The Columbia men’s golf team is the Ivy League Champion after a dominant win at the famed Baltusrol Golf Club in Springfield, N.J., in May. The title is the fourth time in the last seven years the Lions have claimed the championship, including back-to-back-to-back victories in 2008-2010. For each of these wins the team was coached by Rich Mueller, Head Coach and Director of Golf at Columbia since 2005. Coach Mueller has been extraordinarily successful at building a program that is perennial contender for best of the Ivies. We recently had a chance to talk with Coach Mueller.
WP: On paper Columbia was not expected to win over stronger Yale and Harvard teams. Why did your team win?
RM: It’s the million-dollar question but ultimately, I think there were factors that were within and not within our control as we approached the Ivy Championship. My experience told me to focus on two things within our control… first, find a creative yet practical way to solve the only problem we had all year: starting off well. Second, don’t change anything else.
Statistically, observationally and self-admittedly (from conversations with my players) it was clear we were not comfortable during the first round of any tournament the whole year. However, we were ranked 3rd in the country for final round scoring average. We knew if we could bridge the gap we’d have a great chance.
Everything else was out of our control and thus unimportant.
WP: To improve the team’s first round you made some changes to the team’s preparation in the days leading up to the tournament. And it worked, given that your team was in the lead pack after the first round. Was that success part of what propelled the team to such a stellar second round? Was this openly discussed?
RM: Yes, this was discussed and practiced in a variety of ways. We knew what WE had to do to prepare. I also knew that certain teams were going to play better than others the first round – nevertheless our goal was just to put ourselves in the mix and to do that we had to play the first 6 holes decent…
The lead up was simple: The last three practices I created a scenario that simulated exactly how the tournament would start. I arranged for a starter to announce their names, created mock score cards with fictitious opponents and made them play as singles (because in the tournament we play as twosomes). I wanted them to play those rounds thinking they were a one-man army… I asked them to take it seriously including discussing the tournament rounds in the van before we got to our home course. They bought in and while their talent, heart and sheer will won the day, I’d like to think our preparation gave us an edge. The first six holes of the Ivy tournament were just okay (better than previous outings I might add) and as planned, we settled in and played ourselves into a good spot on day 1. Round 2 was a special moment in our history. Round 3 was well played in some tougher conditions.
WP: Your guys had an amazing second round. What did they do different that day, to prepare and to finish it off?
RM: [The historically low team score] probably shocked a few people but I remember standing on 16 thinking that we were playing well but, the fire power of other teams would likely make it closer than it was. I never looked at the scores until the tournament was over but based on our year I knew one of our three rounds at Ivies would be low. I can’t recall us doing anything different that day.
WP: Equally impressive was their ability to hold on to their lead on Sunday. What did you say to them to help them finish strong?
RM: I said nothing. There was nothing to say on Sunday before the round. Everyone knew what they had to do and we were in this same position when we won at White Manor earlier in the spring. I’m sure there was some confidence knowing that our last rounds were typically our best. At least that’s what I was thinking!
Perhaps the speech after Saturday’s round from our captain was well-placed. Essentially, he reminded everyone not to celebrate a single note of joy because we played well. He was wise enough to reign everyone in, told them to go practice and remain humble. I couldn’t have said it better.
WP: How did your coaching philosophy support this win?
RM: I see my job as just creating an environment where folks want to play well for each other. If you have the right guys this works nicely.
WP: Having the right guys seems integral to your coaching philosophy. What happens if one turns out to not gel with the team?
RM: I’d prefer only to focus on the positive and say that I try extremely hard to find guys that I’d have over for Christmas dinner. However, no coach is immune to making a poor decision every now and again.
WP: Your philosophy encourages, or maybe you would say demands, that teammates support each other on and off the course. Has this played a role in your team’s success?
RM: I’d like to think so although it might not be the first thing they think of. The synergy of this particular group was outstanding. Much of the credit goes to our captain.
WP: Is it accurate to say you emphasize routine, and expect each player to do his own thing in preparation to play? How has this helped?
RM: Routine is vital and this group did it especially well and didn’t need coaxing – they knew it was important for success. When I saw them do it well I reinforced how much that meant to me because those are the habits that great players exhibit. I suspect when we got to the Ivy Championship this became somewhat of a comfort and made it easier to adapt/compete under the pressure.
WP: Routine is a common term in golf, e.g., pre-shot routine. It sounds like you are referring to something more comprehensive than that. What is the concept behind maintaining a routine before tournaments, and before every round they play?
RM: It’s a good question… the answer is that while each person has a routine, the team itself has one big routine. That means getting all the minutia correct… be on time for breakfast, have the right uniform on, choose meals wisely, get sleep, do your school work etc… perhaps it means just being mature about your game and yourself – your lifestyle. When 8 people do all of these things right it’s powerful and visible within the team environment. It lends itself to having a “team” confidence that I believe is important. It also allows us to focus just on golf… really, all of these things add up to one thing: giving our team the best chance to play well.
WP: Two of your players had Mohawk haircuts going in to the tourney – did this help the team in some way?
RM: This was the result of rain canceling a round from the previous week’s tournament. I think allowing a teammate to give you a mohawk that actually looks decent is a sign of the trust. But this was not a “let’s shave our head because it’s Ivies moment”. I chalk it up to sheer boredom in the hotel and nothing more.
WP: Do you feel that your attitude rubs off on the guys, if you’re nervous or confident, etc?
RM: I’m sure it does. Convincing them of things you already know the outcomes to can sometimes take a whole year. I don’t have a crystal ball but I do have a lot of experience… It’s also helpful when you can give them some statistical proof to help reinforce your decision or predictions.