Building a University Golf Program From the Ground Up
Mary Ellen Burt has had one of the greatest careers of any Union College coach in her 25-year run as head women’s basketball coach. In 2010, she decided to combine her passions for golf and coaching, proposing Union College establish a women’s golf program. She received the green light in 2011 and has led the Dutchwomen to near-continuous improvement during her tenure. In 2018-19, the team shaved nearly 10 strokes per round off the previous single-season record and recorded seven of the 10 best single-round scores in school history throughout the year.
I love golf—I play it every day if I can. One day, it occurred to me that I could marry my passion for golf and coaching young women at Union College. In a proposal to my athletic director, I explained that I wanted to continue as the head basketball coach, but Union College needed a golf program. I was the best person for the job. I had proven myself as a recruiter, I knew the sport well enough to help these kids, and, lo and behold, he agreed. I now coach fall, winter, and spring, and I love every moment of it.
Building a Program From the Ground Up
Starting a program from scratch involved figuring out where we were going play, where we were going to practice, how were we going to get time in the strength and conditioning center, and what kind of caliber athletes we could get. Finding talented golfers was the real challenge of building a program because nobody had heard about the Union College women’s golf program. It didn’t exist!
I started by convincing students with a history of golfing at the college and women from my basketball team who were natural athletes to sign up. We established our home course at the Mohawk Club, which is 3 miles from campus. Then I realized we’re in Upstate New York and the weather is brutal. What am I going to do to help these kids in the winter?
My athletic director gave us a racquetball court and said, “At least you have a place. Figure out what you want to do with it.” So for almost two years, we were hitting a lot of indoor balls. I took the indoor carpet from the training center and I made chipping areas. I had a putting green from an old carpet, I would hit balls into the wall and just kept trying to go from there.
I had a couple of connections with people who played in winter golf leagues. They told me aboutGOLF had a sales office up in Glens Falls, which is about 45 miles north of Union. I went up there and just was so impressed. I made another trip with my AD and facility person. Six months later, I had a golf simulator in a racquetball court. The kids’ eyes lit up when they came back to school in September. It was awesome.
The golf simulator also turned around our recruiting problem.
When we first started the program, we were really bad. Every year we got better, and a lot of that had to do with the ability to recruit better players.
When we bring in a recruit to our indoor training area with the golf sim, legally we can’t have them try out the simulator. But I turn it on and say, “Watch this cool stuff. Here's a driving range. Here’s a chipping area. Watch me putt and look at how life like this is.” I show them left breaks, right breaks, and downhill putts.
Oftentimes, the parents understand the positive impact a golf simulator can have on a training program before the recruit does, but they’re very influential. They see the simulator can do a lot of things. For example, I use the mulligan button a lot. When a player hits a pitch in the air, I instruct them to follow up with a punch out. They can see and feel how different tactics shave swings off their score.
You’re a better coach when you have better players no matter what sport you coach. When you get better players, you get players who are used to practicing. The more they practice and understand why they’re practicing, the better they’re going to be. And then when you give them the tools to help them and show them the process behind it, that’s when you build programs. That’s when you really get better.
When we first built out the simulator in the racquetball court, I saw that I had about 1/3 of the room left to play with. I really wanted it to be a place the kids could come hang out in and watch each other hit.
I brought in a bistro table and four chairs. If a player was waiting for someone else to hit, they could be there and just talk golf. You don’t really have access to a locker room or meeting space at a country club. Before our indoor training center, they didn't have a spot they could just sit and talk.
We installed a door to the simulator room with a combination lock so the kids could come in and practice anytime they wanted. If we were on the offseason in January and they wanted to come in and hit balls on their own, they could. If I had a drill work I wanted them to work on during the week, I could put it on the whiteboard. They come in and work on the drill between classes or later at night. Each person writes their score on the board for each attempt, so it’s a great way to instill a sense of competition, even if they just want to improve upon their prior attempt.
After establishing a space for them, the young women really committed to being a part of a team. We’d have our meetings in the sim room and spend a lot of time together. It motivated people to work harder when they felt like they were part of a team. They know other people are relying on them at a tournament.
They shared notes about courses, challenged each other to improve on certain aspects of their game, and competed in the sim. Anytime athletes are engaged and thinking about their game—how they’re going to get better as an individual contributor and how they’re going improve as a team—as a coach, I can step away a little bit and let them go.
To me, that’s the best part about coaching.
I didn’t really know anything about golf simulators. There weren’t a lot of schools in our conference that had them, so I couldn’t get a referral from a colleague. A lot of people had launch monitors, but we wanted something very accurate for the short game. Once I tried the aboutGOLF simulator, it was so obvious you could hit balls and get a feel. You could see your shot and the data to go with it.
Ken was my salesperson, and he just talked to me about golf. I talked about different things we were trying to do at Union, and he showed me how to run drills to complement our goals. It all came down to the love of golf, the love of kids, and trying to coach better. Yes, the sales office was in my backyard, but even when I had situations where I had to talk to the support staff, it was easy to learn what I needed to know.
I may not be the most technologically savvy person, but I know how to operate our aG golf simulator. I understand what I can do with it. If I have questions, I feel comfortable asking those questions. We tried a lot of new things out, and sometimes we’d try a drill and it didn’t go well, but that’s coaching. If it were easy, I’d write a book and make a million dollars. But there are so many different ways to teach, just like there are so many kids with different learning styles. To me, that’s the fun of coaching.
Now we have a golf simulator at the Mohawk Golf Club. They saw my simulator and bought one for the club. I’ve also spent a lot of time giving aG simulator tours to other colleges in the area. Word gets around when you have a golf simulator. Everybody agrees. The aboutGOLF simulator is a great tool.