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The Program

Riding with the Cowboys, college golf’s most unlikely dynasty
Photo by: Stephen Denton

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1

Pistol Pete has a 40-pound fiberglass head. So when that massive, stone-faced, orange-cowboy-hatted dome gets chipped—and, considering Pete’s willingness to wade into screaming crowds and blast his deafeningly loud prop shotgun, chips occur regularly—it must be sent to a local auto-body shop for repairs. This is no standard plushy tiger college-mascot operation: This is Oklahoma State University, where every single endeavor—down to building the head of its mascot—is viewed as a challenge to be the nation’s best. And despite being home to a wrestling team that has garnered an NCAA-record 34 national championships, no program on campus embodies that relentless ethos more than the Cowboys golf team.

Photo by: Stephen Denton

“We’re a golf school,” Scott Verplank tells me as we stand next to fellow alum and former PGA Tour star Bob Tway under a cloudless Oklahoma sky in the copper-bricked circular driveway of Karsten Creek Golf Club, the command post for Cowboy golf.

Verplank, Tway and a glittering array of Cowboys alumni have gathered today for the 47th annual Cowboy Pro-Am. Lindy Miller, who in the 1970s helped OSU to two of its 11 national championships, is here with his teammate David Edwards, who joined Miller on the PGA Tour in the 1970s and ’80s. Rickie Fowler, who won the 2008 Ben Hogan Award as the nation’s top collegiate player before launching into a PGA Tour career where he wears Cowboy orange in every final round, is grinning in his Swinging Pete T-shirt featuring the mascot sternly wielding a driver. Bo Van Pelt is here. Viktor Hovland and Matthew Wolff are here. Nearly 20 staff bags are carefully displayed in a half-circle under the Karsten Creek flagpole, one for each Cowboy attending who made the pros. 

“I don’t know exactly why it’s like this,” Tway says as he scans the crowd, “but I know we don’t miss this event. Not many do.”

“I do,” Verplank chimes in. “Just go look at the hallway in the clubhouse.”

Photo by: Stephen Denton
PGA Tour Pro, Matt Wolff

2

Shannon, my Uber driver and self-appointed cultural guide, was superfluously pointing out the city’s lone skyscraper as we listened to 101.9 The Twister, Oklahoma City’s home for the best new country. She happily gave me the dirt on the area as we made the 75-minute drive north on I-35 from Will Rogers World Airport to Stillwater.

“Yeah, the Cowboys are a big deal here,” she said. “But the Sooners are too. Last year a guy threatened to kill my brother at the Buffalo Wild Wings for rooting against OU. Had to call the police and everything. Anyway, tailgates up in Stillwater are a great time.”

Perfect—my itinerary included a Friday visit to Karsten Creek for the Cowboy Pro-Am and, on Saturday, smoked meat at the golf team’s legendary tailgate before the football team’s home opener. All to answer a simple question that had stumped me: Why is the nation’s best men’s golf program at Oklahoma State?

Duke and North Carolina are within a few piped drives of multiple world-class courses. A case could be made that FSU, Florida and Miami should compete for more titles in golf than football. The University of Texas’ athletic budget is roughly the GDP of most European countries. USC, UCLA and San Diego State are in freaking Southern California. Oklahoma? It might be better known for golf-ball-size hail. And yet in 2018 there was Wolff, a Southern California native, and Hovland, a prodigy from Norway, leading OSU to yet another championship. 

I consulted a close friend who happens to be a college-golf insider, and he gave me the best answer: The only way to truly understand was to go to Stillwater.

3

Like any proper dynasty, OSU’s golf roots run deep. In the fall of 1946, Labron E. Harris Sr. was hired to coach the first Oklahoma A&M golf team. (Due to aggressively expanding its academic profile beyond solely agricultural and mechanical courses, Oklahoma A&M became Oklahoma State in 1957.) Back then, college golf in the Big 8 Conference was still very much the Wild West, and most coaches simply recruited the best players they could find and crossed their fingers. Harris, who had been the golf pro at nearby Guthrie Country Club, was one of the few coaches at the time who was an excellent player and knew the game well. If this seems like a rather large advantage, it was. 

