Monday, November 29, 2021

'Hit the shot in front of you and enjoy the rest': Inside Michigan State men's golf's unprecedented rise

September 28, 2021
<p>Head Coach Casey Lubahn directs fifth-year senior James Piot at Lasch Family Golf Center on Sept. 21, 2021.</p>

Head Coach Casey Lubahn directs fifth-year senior James Piot at Lasch Family Golf Center on Sept. 21, 2021.

Photo by Rahmya Trewern | The State News

It’s a gloomy September afternoon at Lasch Family Golf Center. Across the street, dark clouds hover ominously over Forest Akers East Golf Course, gusts of wind ruffle trees and pins alike and it seems as if the sky could open up and drench the fairways at any second. Players chip, putt and socialize around the practice green in between being fitted for clubs. It’s the only golf they’ll get in for the day, with downpours starting an hour later. 

Sitting on the patio, fifth-year senior James Piot is cheerful despite the weather. He’s hunched forward in his seat and holding an iron across his lap. He looks up and down, absentmindedly studying the contours and angles of the club, while discussing life following his thrilling U.S. Amateur victory in August.

The glamourous and lackluster aspects alike.

“I was in the Chick-fil-A line the other day, and some dude made some comment about like, ‘If I didn’t work out, I’d look like that’ and pointed to me,” Piot said, laughing. “And I was like, alright, there’s a dose of reality.”

But Piot’s the U.S. Amateur champion? Forget being the first player from MSU to win it — he’s the first person from Michigan to win in the tournament’s 126 years of existence. That’s not worth a rebuttal?

“Am I gonna say that to the dude?” Piot said. “I was like ‘Good one man, you got me.’ I just want my four-piece meal and I’m getting out of here.”

Call it self-deprecation, humility or even plain meekness, but around the Lasch Family Golf Center, it’s better tied to one of Michigan State Head Coach Casey Lubahn’s favorite words: perspective. 

Piot’s win at Oakmont brought an unforeseen level of publicity and expectations to Michigan State men’s golf, but that was then and this is now. This is a new era for Lubahn and his 10 golfers as they look to take the next step as a program while keeping the same perspective that got them there.

Where did this all come from, though? Michigan State golf was hardly a slouching program before Piot and Lubahn, with Big Ten championships in 1966 and 2005.But, ever since the University of North Carolina's Austin Greaser missed a 10-foot birdie putt on 17 and the Havemeyer Trophy signed a year-long lease in East Lansing, the Spartans have come out hot with a win and a top three finish through two tournaments and are on their way to being ranked 19th in the country by Golfweek.

In his 11th year at MSU, Lubahn laughed when asked about the start of the program’s recent explosion.

Step one is simple: get talent and get the cycle going.

“When you’re building a program, you’re putting the structure in place … that helps you attract good players and they come in, they develop over time,” Lubahn said. “Now you’re looking at a team that has five great players in five different classes which should mean, going forward, as one rolls out, another comes in. That’s how you build long-term success.”

Consider Piot. The longstanding story is that Associate Head Coach Dan Ellis scouted him during a round he called a fluke, the only 80-plus score of his high school or college career. Piot said he didn’t really care if they saw his performance that day. After all, he didn’t even want to go to MSU.

“When he came out that day, I was like ‘Michigan State’s watching me, no big deal’ because I was a Michigan fan,” Piot said. “I don’t even want these guys anyways.”

After a couple of visits, Piot changed his tone and found Michigan State wasn’t so bad. It didn't hurt that they sent now-professional golfers Matt Harmon and Ryan Brehm to the tour as well. He signed, developed, and five years later, set the bar in a big way to accelerate the cycle.

Because competitive golf alienates people as much as it brings them together, Lubahn said the only time his team really feels like a team is the two minutes after each round when they add up the scorecard. However, there’s a camaraderie that comes with competition and the chase to be the best on the team, especially when the standard is as high as it is now.

Step two in building a winning golf program: foster ambition and intense competition.

