September 24–25, 1994
At forty-six years old, Mike Holder was the unquestioned
dean of college golf, as recognizable in his sport as Bobby Knight
was in the world of college basketball and Joe Paterno in college
football. His focus was so acute, his intensity so singular, he was
oblivious to the whispers that followed him from the parking lot
to the clubhouse to the practice range at the Scarlet Course, site
of the early-season Ping Preview tournament in late September of
1994, whispers that defined a legacy that towered over his sport like
Whether he was scouting or coaching, everybody on the course
knew the man with the expressionless face and orange wraparound
sunglasses, resting beneath a thick mop of reddish blond hair. His
was the most familiar pose in college golf. "Look, it’s Mike Holder,"
they would say, the respect discernible in their voices, the news
spreading through the gallery. When he was recruiting at American
Junior Golf Association events, people followed him just to see
which player he had come to see. It was a great compliment for a
junior player to know that Holder was watching. Galleries parted
when he passed through, which also spoke to his natural ability to
He put people off, made them feel uncomfortable. It had always
been that way. You might find yourself getting to know college golf ’s
mystery man at one tournament only to have him walk past without
a word or a look of recognition two weeks later. Just because he
was scouting a potential recruit on the practice range didn’t mean
he wanted to engage in friendly conversation with the recruit’s parents.
He was often referred to as arrogant, aloof, or worse.
Holder didn’t worry about what other people thought of him.
He was the embodiment of Oklahoma tough. To him, golf wasn’t
a country club sport. He was disciplined, demanding, and determined
to push players to their limits both mentally and physically.
He made them qualify in the rawest weather, made grueling earlymorning
workouts mandatory, and considered character building
the most important part of his job, which wasn’t always the most
popular approach in a sport where athletes were often coddled as in
At different stages of his career Holder made players run laps
for hitting balls out of bounds and do pushups for three-putting
greens. He loved Oklahoma State’s other dominant sport — wrestling
— and impromptu greenside matches between player and
coach were not uncommon. He had once angrily and, he believed,
justifiably bloodied Bob Tway’s nose in a wrestling match moments
before Tway was to tee off in the first round of a tournament.
His players learned about excellence from being around him. He
strove to operate with integrity and did everything to the best of his
ability. Mostly, he did things his way. If his players preferred some
other way, he would refer to the major north-south highway that
splits the state. "I-Thirty-five," he would say slowly, looking his target
right in the eye, his accent so purely Oklahoma it could double
as a voice-over for the state department of tourism, "goes both
No wonder other college golf coaches referred to him, behind his
back, as the "Great Iron Fist of the Midwest."
He preached the basic tenets: Be on time, go to class, tell the
truth, give 100 percent, play one shot at a time, conduct yourself
with class, stay physically fit, and never make excuses. Any player in
need of discipline could expect to run steps inside the football stadium
Everything he did was designed to make his players better. He
dared them to be great, in the classroom and on the course, in everything
they did. If you were going to play for Mike Holder, being
average was not an option.
All this contributed to Holder’s status as his sport’s most controversial
and dominant figure and, by far, the least understood.
Holder was the John Wayne of college golf, but to define him
as one-dimensional failed to acknowledge his complexity. He was
also perhaps the greatest innovator college golf had ever seen. He
ran his program as if it were a Fortune 500 corporation and he
the CEO. He had won six national championships, ten fewer than
legendary former University of Houston coach Dave Williams,
the dynasty builder who dominated college golf for thirty-six
years. But Holder’s overall contribution to the sport was perhaps
Williams reinvented the game and became known as the "Father
of College Golf." Holder reinvented it again and again, in ways dramatic
and subtle, forcing those who wished to compete with him
to adopt his model and methods. Although the fi rst intercollegiate
golf tournament was held in 1897, and although no coach will likely
win more titles than Williams, Holder was, in many ways, college
golf s first modern coach.
He was the first to take the same microscopic approach to his
sport that is common in football and basketball, single-handedly
ending an era when golf coaches simply "drove the van," or shuttled
players from tournament to tournament. As his teams continued to
win, opposing coaches, albeit reluctantly and sometimes even unknowingly,
would do as Holder did, and soon what seemed like a
radical idea would become a standard practice.
At a time when most college coaches did their recruiting by
phone or simply welcomed players who arrived on their doorstep,
Holder became a fixture at American Junior Golf Association
events, always making sure he was the first coach to arrive in the
morning and the last to leave at night. He spent ten weeks each
summer scouring the nation and beyond for the best talent and
forced others to do the same.
The equipment kept improving. So did instruction. Holder was
convinced his athletes had to improve as well, and that meant they
had to be in better physical condition. He made demanding, thriceweekly
6:30 a.m. aerobics sessions mandatory.
Opposing coaches criticized him and his workouts while competing
for recruits. "If you go to OSU you’ll have to do aerobics,"
they would say. But within a few short years virtually every top program
had adopted a conditioning program.
Holder didn’t ask his players to do anything he didn’t do himself.
He worked out right along with them, never missing a session,
pushing the instructor to push his players — and himself — to their
limits and beyond. On days when there were no aerobics, he and his
stepping machine waged epic battles. Holder was a workout fi end,
and the stepping machine was his torture device of choice. It was
man versus machine in a daily pitched battle of wills. Holder wasn’t
going to quit. As long as the electricity held out, the machine wasn’t
going to quit either.
The sport had experienced a major transformation during the
two-plus decades Holder coached the Cowboys. Much of it was because
of him. When Holder started coaching, coaches rarely watched
their teams compete in tournaments. On the contrary, fearing their
presence might disrupt their players, they often left the grounds
altogether, sometimes even getting together with other coaches to
play a different course. Holder remained close to the action. He began
lingering near the par 3s to offer advice on club selection during
the early 1980s and had recently started walking entire rounds
with players in an attempt to steady