Champions On and Off the Course

April 01, 2009

By Warren Miller

Rollins golf boasts a long history of championship teams and individual winners whose college experiences have shaped their lives.

Rollins may not have a golf course, but in the world of collegiate golf, it has a reputation as one of the most dominant golf powerhouses in the country.

They come to Rollins because of its reputation in both academics and golf. They come for a climate that permits year-round competition on the fairways. They come through the referrals of friends and graduates. They come with the expectation of winning, and the belief that whether they win or lose on the golf course, they will receive the college experience of a lifetime.

Among the students arriving on campus late last August for the beginning of a new academic year were top young golfers from the United States, Europe, South America, Africa, and Asia—golfers like NCAA individual national champions Joanna Coe ’11 and Mariana De Biase ’06. This year’s Rollins golfers comprise a reigning NCAA Division II women’s championship team and a men’s team just four years removed from its last championship and itching to return. The student-athletes—all five starters on the women’s team are Academic All-Americans, with a combined GPA of 3.63 last spring—enjoy the opportunity Rollins affords them to excel both on and off the course.

They join an impressive list of Rollins golfers who have led the way down the links since Rollins first entered the world of intercollegiate golf in 1931—names like Peggy Kirk Bell ’43, Alice O’Neal Dye ’48 ’02H (wife of legendary golf course designer Pete Dye ’50), Betty Rowland Probasco ’51, Marlene Stewart Streit ’56, Barbara McIntire ’58, Jim Curti ’59, Mike Nicolette ’78, and LPGA stars Jane Blalock ’67, Hollis Stacy ’76, Muffin Spencer-Devlin ’76, Debbie Austin ’70, Julie Larsen Piers ’84, and Charlotte Campbell ’06.

In many respects, the College is not very different from what it was when Bell decided to transfer to Rollins 70 years ago.

When Peggy Kirk Bell was a freshman at Sargent College in Boston, in 1938, her father sent her to Miami for spring break. “I left Boston in three feet of snow, got down there, and said, ‘I’ve got to move to Florida so I can play golf all the time!’” recalled Bell from her home at Pine Needles Lodge & Golf Club in North Carolina. “I saw a Rollins College catalogue, transferred, and I’ve never regretted it. President Hamilton Holt was wonderful to everyone there and the classes were so small—we’d often sit outside in the Horseshoe. I never missed a class, but I’ll admit it was hard to keep my mind off golf!”

Rollins did not have a women’s golf program at that time. But it did pay $1,000 a year to Dubsdread Country Club to allow its students to play there. “I had all my classes in the morning and then went out to Dubsdread,” Bell said. “I played a lot with the course owner, Carl Dann. It was a great experience to play with the men.”

Bell went on to an outstanding amateur career before joining the forerunner of the LPGA. In 1950, she married her high school sweetheart, Warren “Bullet” Bell; the two of them bought the Pine Needles Resort that has become associated with her over the years.

Once started, it didn’t take long for the Rollins golf program to rise to national prominence. Alice Dye led the women’s team to its first national championships in 1948 and 1950, beginning a success story that has included national women’s titles in 1956, 1974, 1991, 1992, and 1994.

But the current run of women’s championships may be the most unprecedented in Rollins’—or any college’s—history. Julie Garner, herself a Tennessee amateur champion (1984) who had served two stints as coach of the Rollins women’s team (1984-87 and 1996-97), was lured back to Rollins in 2000 and set the team on a stellar course that began with second-place finishes in Division II in 2000 and 2001.

Then, in 2003, Charlotte Campbell ’06 enrolled at the College. A standout at Orlando’s Lake Highland Preparatory School, Campbell compiled a collegiate record that may not be equaled. The women’s team won the national Division II championship all four years (2003-2006) that she played. Campbell was a four-time Division II Player of the Year—the only woman ever to win the honor every year she was eligible—and individual medalist (low-scorer) in the 2003 and 2004 tournaments. (Teammate Mariana De Biase won the individual title in 2006.)

Campbell turned pro after college and now is in her third year on the LPGA developmental Duramed FUTURES Tour. A highlight of this past year was Campbell’s participation as a contestant—and winner—on the Golf Channel’s reality show Highway 18. “I’m shooting better than I did at Rollins, but it’s incredibly hard in the pros,” Campbell said. “Rollins taught me how to win, though. I had the opportunity to play, which is why I went there. Coach Garner saw something in me.”

The men’s program also has experienced formidable success, boasting two national championship titles (1970 and 2002) and two individual national champions: Jim Curti, who was NAIA national champion in 1957, and Mike Nicolette, who won the NCAA Division II championship in 1976. The men’s program has sent 28 teams to the NAIA or NCAA national championships since 1957. Like the women’s team, the men came out strong in the new millennium, enjoying a magical 2002 season in which Campbell’s counterpart on the men’s team, Rob Oppenheim ’02, led the charge, holing out a putt that clinched the men’s championship and earning the title of NCAA Division II Player of the Year. Oppenheim turned pro that fall and has won multiple times on the Canadian and North American mini-tours. While he has not yet earned a spot on the PGA Tour, he has played in PGA events, including the 2006 Deutsche Bank Championship, and he was the leading money winner on the Canadian Tour in 2006.