“(Piot’s) shown the guys around him the power of dreaming big,” Lubahn said. “And now they’re dreaming big and they’re trying to beat him everyday ... (If) you want to be the number one player around here, you got a tall mountain to climb.”

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Tall might be an understatement. Besides Piot, senior Troy Taylor II and junior Bradley Smithson have two top 10 finishes in two tournaments, including Taylor’s breakthrough win at September’s Island Resort Intercollegiate. Sophomore August Meekhof hasn’t placed worse than 16th and freshman Ashton McCulloch cracked the top 10 in only his second tournament for MSU.

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So far, the reviews have been exceptional.

“Right now, this year is probably the best team I’ve been on in my five years here as far as the guys who just want to grind and beat the crap out of each other,” Piot said. “That’s what makes a good team, everybody is pushing each other ... It’s definitely been a part of the Michigan State culture, but this year especially, I think we got a special team.”

When it gets that competitive and the expectations are higher than they’ve ever been before, even good results can seem lackluster. Lubahn said perspective is key in making sure the constant grind presented by the game and trying to get better is only a part of the deal and not the whole thing.

“The golf thing can be so consuming,” Lubahn said. “Sports can be consuming; they judge their day by whether they shot a good score or not. The quicker we can get away from that and get back to ‘Are they continuing to develop? Are we having fun together? Are we pushing each other?’ the more fun it’ll be.”

It’s fitting Lubahn places a premium on perspective within the program. A native of Sand Lake, Michigan, he attended Miami University until they cut their golf program and transferred to Michigan State as an undergraduate with an intention to study and work in politics.

However, the desire to compete remained. Lubahn said he tried out for the team three different times and get cut twice before being brought on by former Michigan State Head Coach and current Mizzou Co-Head Coach Mark Hankins. Upon graduation, Lubahn joined the staff as an assistant coach, became the head coach at Miami and returned to MSU for good in 2010.

“I love this game and I had passion for it," Lubahn said. "Went from a college student who tried to walk-on and kept getting cut to being the head coach, my dream job or as our new AD (Alan Haller) calls it, my dream responsibility ... I’m not looking for the next golf job, not trying to parlay our success into being the coach at school XYZ. I just want to make Michigan State great. That makes you treat it differently.”

Step three: always maintain perspective, no matter what’s going on.

Lubahn’s approach has paid dividends for his players, creating what they called a family environment. It’s allowed them to closely lean on teammates and coaches alike through the good times and the bad.

And as of late, mainly the good times.

With his U.S. Amateur win, Piot qualified for the 2022 U.S. Open, the Open Championship in St. Andrews, Scotland, and the Masters Tournament at Augusta National. He said he’s already received phone calls from Augusta National Golf Club to start making arrangements but is determined to not look too far ahead.

“I try to put it in the back of my head and not even think about it,” Piot said. “It’s going to be a life-changing experience just stepping foot on Augusta in the spring. But right now, I’ve got to focus on the finance classes and the real life here.”

Piot and Taylor both share the dream of making the PGA Tour. Even as Taylor’s playing the best golf of his life, he’s staying the course to maintain perspective.

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“I’ve just been kind of trying to take it one step at a time,” Taylor said. “(It’s) just the beginning, hopefully for this team and me.”

As for the rest, the aspirations are already there: Win a Big Ten championship, make a deep run in NCAAs and show the rest of the country what they're made of. Lubahn said all those goals are important but stressed appreciating the situation at hand is just as crucial.

“Now we have some freedom and we get to do what we love,” Lubahn said. “I want them to have a little more time in the moment to enjoy what they get to do because their careers are over like this and I’m already in my 11th year.”

Even with PGA aspirations, phone calls from Augusta, the grind of the season ahead and the never-ending search for perspective, Lubahn's number-one goal for the team still hadn’t changed. His voice had been low and gentle all afternoon but he raised it for one final declaration.

Step four in building and maintaining a winning golf program:

“Hit the shot in front of you and enjoy the rest.”

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