Bulldogs golfers find spotlight

ATHENS, Ga. -- Little did anyone know at the time but it was almost exactly a year ago when Bubba Watson kicked off perhaps the best 365-day period ever for Georgia golf and for players with Bulldog ties.

Watson beat Webb Simpson in a playoff to win the Zurich Classic of New Orleans on May 1 last year, launching a streak of wins, near-misses and clutch performances on the biggest stage that kept Georgia fans barking.

Of course the highlight was Watson's dramatic playoff win over Louis Oosthuizen earlier this month at the Masters, but standout performances by a sizable group of players helped keep the Georgia program in the golf community's consciousness more than ever before.

"Talking to Georgia boosters or alums or people I see, all of them tell me that golf is so much more fun to watch right now, because every week we've got two or three or four guys -- or as many as six or eight guys -- in there, not only on the PGA Tour, but we've got another handful on the Nationwide Tour, and we've got a couple guys on the senior tour, so there's a lot of Bulldogs to root for and get excited about," Georgia coach Chris Haack said. "When I hear that, it gives me a great sense of pride."

Not only are Haack's former players competing in the events, they are contending -- and sometimes winning. Watson is obviously the most famous ex-Bulldog on the PGA Tour, having won four times and reached a playoff in two majors over the last three seasons, but he is not the only Bulldog on the big tour.

In fact, there were a whopping eight players with UGA ties -- Brendon Todd, Chris Kirk, Brian Harman, Harris English, Erik Compton, Ryuji Imada, Kevin Kisner and Blake Adams -- in the field at the season-opening Sony Open, an event in which Watson didn't even compete.

That was yet another accomplishment in a year that was full of them, including:

• The Georgia golf team's national runner-up finish at the NCAA championships.

• Then-PGA Tour rookie Kirk's win at the Viking Classic last July.

• Wins on the Nationwide Tour by Compton, Russell Henley and English, with Henley and English's wins making them only the second and third amateur competitors ever to win events on the developmental tour. Henley's win last year came at the Stadion Classic at UGA, and the Nationwide Tour rookie will attempt to defend his title when the event returns to Athens this Thursday.

• Then-Georgia golfer Bryden Macpherson's win at the British Amateur last summer, which secured an opportunity to compete in the 2011 British Open and 2012 Masters as an amateur. He turned professional earlier this month after competing in the Masters.

• One of the most heartwarming stories in all of professional sports was when Compton, a two-time heart transplant recipient, finished in the top 25 on the Nationwide Tour money list to earn a PGA Tour card for the first time in his career. His win at the Nationwide Tour's Mexico Open last year was his first on one of golf's top tours.

• Henley's qualifying to compete in the U.S. Open as an amateur for the second straight summer. A year after tying for low amateur honors in the 2010 U.S. Open at Pebble Beach, Henley made the cut and finished tied for 42nd in the 2011 U.S. Open at Congressional.

• Henley and English earning prestigious invitations to compete on the U.S. side in the Walker Cup matches in Scotland before turning pro in the fall.

• Four of the players who competed in the Sony Open -- Todd, Harman, English and Kisner -- were among the 29 players who earned PGA Tour cards by surviving three grueling stages of last December's Tour Qualifying School, and Todd won the final qualifying stage.

"In some regards it doesn't surprise me," Haack said. "You get to know these guys and you know what they're capable of and you know they're bound to do some really good things. But at the same time, you've just never seen anybody or any group of guys come out of a school and do something like that. You certainly haven't seen it in a very long time anyway."

The group's success is also a point of pride for many of the former Georgia players, like former teammates on the Bulldogs' 2005 NCAA championship team Kevin Kisner and Richard Scott, who served as groomsmen in each other's weddings earlier this spring.

"All of us are a tight-knit group, which is great, and there's a lot of us out playing either on the PGA Tour or the Nationwide Tour now, which is great for the university," Scott said. "We keep pretty good tabs on each other."

Scott is among the eight current and former Georgia players expected to compete this week in the Stadion Classic at UGA, along with Henley, Hudson Swafford, Scott Parel, Justin Bolli, Paul Claxton and active Bulldogs Nick Reach and Brian Carter, who earned sponsor's exemptions by ranking as Georgia's top two players this season.

The many successful ex-Bulldogs realize that the common thread between them is their connection to UGA and Haack, who has led Georgia to the only two NCAA titles in program history and seven SEC crowns since becoming coach in 1996.

"I think it just reinforces what Hacker's done here," Henley said. "He's not getting in the way. He's just letting all of us do our own thing. He's not going to change what got us here, and he's always encouraging me to stick to what I do best and not trying to change anything too much. I think that you look at all the guys on tour and stuff, those are guys that are just playing their game. They're not trying to be anybody else."

And with the number of Bulldogs in the pros only continuing to grow, they expect to see the Georgia program's profile expand, as well.

"There isn't a week where I'm out on the Nationwide Tour or wherever I've been playing that I'm not playing a practice round with one of my buddies who played at Georgia, which is great," Scott said. "I think it can only do great things for the university and for the golf program."