In 27 years at the helm, Harris led the Cowboys to 24 conference championships and its first national championship, in 1963, as well as helped to groom a stream of future PGA Tour players including his son, Labron Harris Jr., Dave Eichelberger, Danny Edwards, Mark Hayes, Doug Tewell and Bob Dickson.

But Harris’ lasting impact on the program may have come from a brawl with one of his players.

“Coach and I actually had a wrestling match one day in the pro shop [at Lakeside Golf Course, OSU’s original home course],” Mike Holder told the Oklahoma Golf Hall of Fame upon Harris’ induction in 2016. “I didn’t do very well. I told him, ‘Coach, if you let me up, I promise not to challenge you ever again.’”

Harris’ lessons from the range and the floor of the pro shop became fully ingrained in Holder—in particular a ferocious will to win fueled in part by the motivation that no one would ever expect little ol’ Oklahoma State to actually win that often. When Harris retired in 1973, he anointed Holder his successor.

Any pilgrimage worth its salt needs poets and prophets. Spencer Hall and Sam Anderson became my guides to Stillwater. Hall, the man who built the ground-breaking college-football website EDSBS (Every Day Should Be Saturday) and kickstarted the brilliant and brassy collective that is now Banner Society, has written extensively, beautifully and ridiculously about Oklahoma State football and the legend of Pistol Pete. Anderson, a staff writer for The New York Times Magazine, wrote Boom Town, a gripping history of Oklahoma City told mostly through the prism of sports and tornadoes. 

4

One would expect that a thoroughly researched, 414-page love letter to what the World Population Review ranks as America’s 28th-largest metropolis would be penned by a devoted native. One would be wrong. Anderson grew up in Oregon and was inspired to write the book after a visit to cover the city’s NBA team, the Thunder. “The place swept me away,” he said after the book was released in 2018. “There was this mixture of epic history and huge personalities and a unique landscape.…It became a magical project that consumed my whole life.”

It took all of three days on the plains of Payne County for me to understand. The impossibly vast landscape somehow sucks you in; the terrifyingly extreme weather pulls you closer to the folks nearby. Hall wrote about a November 2013 football game in Stillwater that was so cold, fans huddled together and “stretched the limits of their goin’-out jeans by putting on long underwear tucked into their boots.”

The Cowboy Pro-Am was in early September, and I took respite from the blistering sun under a tree with a student who swore to me there is “usually” a breeze. We gulped water and watched Miller and his sixsome on No. 8, the sweat imprints on their OSU golf shirts looking like a collection of orange-and-white Rorschach tests.

Photo by: Stephen Denton
The plaques at Karsten Creek’s roundabout are numerous, but the treasure trove inside the clubhouse is even more impressive.

5

The hallway of the Karsten Creek clubhouse is staggering. Every inch of the walk from the dining room to the locker room is dedicated to the glory of OSU golf. From floor to elevated ceiling, the walls are covered in oversize images of grinning Cowboys gathering every accolade possible, punctuated by the trophies themselves. Eleven national championships, nine NCAA individual championships and too many All-Americans and Big 8 and Big 12 conference titles to count. Somehow, Verplank undersold it.

In awe, I walk back outside to find Holder above the semicircle of golf bags, ready to address the Pro-Am crowd. 

“Thank you, everyone, for coming out today,” he says politely. Holder speaks softly into the microphone, and the crowd solemnly hushes in order to hang on every word. When Holder took the program’s reins from Harris, he elevated it to an absurdly high level, guiding the Cowboys to eight national championships in his 32 years at the helm. Miller, Verplank and Tway—men whose faces and accomplishments are featured multiple times throughout the hallway—still refer to him only as “sir” or “Coach Holder.”

