as the Cougars had backed into the 1970 men's track and field championship, tying with Kansas and Oregon after the title was vacated by Cal due to an ineligible athlete. Since then, the school has gone on to win eight more NCAA titles, highlighted by the 1984 football championship.
Back in '81, college golf was a bigger deal nationally and especially locally because of the number of players who were going on to play on the PGA Tour. Fans actually used to come out to watch the annual Cougar Classic tournament, which nowadays hardly gets mentioned in the local media.
In 1981, I was the only media person from Utah covering the tournament at Stanford, at least until a writer from the Provo Herald hurried over for the final round when it appeared BYU had a good chance to win.
At the time, I was a rookie reporter for the Deseret News on one of my first out-of-state road trips. I remember being so concerned about saving money, that I took a bus from the San Jose airport up to my motel in Palo Alto and each day I would bum rides from El Camino Real up to the golf course, sometimes riding with the competitors or their families.
The Cougars, under legendary coach Karl Tucker, were a national golf power at the time, having finished second the year before and the top five for five years running, including another second-place finish in 1976.
The '81 team featured three future PGA players in Keith Clearwater, Dick Zokol and Rick Fehr, who each turned out good enough to eventually win tournaments on the tour. The other two regulars were Barry Willardson and Dave DeSantis, who went on to become successful club pros.
Those Cougars were the epitome of the word "team." The year before they had lost their superstar, Bobby Clampett, who left school early to join the PGA Tour, and did not have an individual medalist all season. But they had five solid players who were capable of going low on a particular day.
"After losing Bobby, a lot of people counted us out," said Tucker, who passed away last year. "But we had something to prove."
BYU came into the tournament ranked No. 1 in the nation, thanks to six first-place finishes and three seconds in tournaments that year.
The Cougars didn't get off to a good start and sat in sixth place after the first round of the four-day tourney. However, thanks to a 66 by Zokol and a 69 by Fehr, they vaulted into the lead by five shots at the midway point.
In the third round, the Cougars fell back to a one-shot lead over Oral Roberts and four over Houston, but on the final day, the Cougars hung tough. Although they had no player finish better than Zokol's tie for eighth, they finished two shots ahead of Oral Roberts for the title.
For Tucker, the win was especially gratifying because he had lost a former player to cancer, had one of his own players diagnosed with cancer and his wife, Joanne, go through a kidney transplant, all in the previous nine months.
"I had teams with more talented players," Tucker once said. "But I never, ever had a better team."
Not only were the Cougars a big story at Stanford that year, but so was Utah State golfer Jay Don Blake — the St. George native who had come from nowhere to win the NCAA individual title the year before at Ohio State.
This time Blake was one of the favorites and he showed it from the start, producing rounds of 70, 69 and 69 to open up a five-shot lead going into the final round.
Before the final round, I made the mistake of writing "the only thing certain after three rounds . . . was that a new champion would not be crowned" and that Blake "all but had his second consecutive NCAA individual title in the bag."
Unfortunately, with the Deseret News being an afternoon paper at the time, at about the time people were reading that story, Blake had already blown his five-stroke lead on the back nine and ended up with a final-round 76, one shot behind USC's Ron Commans.
It also wasn't fun when the editor of our paper chastised me on Monday for writing that Blake was a virtual shoo-in to win.
All these years later, it's interesting to look back and see how a home-grown golfer and a local team were the dominant stories at the '81 tournament, which included a field of at least five major championship winners in Tom Lehman, Paul Azinger, Bob Tway, Steve Jones and Mark Brooks, as well as several future PGA Tour winners such as Blaine McCallister, Joey Sindelar, Dan Forsman, Willie Wood, Bill Glasson and Tommy Armour III.
It was ages ago, but 30 years later, the 1981 NCAA golf tournament remains one of the most memorable sporting events I've ever covered.
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