SALT LAKE CITY — Of all the sports at the University of Utah, one that has lagged behind the most, without much noticeable progress since the school joined the Pac-12 in 2011, is the men’s golf program.
The men’s golf team has finished at the bottom of the league for five years running and couldn’t even escape last place when it hosted the Pac-12 tournament at the Salt Lake Country Club this past April.
But the program could be turning around under new coach Garrett Clegg, who took over this fall after moving down from Washington State, along with a new commitment by the U. athletic department.
Clegg is a native Utahn, who played for two years at the U. and he’s excited about the prospects of making the Utes a competitive program in what is already the most competitive golf conference in the country.
“I believe the golf program is one that can be built into something really special,” he said. “Salt Lake is a phenomenal, dynamic city, a place where people want to live, and we have an exceptional golf community in Utah. I feel like we can have success at the highest level.”
Utah just finished the fall portion of its 2016-17 season in early November and although it ended with the worst round of the season the young team showed much improvement over the course of the fall schedule, bringing hope for the future.
The Utes finished second twice and third in their first three tournaments of the fall, albeit against not the best competition, but second-place finishes (college golf fields are usually 10-15 teams) were unheard of over the past decade of Utah golf.
In the final two tournaments against increased competition, the Utes struggled, finishing 12th at the Bill Cullum Invitational in California and 11th at the Bridgestone Invitational in North Carolina. In the latter tournament, the Utes were tied for sixth against some top teams going into the final round before shooting their worst round of the fall and falling five spots.
Clegg is a Bountiful native and former professional golfer who played briefly on the Nationwide (now Web.com) Tour before getting into coaching. He started as an assistant at Washington before moving on to be the head coach at Washington State for the past four years. He was hired by Utah in June.
“The biggest thing is, our department is investing in the program,” Clegg said. “For the first time ever, we’ve hired a full-time assistant coach, and we’re investing in our facilities and working to build facilities that will be as good as anybody, anywhere. So to me, that will be a huge difference to bring kids here. That’s why I came.”
The Utah athletic department was happy to hire Clegg after longtime coach Randall McCracken retired after last season.
"Garrett grew up here, played for us and obviously had experience in the Pac-12," said Utah assistant athletic director Jimmy Soto, who oversees the golf program. "We felt like he'd be a good fit. Garrett's going to do a great job here."
Clegg and Soto couldn’t give any specifics about new indoor and outdoor facilities, only to say that plans for such facilities are in the works.
As for the idea that Utah is at a big disadvantage among the warm-weather Pac-12 schools, Clegg doesn’t buy it.
“Weather is an excuse and I don’t believe in excuses,” he said. “The No. 1 team in the country right now is the University of Illinois and their weather is worse than Salt Lake City.”
Clegg also knows it’s all about the players and he has a good base, led by sophomore Kyler Dunkle, a sophomore transfer from Colorado State who made it to the final 16 at last summer’s U.S. Amateur, and freshman Mitchell Schow, a three-time all-stater and state champion for Park City High School.
The Utes have also counted on three other freshmen: Jordan Costello from Wyoming, Peyton Hastings, a former state champion from Woods Cross High School and Christian James from Las Vegas. Senior Gentry Hicks is the only regular the Utes will lose from this year’s team.
“Mitchell is a phenomenal player, a kid that has dominated junior golf, and he may break or set every record we’ve had at our school, he’s very motivated to do that,” said Clegg. “Jordan is a great talent, an extremely hard-working kid and I’m very confident he’ll develop. Kyler is probably our most polished player and has brought a winning attitude to the program.”
Clegg said ideally he’d like to build the program with the best golfers out of Utah and supplement it with talent from other parts of the country. Just last week he got letters of intent from three golfers -- Blake Tomlinson out of Skyline High, Andrew Crockett from Fayetteville, Georgia, and Tristan Mandur from British Columbia.
Glegg knows he has a challenge competing in the Pac-12, which he calls “no question the best conference in college golf” but feels the Utes will be up to the challenge.
“We’ve got a real young good base," he said. "I’m excited about kids that are interested in the program and we’ll continue to grow from there.”