The numbers on North Carolina State’s spring season are staggering: four team wins, including one winning score of 51-under par, and in their past 12 rounds as a team, the Wolfpack are a combined 106-under par. The team has done well to acknowledge the stats and then promptly forget them.
Sometimes the most aggressive thing you can do as a player – the most competitive thing – is move on to the next task.
“Just jump on the next loose ball,” as N.C. State head coach Press McPhaul put it.
N.C. State has been on a winning streak since claiming the General Hackler Championship in mid-March. Most recently, the Wolfpack won the Stitch Intercollegiate, setting a program record at 51 under and winning the most consecutive events since the 1982-83 season. McPhaul, in his third year coaching at his alma mater, has never seen anything like it.
The Wolfpack made 78 birdies over three rounds, and won on home turf for the first time in the event’s three-year history.
“They just kept coming at it and coming at it and coming at it,” McPhaul said of the scoring. “They would get lots and lots of looks and they wouldn’t make them all, it wasn’t like they were making everything in sight.”
North Carolina State after winning the Stitch Intercollegiate. (NC State Athletics)
There’s a relentlessness to this team that keeps them moving forward, and a sense of gratitude that highlights what will be a short competition season.
In the ACC, golf teams didn’t compete in the fall. After seven regular-season starts, N.C. State is headed to the ACC Championship at Capital City Club in Atlanta on April 23-26.
McPhaul certainly feels more appreciation for the sport, just as his players do.
“I told the guys at the beginning of the year, the first tournament, I cannot wait,” he said. “If they told us we had to go in a Volkswagen Golf we would figure out a way to get eight of us in that thing and go.”
When the 2020 season ended last March, N.C. State was ranked No. 47 in the Golfweek/Sagarin College Rankings. McPhaul felt like something great was on the horizon.
“We’ll never be able to prove this – I just felt like that team, which was largely the same team we have this year, you could see all the markers, you could see it coming together,” he said.
Now the team is ranked No. 12 by Golfweek.
To understand N.C. State’s dynamic, look at the makeup of the team van. Since last spring, Austrian Max Steinlechner has had even more time to acclimate to the U.S. and McPhaul names Carter Graf, a sophomore in the No. 5 spot (and with an even-par scoring average), as being someone who stepped into a key contributing role.
The Wolfpack draws maturity from fifth-year seniors Christian Salzer and Benjamin Shipp, who has won two events this spring and leads the team in scoring. Easton Paxton is in his fourth year. That trio has taken ownership in a way that felt natural. McPhaul said there were no leadership books passed around and not a lot of direction from coach.
In January, when McPhaul’s assistant coach Van Williams left to take the head coaching job at Wofford, Shipp, Salzer and Paxton approached McPhaul and asked to take over some of Williams’ old duties in the interim.
“We’ll do all the packing lists…we’ll pick out of the uniforms that we’re going to wear,” McPhaul said. “They volunteered for that, they’ve taken charge of that, and they’ve taken charge of the team and the movements of the team in a really good and productive way.”
All three were recruited by former N.C. State head coach Richard Sykes, an institution in Raleigh who retired in 2017 after a 47-year coaching career. Earlier this month, Sykes was the one presenting the Stitch trophy to an N.C. State team for the first time, after handing it over it to ACC rivals Wake Forest and Duke the first two years.
“He recruited me and talked me into coaching,” McPhaul said of his playing career under Sykes, “so his fingerprints are on me too.”
McPhaul’s playing career at N.C. State in the early 1990s overlapped PGA Tour winner Tim Clark’s. McPhaul can remember Sykes sitting him down and telling him he wasn’t expecting a ton of birdies, just not too many bogeys – in other words, don’t dig a hole that Clark can’t get us out of.
It was freeing, albeit a piece of advice that was a bit unorthodox, and McPhaul never forgot that feeling.
“Richard’s legacy as a coach is he’s a memorable guy, a great storyteller, he’s funny, he’s quick with a quip, quick with a one-liner and he’s really good at getting guys to play loose, getting guys to feel loose,” McPhaul said, “because he’s funny and he keeps you on your toes and you don’t really know what to expect next.
“I guess that’s one thing I learned from him is the importance to have fun and enjoy what you’re doing. Enjoy the people you’re around.”
That lives on in Raleigh, too. In some ways, the kind of scoring that N.C. State has displayed over the past four weeks might create pressure – a need to go deeper and deeper. But sound decision makes it a non-issue.
McPhaul goes back to a comment he heard one player make recently about his teammates: “I love the way my teammates do things and I know I can go to war with these guys.”
“When you say something like that,” McPhaul said, “I think that means you know your expectations are rooted in we can do good things, we can compete, we can win but it doesn’t mean it’s going to be easy. We know it’s going to be a fight and sometimes that fight is figuring out a way not to take the foot off the gas when you’re 45 under and figuring out a way to get to 51.
“Sometimes that fight is figuring out how to keep stringing together pars on a golf course that’s really demanding. It shapes itself differently relative to par but the battle is still the same. It’s still a fight to play your brand of golf with confidence until the last putt is holed.”
The brand is smart golf, or as new assistant coach Matt Moot dubbed it, “do us.”
It’s worked out well so far.