Playing on Rollins’ national championship team has been the high point of his career to date, according to Oppenheim. “The key to our success was the bond we had as teammates,” he said. “We wanted to play well not only for ourselves but for each other as a team. We were competitive with each other but also rooted for one another. That’s not as easy as it sounds, and I think Coach Frakes played a big part in that.”

In 1994, Rollins hired a men’s golf coach and assistant basketball coach who was barely older than the players he would mentor. Kyle Frakes made an immediate difference on the men’s golf program.

Ken Forasté ’95 was a player on Frakes’s first team. “Coach Frakes brought a real energy to the group,” said Forasté, who today is a principal in a wealth-management company in his native Massachusetts. “He brought a more disciplined approach to how we thought and practiced. Most of the players became close friends.”

The Rollins experience extended far beyond golf, Forasté explained. “I got a very good education, but what I’ve come to appreciate is the balance we had there. Rollins is small, and golf never consumed you. We were never overwhelmed.”

Forasté’s friend and former teammate, Dan O’Callaghan ’95, a sports announcer on WPRK, interned at the Golf Channel and went to work for the network after graduation. Today, he is the head of marketing for a resort under development in the Bahamas. “Rollins gave me a game plan,” O’Callaghan says. “I knew I could take it and be successful.”

Knowing who will be a success at Rollins—on the golf course, in the classroom, and in life—is a mercurial combination of art, science, and intuition. Yet sometimes it’s easy. Garner knew instantly that Campbell would achieve great things at Rollins. “Charlotte had something special,” Garner explained. “You could build a program around someone with her drive. I saw a similar thing with Joanna Coe, who was the whole package as well.”

Coe came to Rollins last fall—after earning All-South Jersey honors while playing for the boys golf team at her high school near Atlantic City, and setting scoring records in soccer—and immediately propelled the Rollins team to its 12th national championship, a team record for Division II. Coe also broke the individual scoring record by five strokes to win the individual championship. “These young ladies [Campbell and Coe] have never lost a national or conference championship or a tournament of significance.” Garner said. “All we’ve had to do is stay out of their way and let them develop as we knew they would. Sometimes, the best coaching is less coaching.”

Although Campbell and Coe are from the United States, the women’s teams in recent years have been overwhelmingly international. The 2008 championship team included, in addition to Coe, Laura Fourdraine ’08 ’10MBA from France, Cristina Gugler ’08 from Austria, Brianna Seo ’11 from South Korea, Surita Risseeuw ’08 from South Africa, and Vanessa Vela ’08 from Colombia. Though some of these students attended high school in Central Florida and knew of the College’s prominence in competition, many international students learn about Rollins through referrals from past players.

“The international players rely heavily on what they hear from other players who have come over to play,” Coach Garner explained. “I never cold call recruits. I think a potential student has to have an interest in Rollins before we can begin a dialogue. A student-athlete here has to be motivated and disciplined. I ask them, ‘If you couldn’t play golf, is this where you would want to go to college?’ We have some golf scholarships, and many players receive some academic-scholarship assistance, but tuition is not inexpensive. We have a lot of players who’ve agreed to pay something to come here when they could have had a free ride elsewhere.”

The students who do come to Rollins for an education and to compete for golf championships do not regret the decision. Oppenheim, in an email from a tournament in Canada, said, “Kyle Frakes and Rollins saw some potential in recruiting me, and I couldn’t have been happier with my decision to go there. The College gave me a great education along with a great opportunity to make my mark on the golf course.”

Coe hopes to play in the LPGA one day, but for the moment, she’s simply soaking up the Rollins experience. In an interview before heading to the U.S. Women’s Amateur in Oregon last July, she said, “I didn’t realize how important Rollins’ size would be. In small classes, you know your classmates and don’t feel lost. You feel connected to the community. I’m best friends with everyone in my hall, my professors ask me how I’m playing. It’s perfect.”

Professional golfer and former Rollins standout Charlotte Campbell ’06 recently won a competition on the Golf Channel’s reality show Highway 18. Charlotte and her brother, Rob, bested four other two-person teams in a wild competition that included rally-style car driving, racing on foot while carrying a full set of clubs and bag, answering golf trivia questions for Arnold Palmer, and—sandwiched in between—actual golf on a dozen different courses. For their efforts, the Campbell team won $50,000 in cash, $50,000 worth of travel from Orbitz, a GPS system, and Titleist clubs and balls.

“Everything that you saw on television was real,” Campbell said. “I thought the editors did a great job of showing who we were.” Campbell’s former coach and mentor at Rollins, Women’s Golf Coach Julie Garner, agreed. “They captured her perfectly,” Garner said. “You could see and feel her competitive intensity. ‘We are back in it!’ she said on camera. That’s Charlotte, all right. If you need someone to make a putt or birdie, she’s the one you want to have.”

The win comes at a good time for Campbell, who struggled during her second year on the Duramed FUTURES Tour, the LPGA’s development tour. She finished the year ranked 116th and will have to play in a qualifying tournament to regain her exempt status (eligibility to enter all events) for the 2009 season. “Playing in the pros is not easy,” she said. “It’s a whole new level of competition. I had a really good career in college, but so did the other 144 girls I tee it up with every week.”

Garner has no doubt that Campbell will recover the confidence and “swagger” she had as a four-time NCAA Division II Player of the Year during her Rollins career. “I’ve watched her play since her high school days, and she has that burning desire,” Garner said. “She stalks a putt like Tiger Woods does.”

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