Has the good intent of Title IX left NoMi boys’ high school golf teams out in the cold?
By Craig Manning | March 23, 2019
In 2018, the Gaylord High School boys golf team didn’t get a chance to practice on an actual golf course until May 6. Less than a month later, the team’s players were teeing off for regionals. Gaylord’s golfers should have been hitting their stride in the ramp-up to state finals, but according to coach Tom Johnson, most were still just shaking off the rust from winter.
Gaylord isn’t the only golf program facing this issue. On the contrary, for most of northern Michigan, the boys springgolf season typically looks a lot more like the boys wintergolf season.
“It’s awful,” said Fred Mawson, who coached boys golf at Traverse City Central High School during the 2018 season. “Every year, Central hosts a two-day varsity-only event called the Tee Off Classic at the Grand Traverse Resort on the last Friday and Saturday in April. Last year, the Resort grounds people were shoveling snow off the golf course for us to play.”
It didn’t used to be this way. Up through the 2007/08 school year, boys golf was played in the fall, and girls golf was played in the spring. The swap occurred thanks to a Title IX discrimination lawsuit filed almost a decade earlier — a lawsuit that, when it began, had nothing to do with golf whatsoever.
The lawsuit was brought by two families whose daughters were involved in high school volleyball. At the time, girls volleyball was played in the winter, while girls basketball was played in the fall. The Michigan High School Athletic Association (MHSAA) had scheduled things in this fashion to limit facility strain during the winter season, which also held boys basketball.
The problem, in the eyes of the families behind the 1998 lawsuit, was that MHSAA had scheduled girls volleyball in a non-traditional season. Most states were playing the sport in the fall, and the plaintiffs believed that MHSAA was placing their students at a disadvantage for college recruitment and athletic scholarships by having the Michigan volleyball season in the winter. MHSAA lost the lawsuit, which initiated a season swap between girls volleyball and girls basketball. The ruling also forced MHSAA to examine its scheduling plan in totality – and make sure other sports weren’t violating Title IX, too.
Ultimately, the case stretched on for nine years and forced six high school sports to swap seasons. A decade later, arguably no sport has been more affected by the change than boys golf.
According to Mawson, the spring season causes a chain reaction of problems for high school teams and their players. It all starts with the weather, which is so unpredictable that it makes planning the season – and playing enough meets — a difficult juggling act for many programs. 2018 was especially bad, as several late-season snowstorms pushed northern Michigan cities like Gaylord, Traverse City, Petoskey, and Alpena to record highs for April snowfall. The bad weather hit the rest of the state, too, forcing courses and schools to scrap numerous high school golf tournaments.
To deal with these early-season cancelations, high school boys golf teams have two options: Option 1 is to travel further afield for events, especially in April. Mawson says that Traverse City Central has taken to scheduling at least one event in southern Ohio in early April, in hopes of getting players on courses that are dry and snow-free. Option 2 is to cluster more events into the second half of the season, when the weather will (theoretically anyway) be better.
But there are problems with both approaches. Going out of state for meets means more travel time, more missed days of school, higher costs, and longer days for players. Piling events into May, meanwhile, takes players out of classes just as the school year escalates toward end-of-the-year exams. Johnson says that Gaylord’s varsity golfers missed 13 of the last 34 days of the school year in 2018, and still had to play every Saturday once the snow was gone. He also had to be careful to make sure midweek events didn’t conflict with Advanced Placement (AP) tests, which fall during the first two weeks of May and take those weeks off the table for many high school golfers.
Perhaps because of these issues, Michigan has seen a clear decline in boys golf participation since the season swap. MHSAA statistics show that the number of boys playing high school golf in Michigan dropped almost 20 percent between 2009 and 2017.
Some districts have been hit harder than others. Johnson, who has been coaching the Gaylord boys golf team for 18 years, used to get 25-30 golf prospects every season. Now, he says he’s lucky to have 15 kids at tryouts — barely enough to field both JV and varsity teams.
Bigger districts like Traverse City, meanwhile, have been more insulated from the effects. Mike Schultz, who has coached the boys golf team at Traverse City West Senior High for nine years, says his numbers have stayed consistent all along. He generally gets 25 boys out for the golf team — more than enough to fill the 12 slots that make up his varsity and JV lineups. The only issue at West, he says, is how weather makes it virtually impossible to hold a formal tryout.
“This will be my ninth season, and I think I’ve had an official tryout in one or two seasons, just because of weather,” Schultz said. “So, what it ends up doing is turning golf into a no-cut sport, because we’re already playing tournaments before we even have an opportunity to get out and play in the Traverse City area. I’ve got to be straightforward with the kids and say, ‘I don’t have any way to assess your ability to play. We’re taking everyone [for the team], but you may not have much chance to get out and play, unless your ability is there.’”
But Mawson thinks there are signs of rot that could affect the future of boys high school golf in Michigan. He’s heard of Michigan kids losing scholarships or missing out on the chance to play college golf because they couldn’t get the attention of college coaches. Between the poor playing conditions of the spring season and the fact that most coaches need to line up recruits well before the season ends, most top youth golfers in the state are looking to other channels to get noticed.
Specifically, talented golfers can play in Junior PGA events throughout the year to accumulate points, hone their game, and catch the eye of recruiters. Most of the events occur between February and September, which means they conflict with the high school boys golf season in Michigan. And according to Mawson, there are currently state bylaws that prohibit high school team members from participating in these events while they are in-season. Top golfers and their families are left with a dilemma: play high school golf and potentially miss out on crucial recruitment opportunities, or focus on the Junior PGA and forego high school team participation entirely.
“There are players in Michigan that are the cream of the crop, all-state potential, and they don’t even play high school golf,” Mawson said. “And that’s because of the season being in the spring.”
For most coaches, the solution is simple: make golf a fall sport again, for bothboys and girls. Christian Wilson, Athletic Director for Gaylord High School, believes such a shift would solve most of the problems currently plaguing boys golf. In the fall, he says, meets can be played in August to diminish missed class time, there are no scheduling conflicts with AP tests or other exams, players are more prepared to thrive after summers spent out on the golf course, and courses are more willing to host events. Perhaps most importantly, there is no snow.
The change can’t and won’t happen overnight, though. In order for boys golf to move back to the fall season, someone would need to take the case to court and challenge the prior ruling. For his part, Petoskey Varsity Golf Coach Chad Loe is trying not to pin his hopes on something that may not come to pass for many years – if ever.
“I can’t change the seasons, I am not a federal judge, and therefore do the best that I can to stay positive for my players — no matter what mother nature throws at us,” Loe said.
Pictured above: TC Central's team practicing at coach Fred Mawson's house during the early part of the season, before they could get on a golf course.