Holder’s speech is at once charming in a self-deprecating, down-home Oklahoma way (“I’m the only one here old enough to have been there, so here’s a story…”) and edged with the steel it takes to build America’s preeminent golf program in a small town more than a thousand miles from the celebrated golf hotbeds on either coast. He speaks passionately about the power of money; this program’s legendary financial might is due in large part to the funds raised today. But, beyond that, the generosity of everyone there will not only keep OSU in its rightful place atop college golf’s perch, but will continue molding great men and women. (“With your help, we will train, develop and inspire the next generation of leaders from Oklahoma State University…”)

He chokes up when regaling the crowd with the humble beginnings of the first Cowboy Pro-Am, which was attended by a young man with swelling pockets whom they’d hoped could help the program. After turning his head away to gather himself, Holder tells the story of the late T. Boone Pickens falling in love with Cowboys golf that day. Pickens would go on to donate hundreds of millions of dollars to the Oklahoma State athletics department over the next five decades, becoming something closer to a deity in these parts. Pickens was no doubt part of the decision in 2005 to promote Holder from Oklahoma State’s golf coach to his current position: the university’s athletic director.

Photo by: Stephen Denton
Karsten Creek. Photo by: Stephen Denton

6

Alan Bratton, who won NCAA championships as a Cowboys player (1995), assistant coach (2006) and head coach (2018), is making the announcements. “Anything inside of 6 feet is a gimme,” he says. “Look, if you can’t make it from inside the flagstick with six people on a team, you have serious problems.” The crowd chuckles at his deadpan, but the message is clear: Even in a boozy, friendly event where PGA Tour stars play in T-shirts, golf out here is no joke.

Karsten Creek is the house that Holder built. In the 1970s, Holder recognized that his ascending program needed a home to match its stature, strike fear into opponents and impress an ever-growing stream of sought-after recruits. In a stroke of good fortune, he found a patch of native oak trees over some striking elevation changes uncommon for this part of the country. In 1994, after an astonishing array of partnerships with the likes of Karsten Solheim of PING (Lake Louise on the course honors his late wife), course designer Tom Fazio and deep-pocketed donors like Pickens, Karsten Creek welcomed players to its bent-grass greens and zoysia fairways. It’s since hosted three NCAA national championships, earned a slew of top rankings from the glossy golf mags and become exactly what Holder dreamed. 

In 2001, the $4.5 million clubhouse opened its doors. They’ve been updating that hallway every year since.

Photo by: Stephen Denton

7

Oklahoma State’s original mascot was, believe it or not, a plushy tiger. Upon Oklahoma A&M’s founding in 1890, fired by the same spirit that now imbues Holder, administrators declared it would be the Princeton of the Prairie and promptly adopted the Ivy League school’s mascot and orange-and-black colors.

Frank Eaton swaggered into town in 1923 and blasted that idea to pieces. On hand for the Armistice Day parade, Eaton’s leather chaps, Colt .45s on both hips and massive, dusty hat inspired students to immediately begin a campaign to change the school’s mascot to a cowboy fashioned after Eaton’s visage.

Eaton was not there playing make-believe. He was a cowboy of legendary stature by the time the students found him; his loaded guns had 11 notches on the handles—one for each man he had killed. His story has been so often told in Stillwater that much of it dissolves into myth, but it’s generally accepted that when Eaton was 8 years old and living on the windswept plot of prairie his family found after coming west from Connecticut, a group of six men killed his father. A family friend handed Eaton a pair of dueling pistols and told him he would never be a man and that a curse would be upon him forever if he didn’t avenge his father’s death. Eaton got so good with his guns that he quickly earned the moniker of “Pistol Pete.” By the time he was 20, Eaton had shot and killed five of the six men he was after, and when he heard the final man had been killed over a poker game, he attended the funeral just to make sure the bastard was in the ground. 

