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Out of the rough: Despite shoestring budget, EWU men’s golf made run for top of Big Sky before program was cut

UPDATED: Sat., Aug. 7, 2021

Eastern Washington University’s golf teams drove through snowstorms to get to the 1997 Big Sky Conference men’s and women’s championships in Blackfoot, Idaho, about 20 miles from Pocatello.

The men’s team was determined to turn around the results of the 1996 championship, won by Sacramento State by a whopping 26 shots at MeadowWood in Spokane.

“It was hilarious,” said Julie Scott, who coached both EWU teams. “My girls were bitter. My guys were like, ‘Game on, let’s use yellow balls.’ There was such a joy to those kids. They were gamers.”

And a team in every sense of the word. They hung out together away from the course. They walked the fine line of pushing one other to get better while being supportive teammates.

They didn’t fret about the program’s scant resources and went toe-to-toe with some of the top teams in the West – when they got those rare opportunities. That’s how they ended up celebrating a tournament win at a Phoenix-area Hooters, but more on that later.

EWU’s team “was everything for me,” said Darin Vaughan, a Mead High product who played briefly at Nevada Reno and Oregon State before returning home to finish his collegiate career. “When I was at Oregon State we had a pretty competitive, top-20 team. I got a chance to play quite a bit, but I wasn’t enjoying it. Looking back, I probably wasn’t mature enough to handle it because I had an incredible coach.

“I stopped having fun playing golf. Getting back with the guys at Eastern, golf became fun again. Coincidentally, I probably started playing the best golf of my life because I was enjoying it again.”

The Eagles were chasing the program’s first Big Sky title in the fall of 1997. After the snow melted away, they nearly pulled it off, but Sacramento State dug out a one-shot victory.

“That was tough, that was our one chance,” recalled Kyle Kelly, a North Central grad. “Long ride back home to Spokane.”

It was the closest the Eagles came to winning the championship, though they made a few more runs at it before the school dropped the program in 2002.

An unlikely coach

Scott was named co-Big Sky Conference Coach of the Year, sharing the award with Sacramento State’s Rene Mondine. It’s listed in the Big Sky record book, but Scott still wonders about the whereabouts of the actual plaque. She’s never seen it.

Scott, elevated to head coach after assisting Jamie Hanna for a few seasons, nearly led EWU to an even bigger trophy as 1997 Big Sky champions.

“I was a tennis player, I’d always coached tennis,” Scott said. “I started playing golf when I was married to Bobby (Scott, pro at MeadowWood since 1997). I think I was just positive and encouraged them and the guys were good from the get-go.”

Scott gives Hanna full credit for recruiting the 1997 roster, but Scott played a role in Vaughan becoming an Eagle.

Vaughan was burned out on the sport after short stints at Nevada Reno and Oregon State. He had little desire to go to school or play golf when he took a job at Liberty Lake, where Bob Scott was the pro before he took over at MeadowWood.

“Every day I walked into the pro shop I’d tell Darin he needed to come to Eastern,” Julie said. “Not only was he a great kid, but he could play.”

It took a while, but Vaughan eventually joined the team.

Scott supplemented the program’s small budget – “I had about $20 in my budget,” she joked – through creative means.

“I asked every golf pro in town and they donated balls, rain gear, let us use their course,” Scott said. “They were phenomenal. I didn’t have an assistant, so Bobby would help.”

She couldn’t offer players technical advice on their golf swing, but she understood the importance of team chemistry. That’s one reason she had the players running and lifting weights, about the time Tiger Woods was bursting onto the golf scene.

The players were reluctant, particularly when they were in the weight room with football players.

“I do remember the workouts, I remember a couple of confrontations with Julie about that for sure,” Kelly said. “Absolute torture. Working out is never fun. It’s never been in my top 10, but it was obviously good for us.”

The players ran so much they ended up forming a Bloomsday corporate cup team.

“It probably helped that she wasn’t so much of a golfer because she believed in us,” Vaughan said. “She watched us play and it was, ‘You are really good.’ She had our backs. Like any leader, you respect that when you know they have your back.”

Scott knew she had a quality team and wanted to challenge them in stronger tournaments. One problem – established tournaments usually invited the same top-tier programs every year and EWU wasn’t on the guest list.

“We finally got into one in Arizona,” Scott said. “I asked Bobby which team he wanted to take and he said he would go with the men and I took the women (to a different event). He said, ‘Hey, if we win, can I take the team to Hooters?’ I said, ‘Of course,’ because there were so many good teams in the field, it wasn’t going to happen.

“They won the freaking tournament and called me from Hooters.”

The squad and Sky showdown

The addition of Vaughan solidified an already strong lineup.

He joined Kelly, who had recruiting interest from Washington, Washington State, Idaho and UC Davis before signing at EWU; Gonzaga Prep grad Scott Carroll; Wenatchee’s Cory Hutsell and Brian Thornton, who was from Western Washington.

All five would earn All-Big Sky honors at some point in their careers, including Carroll, Kelly, Thornton and Vaughan in 1996-97. Carroll was a three-time selection. Kelly and Hutsell were honored twice.

Kelly, Carroll and Vaughan knew each other through junior tournaments and their prep careers.

