Golf’s Rise in Payne County

2018 NCAA Championship at Karsten Creek Golf Club. Photo courtesy of Chris Franklin.

Story by Roger Moore

A lot of good golf has been played in Payne County over the years.

From the Bays clan to the Hughes boys to the legend of Jeff McMillian, who, at 17, won the first of his three Oklahoma state amateur titles in 1977 and was the leader of back-to-back state championship squads for Stillwater High in 1978 and ’79, no doubt the ball has been golf well for a long time around Stillwater. Boys’ golf teams were also the best in Oklahoma in 1965, 1966, 1967, 1969, 1974, and 1975.

Perhaps the best collegiate golf in the country is currently housed at Karsten Creek Golf Club. The larger-than-life facility hosted the 2018 NCAA Championships and the Cowboys claimed the program’s 11th team title in front of massive crowds. Karsten Creek also welcomed collegiate golf’s best in 2011 and 2003, with Augusta State and Patrick Reed spoiling the fun for locals in 2011 and Clemson edging the Hunter Mahan-led Pokes by two strokes in 2003.

It can be argued that Karsten Creek, named the best new public course in 1994 by Golf Digest, is the culmination of years of golfing progress in these parts. And much like Edward Clark Gallagher, considered the “father” of Oklahoma State wrestling, Henry Payne Iba, held in similar regard concerning basketball, and the stature of baseball legend Gary Ward, Labron Harris should receive the lion’s share of the credit for golf’s current standing.

When Harris arrived in Stillwater just after hostilities started in Europe in 1940 Stillwater did not have a golf course. With some small donations and hard work by locals, Lakeside Golf Club opened for business in 1945. It was not what modern golf courses look like, but it was a track for men and women, boys and girls, to work on their games. By 1963 Harris coached his first NCAA championship team; Earl Moeller was medalist and OSU edged powerhouse Houston by one stroke in Wichita, Kan. Dave Williams’ Houston teams won NCAA titles an incredible 12 times from 1956 to 1970.

By 1966, Stillwater had a new golf course, Stillwater Country Club. Seven years later the NCAA Championships graced the fairways. It was Harris’ last year as head coach after three decades of building a golf factory. Florida raised the trophy at the end of a very windy week, beating second-place OSU by 10 shots; Texas’ Ben Crenshaw was medalist, the first of his three individual NCAA titles. Current OSU director of athletics Mike Holder took over for Harris, and as they say, “the rest is history.”

Labron Harris and Mike Holder display OSU Men’s Golf’s many honors.
Photo courtesy of the Stillwater HIstory Museum at the Sheerar

It can be argued that no place with Stillwater’s population – hovering near 50,000 – has hosted more NCAA Championships. Wrestling, as one might imagine, has accommodated a handful of NCAA meets. The smallish Gallagher Hall saw Art Griffith hastily organize the 1946 gathering in the wake of World War II and finish his career in 1956, in Stillwater, with a national title at the hallowed hall. Myron Roderick’s 1962 title team brought locals plenty of excitement.

May 2019 said good-bye to Allie P. Reynolds Stadium, the home to Cowboy baseball since 1981. It was not the site of the NCAA’s College World Series, but throughout the 1980s and into the early 1990s it served as Ward’s warmup weekend before the CWS. During the same weekend as Reynolds Stadium’s swan song, Cowgirl softball hosted a regional for the first time in 21 years.

But, perhaps the biggest surprise is something that Harris, Griffith, Roderick, or Holder would not have believed decades ago; the Stillwater community will host the NCAA Tennis Championships in 2020. While public golf in Payne County has made steady progress most local tennis courts look like they were built in 1945 and have not received any attention since. OSU’s prior home, the Jack DeBois Tennis Complex, requires a complex discussion as to its current state. That is a story for another day, however.

Like Karsten, the Michael and Anne Greenwood Tennis Center has few rivals in regards to college facilities. It is almost like parking a brand new Ferrari in a salvage lot when comparing OSU’s to local courts. Still, the powers that be brought one of the country’s premier tennis events to Stillwater. And when the large gathering of folks from Florida to California hits Stillwater next May there will be comments about the community, what it does and does not have. But, with a smile, most locals can point out that NCAA Championships are no stranger to these parts despite what it does or does not have. Included among the “does” is a lot of quality golf over the last 70 years.