Once the curse was lifted, says Tulsa World’s extensive bio, Eaton became a deputy marshal in the Indian Territories, drove cattle and stagecoaches through Oklahoma and joined a military group formed to fight Geronimo’s Apache warriors. He got his own plot in the Oklahoma land rush and settled down outside of Stillwater, where he was a town constable and blacksmith. Since he was adept with dynamite and unafraid to lower himself into holes with it, he also became something of an expert on digging wells.

In 1957, well after he had become a celebrated folk hero at the school and Pistol Pete had taken its place among the great mascots in college sports, Eaton was invited to an OSU history lecture. While demonstrating his quick draw, he accidentally fired one of his guns through the ceiling of the classroom. When asked why the gun was loaded, Eaton quipped, “I’d rather have a pocket full of rocks than an unloaded gun.” He was 97. 

“We could write a fake bio for Pistol Pete, but we can’t,” Hall wrote in a lengthy 2017 essay. “Reality stays undefeated.”

8

With the possible exception of the jaw-dropping brisket the Karsten Creek cooks begin smoking behind the clubhouse at roughly 2 a.m., the most remarkable thing about the Cowboy Pro-Am is its family atmosphere. I’ve been to private golf events with big names that have tried creating a similar vibe; on the whole, there is too much money and too much social media for people to relax. But I quickly realize that this is a safe space for PGA Tour professionals and wealthy donors alike; Holder, Bratton and their staff have worked hard to make this an event where people like Fowler truly can let their guard down and enjoy the day.

Family is welcome. Wives and girlfriends and kids are all over, riding in their own orange carts alongside the sixsomes. A mom dressed in OSU athleisure gear is pushing her newborn clad in an OSU onesie up and down the steep cart paths in an OSU-branded stroller. Fowler’s future bride and Wolff’s girlfriend are riding along with their respective groups. Wolff brings two star-struck kids with him up to the elevated tee box on No. 18 and talks them through his impossible swing.

I find Fowler on 17 green, around 10 feet under the hole. His five playing partners all have missed their putts, and now it’s down to one of the best putters on the planet. He lines it up, confidently stands over it—and misses. One of his partners throws another ball down—thousands of donated dollars were spent on mulligans before the round—and Fowler misses again. Then another, and another. The kid standing next to Fowler in his own Swinging Pete T-shirt shakes his head in disbelief. Suddenly, a familiar voice booms over them from the group behind: “Hurry up, Fowler! What’s taking so long?” Laughter all around as Wolff heckles Fowler from the fairway. It takes several more misses, but Fowler finally makes it and a mock cheer goes up from both groups. Even today, Karsten is hard.

Photo by: Stephen Denton
Ricky Fowler

9

Afterward, I find myself in the brisket line with Tiddy. Chris Tidland—a two-time All-American, one of the leaders of the 1995 national championship team and yet another who made the PGA Tour—implores me to fill up my plate. We sit down next to his wife, Amy, and they happily tell me how they ended up here. Both Southern California natives, neither expected to end up raising a family in Stillwater. 

Tidland was an amateur stud in SoCal, dueling with a fellow Orange County young buck named Tiger Woods. Like Woods, Tidland was hell-bent on a pro career. He looked up to Bob May, who dominated the California amateur circuit a few years earlier and, of course, went to Oklahoma State. May came home for a visit and gave Tidland one of the program’s most potent and enduring recruiting lines: “If you want to play the Tour, you come to Oklahoma State.” Tidland, who had offers from a slew of West Coast powers, chose to walk on at OSU. 

He convinced Amy, his high school sweetheart, to transfer from Cal as a sophomore, and the two never left. 

“We love it here,” he said. “I never thought it would be home, but it is.”

10

R.C. Slocum was pissed off. The Texas A&M defensive coordinator had just witnessed the unthinkable: Some little dude nobody outside of Stillwater had heard of had just shredded his vaunted squad, rushing for 157 yards in a surprise Oklahoma State victory. 

