Bob Lutz

WSU golfer lives up to vast potential

Grier Jones is tough and crusty and so old school that the bell doesn't ring when class is over. He just growls.

If you want to impress Jones, who played successfully on the PGA Tour and has been Wichita State's golf coach for 15 years, you work hard. It's that simple.

Dustin Garza didn't work hard. The senior from the southern tip of Texas came to Wichita State with a swagger because he dominated in high school and could hit the ball out of sight.

To which Jones said: "OK, but can you play?" The answer turned out to be "No." At least not at the level Jones expected.

So, as is the case for every Shocker golfer who plays for Jones, Garza had to make a decision. Was he going to dedicate himself to reaching his potential, which would mean lots of work, or was he going to be satisfied with his game and likely not fit into Jones' plans.

Garza took heed of Jones' advice and teachings and four years later ranks as one of the greatest Shocker golfers of them all with the likes of Johnny Stevens, Rod Nuckolls, Mike Caster, Matt Seitz and a others.

"I think, probably, recordwise, Dustin's as good as it gets,'' Jones said. "But it took a couple of years for him. You know, I preached and preached and preached, but I really don't think it makes much difference what I say. They finally figure it out themselves. They realize they're not getting any better and they wonder why. For him, the light finally came on.''

People who watched Garza grow up around golf were amazed at the power of his swing and how far the ball traveled off his driver's club face. But the drama he produced on the tee box often turned into slapstick comedy near the green.

"I knew he had a gift after I saw him drive about three balls,'' said Carlos Espinosa, the director of golf in McAllen, Texas, who has been Garza's swing coach since Garza was 12. "His parents brought him around and wanted me to work with him. After I saw him for about 45 minutes, my advice to his mother was just to let him keep breathing. He didn't need any help.''

But Garza's parents pressed and Espinosa began instructing him, knowing that he mostly needed to keep his hands off.

Garza was just a kid, Espinosa said, and he needed time to develop. To throw too much at him too soon ran the risk of burning him out, and that's the last thing Espinosa wanted to do. So mostly, he just watched, offering a tip here and there.

After losing touch for a few years, Garza and Espinosa re-connected a couple of years ago, with Jones' blessing. In fact, Espinosa and Jones talk at least once a month about their prize pupil, a former freshman of the year in the Missouri Valey Conference and a third-team All-America as a junior as chosen by the Golf Coaches Association of America.

"Nobody has a perfect swing,'' Espinosa said. "But it's like I tell (Jones), if you tell Dustin to stand on his head he's still going to hit the ball good. He has great talent off the tee. His greatest gift is his length. I often tell him he's a one-club show.''

Espinosa knows differently, but it's good to remind Garza just how important it is to be able to chip and putt, skills he has honed during his time at Wichita State.

"Most of my practice is with my wedges around the greens and with putting,'' Garza said. "I've tried to strengthen myself in those areas the past couple of years and it's worked.''

And how.

After a sophomore slump, Garza roared back during his junior year to win four tournaments, including the Missouri Valley Conference championship. So far as a senior, Garza has won six of the 10 tournaments in which he has played and finished second in another.

This spring, Garza is up for a spot on the United States' Palmer Cup team; the Palmer Cup is an international collegiate event between eight college golfers from the United States and eight from Great Britain and Ireland, and this year it will be held at the Royal Portrush Golf Club in Ireland from June 24-26.

First, though, Garza wants to atone for a rare sub-par performance in last year's NCAA Regional at Carson Creek Golf Club in Stillwater, Okla., where he finished 34th and failed to qualify for the NCAA meet.

Garza shot 74-77-81 in that tournament and he hasn't forgotten.

"I played terrible,'' he said. "That's the one time you've got to play good and it kind of sucks because all year you play good and then you get to the biggest tournament of the year and you don't have your game on.''

It was windy and cold during those rounds, Garza said, but he knows it was windy and cold for everyone else, too.

"Regional golf courses are so tough and if you're off just a little bit, it will show,'' he said. "So I have one more chance in a regional (May 20-22) and I'm going to try to prepare myself as much as I can.''

Garza was a standout baseball and tennis player as a kid but because he could hit a golf ball so far — and so high — golf is the bug that stuck. He initially was thinking about going to Texas Tech, but ended up at WSU after talking to former Oklahoma State golf coach Mike Holder, now the school's athletic director. Holder, regarded as the greatest college golf coach ever, was a teammate of Jones at OSU and convinced Garza there was nobody who could teach him more.

"It was powerful to hear (Holder) say the things he said about Coach Jones,'' Garza said.

Garza and Jones have been great for one another. Jones might never coach another player with the potential of Garza, whose work ethic is a good thing for the Shockers' younger players to witness.

"He's the best golfer I've ever seen,'' freshman teammate Hunter Sparks said. "He hits the ball so far and so high and on so many different levels than anybody else I've seen, and I've been playing golf since I was eight years old.''

But what once was a novelty is now a part of a whole. For Garza, it finally clicked that he couldn't reach the heights in golf that he wanted to reach with just a tee shot, as jaw-dropping as that tee shot might be.

Oohs and aahs are nice, but not the ohs and eeks that were sometimes heard when Garza had a lofted club or putter in his hands.

"I used to tell Dustin he reminded me of Rocky Balboa when he fought Apollo Creed,'' Espinosa said. "And Rocky won on pure talent and strength. But when he had to fight Clubber Lang, Apollo trained Rocky on all the technical aspects of boxing. I knew Dustin could become a great golfer if he improved the technical aspects and that's exactly what he has done.''

Garza said he is dedicated to continually improving and going as far in golf as his talent and dedication will take him. After his college career is finished, Garza will try to enter some small pro events and perhaps even qualify for a Nationwide Tour event. In October, he wants to go to Q School and start the process of getting on the PGA Tour.

Does he have the game? Jones and Espinosa think so.

"If Dustin works and continues to have this kind of dedication, he can be a big factor in the game,'' Espinosa said. "And by that I mean a player who could crack the top 10 in the world. Only one thing can keep him from it and that's himself.''

And Jones: "It's pretty much unlimited how good Dustin could be. But as has been chronicled in the past six months, there are a lot of crooked paths you can get caught going down. If he doesn't lose his passion to get better and to win, he could win some major tournaments someday.''

When a stoic, reserved coach like Jones says something like that, it legitimizes everything Garza has done to become a better golfer. He talks like a guy who now knows there are no laurels on which to rest, one who accepts that being a complete golfer requires complete devotion.

"It's about a lot of hard work and playing well at the right times,'' Garza said. "The reason most of those guys are where they are is because they get it done on weekends.''

Garza has spent hours at Jones' side. He has watched teammates fail to grasp the messages Jones provides. He's not a tell-you-what-you-want-to-hear kind of coach. In fact, his words can sting. But Garza has learned that stinging words usually have the most impact.

He remembers winning his first tournament, the Callaway Golf Invitational, in San Diego during the spring of his sophomore year. It was such a thrilling moment for Garza, especially after what had been a rough season.

"Grier came to me and told me 'Good job,' " Garza said. "Then he said, 'But remember, it can be real fast to the outhouse.' "

In other words, don't be satisfied. Satisfaction is a sure way to mediocrity.

"I took what he said as a compliment,'' Garza said. "Because I knew this guy was trying to keep me level-headed and working hard.''