Wichita State’s experiment recruiting international men’s golfers started with a player coach Grier Jones didn’t recruit.
Juan Tabares showed up, unannounced and uninvited, because he knew other Colombians who attended WSU.
“I couldn’t even go to the airport,” Jones said. “He had never taken a test. He couldn’t speak any English. He paid his own way and couldn’t practice with us.”
Tabares turned into an excellent golfer, posting WSU’s best score in the 2001 NCAA Central Regional. That happy accident eventually led to more purposeful recruiting abroad and, in recent seasons, it became a critical strategy.
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The Shockers have three foreign players on their seven-man roster — senior Rafael Becker from Brazil, junior Calvin Pearson from South Africa and sophomore Louis Cohen Boyer from France. That trio led WSU’s scoring in last spring’s NCAA Stanford Regional. WSU opens the season Monday in the UTSA Oak Hills Invitational in San Antonio, Texas. It returns its top five players from last season and expects to win a sixth consecutive Missouri Valley Conference title and play in its eighth consecutive NCAA regional.
Not long ago, Jones reached those heights with a roster largely of Americans. Within the past four years, that became more difficult and Jones expanded his search for talent overseas. Large rosters at more prominent schools — the kind with football teams in power conferences — sucked up the type of golfers who formerly came to WSU.
“It’s getting harder and harder to get players out of states that have decent golf schools in their own state,” he said. “When we tried to maintain that level, with the American kids, we just didn’t find any interest at the starting point, with freshmen.”
Next season’s recruiting class includes two Americans and one from South Africa. Jones would like to add one more, and is recruiting several foreign players.
“In a perfect world, they’d all be from Kansas,” he said.
To most foreign golfers, choosing a school is about golf and education, not a football team or a lifelong devotion to the state’s major university. Assistant coach Tony Blake will recruit at junior tournaments in Florida that attract international players. This summer, he will travel travel to Scotland for the European Boys Championship, carrying a list of 10-15 golfers in WSU’s plans and building relationships with coaches. The Internet helps Jones and Blake track players and compare performances. While they might evaluate a local player over 15 or more rounds, they are fortunate to see a foreign player half that often.
Pearson came to Wichita State, sight unseen, lured by Jones’ reputation as a coach and former PGA Tour winner. Jones recruited him, but did not see him play, and Pearson did not visit WSU until he arrived for school. Becker sent out resumes and Jones responded. He almost signed with Tulsa before visiting WSU and deciding he preferred the bigger school and Jones’ serious approach to the game. After his first contact with Jones, he studied WSU golf on the Internet.
“I always wanted to come here to improve my golf and study,” Pearson said. “(Jones) is really world-renowned, so I was excited to learn under him.”
Foreign athletes are drawn to the United States because of the college system that allows them to mix sport and studies. Had he stayed in South Africa, Pearson would have been forced to chose — go pro to continue golf or go to school. He can’t imagine that life after his time at WSU.
“There’s no system around the world that you can play golf, and get a good education at the same time,” Pearson said. “It’s only here. My parents really wanted me to get an education. They don’t want to me just go and pursue golf without a backup.”
That attitude can produce serious students and golfers. Jones found his international players to be uniformly solid students and diligent on the course. Becker earned MVC Golfer of the Year and MVC Scholar-Athlete honors in 2012. Cohen Boyer was the MVC’s Freshman of the Year in 2012.
“There’s a lot of pressure for them, coming from over there, from their family and their background, that this their shot to go to college,” Blake said. “That’s something they don’t have a chance at back at home.”
Becker believes foreign athletes come to the United States with a plan and a sense of responsibility. They don’t take college life for granted.
“It’s not an easy to quit and go somewhere else,” Becker said. “Somewhere else is a continent away.”