“Nobody did that to us,” Slocum would later tell ESPN about that 1988 game. “We were really down in the dumps about it, giving up that many rushing yards. But as the year went on, that turned out to be the [second-lowest] he was held to all year.”

“He” was Barry Sanders. And unless the next Tiger Woods plays golf at OSU—which, it must be said, is entirely possible—no athlete will ever be bigger here than Barry. His Heisman Trophy–winning season in 1988 remains one of the greatest in college football history. (Hall’s assessment: “Sanders could juke the wings off a dragonfly.”)

The 1988 campaign for the entire OSU athletic department has taken on an almost biblical tone for Cowboys fans. You can’t blame them. After decades of battling their bigger rivals at Texas and Oklahoma, their will was finally done: Sanders won the Heisman. Robin Ventura won the Golden Spikes Award, cementing his legacy as one of the greatest baseball players in NCAA history. John Smith won his second-consecutive individual wrestling national championship. And, because the golf team seems ordained to be part of nearly every important OSU sports moment, E.J. Pfister earned medalist honors in the national championship tournament at North Ranch Country Club in Thousand Oaks, California.

These holy scriptures are imparted to me by my host from the OSU athletic department as we tour past the National Wrestling Hall of Fame & Museum, the sparkling, eight-figure indoor-outdoor football practice facility and, finally, the northeast corner of T. Boone Pickens Stadium on our way to the golf team’s tailgate party. Beyond its prized location less than a gap wedge from the stadium’s gates, the big-screen-TV setup, the bountiful buckets of chips and salsa and Bud Light and White Claw—even beyond the likes of Verplank and Tway hanging out with friends and family— stands the party’s coup de grâce: the Cowboys golf meat-smoker. It’s the kind of double-barreled apparatus that must be towed in with a large truck and would not be out of place in a Food Network barbecue special. Smoke is already twisting through the wrought-iron Swinging Pete logo welded to its front as I walk up. 

I’m greeted by the two pit masters manning this monster: Robin Ventura and E.J. Pfister. They have remained close since rewriting the OSU record books together on campus and now are two of the unofficial leaders of the annual post–Cowboy Pro-Am gathering. 

“It’s just a great group of people,” Ventura says, handing me an absurdly delicious tri-tip sandwich slathered in homemade salsa. “I love coming back here.”

He’s not the only former OSU star who’s been pulled into the golf orbit. Jim Westermeyer, who played outside linebacker for the Cowboys in the early 1980s, is now a tailgate regular and a donor to the program. He repeats the same thing everyone else said this weekend: The golf program is hell-bent on success at the highest level, but the family atmosphere truly separates it. “That’s what makes it special,” he says. 

The midday sun sizzles through the remaining Saturday morning clouds as Verplank sidles up next to me and provides the most succinct answer to the question that brought me here. “It’s like I always tell people: If you want to play on the Tour, you come to Oklahoma State,” he says. “But we don’t let just anyone in the program.”

He turns his attention to the Michigan-Army game on the big screen and I continue my futile quest to count the flood of Sanders’ No. 21 replica jerseys getting ready for the game.

11

The black, moonless night hasn’t yet given way to the dawn, and my half-open eyes are still seeing orange. The Uber driver is happily blasting some hair-metal classics to properly wake me for an early flight out of OKC. Even in our standard driver-passenger conversation, the Stilly pride is unmistakable. He asks if I enjoyed my stay. Quite a bit, I reply. “You know,” he says with that easy, now-familiar Oklahoma drawl, “a lot of people tell me they love Stillwater much more than they expected. Most come back, and some even stay. You might too.”

The lights of Oklahoma City begin twinkling over the plains. “I’ve seen a million faces,” Bon Jovi wails, “and I’ve rocked ’em all.” 

Photo by: Stephen Denton