“We’d jump out of the van, look over and Stanford has these new travel bags and rain gear,” Scott said. “Not one of our guys was a country club kid. They were all public course kids.”

“I’ll never forget we were playing at Nevada’s tournament, good field and we were the last team to tee off and of course it gets dark and we can’t finish,” Vaughan said. “We’re the first ones to tee off the second day and it’s Tahoe and we probably had a little too much fun (the night before).

“We’re piling out of the minivan and we don’t have the fancy stuff and all the country clubbers were watching us tee off. It was the worst display of tee shots you’ve ever seen.”

What the spectators didn’t see hours later was Vaughan nearly winning medalist honors (he lost in a playoff) and the Eagles finishing in the top three.

Sacramento State was the team to beat at the 1997 conference tournament, but all six teams took turns at or near the top. Idaho State led after the first round and EWU and Weber State shared first after 36 holes. The Eagles and Hornets opened up a small cushion over the field in the closing round.

“It was intense,” Scott said. “It was anyone’s to grab.”

Robert Hamilton grabbed the individual title with a course-record 65 in the final round and lifted his Sacramento State teammates to the team title. Carroll closed with a 69 and tied for third. Hutsell fired a 70 and tied for sixth. Kelly shared 12th and Vaughan tied for 16th.

“I don’t remember a whole lot other than one thing I will always remember for the rest of my life,” Kelly said. “On the last hole, I had a 10-footer, downhill right-to-left (break) and it lipped out. So I stood at the edge of the green to watch Darin finish in the next group. He hit it to the same spot and did the exact same thing, lipped out.”

Vaughan couldn’t recall details of the final hole, but he’ll never forget the emotions of the moment.

“I remember sitting there crying, but it wasn’t so much that (losing by one),” he said. “It was being proud and being part of a team. Just a great group of guys. Even though we lost, it was my best college experience.”

Kelly contended for the 1998 Big Sky individual title before finishing one stroke behind Portland State’s Brian Hughes. From the small world department, Kelly is now the pro at Tamarisk Country Club in Rancho Mirage, California, and one of his neighbors is Hughes, the head pro at nearby PGA West.

“Chat with him all the time,” Kelly said.

End of a program, but a lasting impact

Scott moved on work at KXLY and then became a journalism instructor at the University of Idaho before retiring recently.

Marc Hughes took over as EWU’s men’s and women’s coach in August 1998. One of his first moves was bringing in Vaughan as an assistant.

Hughes had 2.25 in-state scholarships to work with – 4.5 scholarships was the maximum allowed at the time – but he still stitched together solid teams. The Eagles finished six shots behind Portland State at the 1998 Big Sky Tournament and 12 strokes behind Weber State in 2002.

EWU pulled the plug on the program shortly after the 2002 season. A six-paragraph article in The Spokesman-Review noted men’s golf wasn’t a core sport in the Big Sky, meaning EWU didn’t have to offer it to be a conference member. Portland State also eliminated men’s golf and the Big Sky didn’t offer a conference championship from 2003-2014.

The move saved EWU $42,000-$50,000 annually, according to then athletic director Scott Barnes.

“That was a hard pill to swallow because I came to coach the men’s and women’s programs,” said Hughes, who coached the women’s team through 2009 before becoming an administrator/fundraiser in EWU’s athletic department. “Golf is a culture, so the two teams were very, very close and now we’re going to a single team. I always felt golf was the most efficient sport from a cost standpoint, especially the men’s standpoint.”

Hughes wasn’t alone.

“A lot of people put a lot into getting the program going again” after it was discontinued for 10 years before returning in 1992-93, Vaughan said. “You just feel bad. It took opportunities away from a lot of kids, local kids really, that might not get a chance to play college golf.”

EWU’s program has produced numerous pros at area courses, including Gary Lindeblad, Steve Nelke, Kris Kallem, Dan Porter, Matt Bunn, Mark Poirier and Vaughan, longtime pro at Twin Lakes Village before becoming a sales rep for Cobra/Puma five years ago.

Carroll was the head pro at Kapalua Resort’s Plantation Course and he’s general manager at King Kamehameha Golf Club in Maui. Thornton is a pro and instructor in Western Washington with a decorated career in PGA Pacific Northwest Section tournaments.

“We all have so many great memories of that program and competing there,” said Kelly, a four-time Big-Sky All-Academic selection. “That was a sad day. We all grew up working in golf and we got a ton of help from guys like (Qualchan pro) Mark Gardner and Gary Lindeblad. The golf community in Spokane is really special. I think a lot of guys wanted to stay attached to that.”

The bonds on EWU’s teams in the 1990s and early 2000s remain strong. Hughes, who owns the Farmers Insurance agency in Cheney, Kelly and Vaughan are close friends. Kelly spent about a month in Spokane recently, competing along with Thornton in the Rosauers Open Invitational. Kelly also spent time visiting with Carroll.

Kelly proudly sports a unique Callaway golf bag with EWU’s logo when he plays in tournaments.

“I loved my four years there,” Kelly said. “Some of those road trips in the big 16-passenger vans, those were some of the best times. Great group of guys. I don’t know how else to explain it – it’s just disappointing Eastern doesn’t have men’s golf anymore.”

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