If you go to the Justin Timberlake Shriners Hospitals for Children Open expecting to see golf’s biggest names, well, expect to be disappointed. Ever since the PGA Tour restructured its schedule several years ago, essentially relegating the Las Vegas stop to second-tier status, golf’s big shots have avoided our local tournament like you do your 3-wood on a blustery day.
But Las Vegas golf enthusiasts still have six good reasons to attend the tournament Sept. 29-Oct. 2 at TPC Summerlin: That’s how many former UNLV golfers are slated to participate in the $4.4 million event. Combined, the six have earned more than $6 million on Tour in 2011. It’s been such a good year for ex-Rebels on the pro links that five qualified for this year’s FedEx Cup, which is the PGA Tour’s equivalent of the playoffs.
“We’re pretty lucky,” says Dwaine Knight, who has been the UNLV men’s golf coach since 1987. “Week after week, you see guys on TV talking about our players and speaking of them as ex-Rebels, and that’s really cool. There’s a lot of pride in that. That helps carry on the legacy of our program to all parts of the world, because it is a worldwide game.”
UNLV’s impressive presence on Tour doesn’t exactly qualify as breaking news. Former Rebels have been making a good living at golf’s highest level for more than a decade, and others around the country have noticed. Back in February 2007, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution published an article under the headline “Hail, hail the Puttin’ Rebels—UNLV sets the standard for churning out quality pro players.” The opening line said it all: When it comes to college bragging rights on the PGA Tour, you can’t come close to beating UNLV.
Ever modest, Knight is quick to deflect credit to his former pupils … and of course they in turn pass it back to him.
“It’s definitely Dwaine and his ability to recruit,” says Charley Hoffman, who played at UNLV from 1995-99. “I think it says something about a coach that he was on Tour [from 1972-77], he was a good player and he understood what it took to get on Tour. I think parents have trusted him with their kids, because most likely if you went to school [at UNLV], you were going to come out a better person and a better golfer.”
Hoffman, who is No. 51 on this year’s PGA earnings list ($1.44 million), was part of UNLV’s 1998 national championship team (the only one in program history). He says that squad was so talented that the competition to make the five-man traveling team was often more difficult than the actual tournaments themselves. “The four years I was here, I don’t think we were out of the top three in the country at any time,” says Hoffman, who is hosting this year’s pre-tournament Pro-Am on Sept. 26. “So obviously we were getting the best players from all over the country to play golf here.”
While UNLV hasn’t returned to the pinnacle since 1998, Knight did help guide Ryan Moore to the 2004 national individual championship (one of two Rebels solo titles, the other being Warren Schutte’s in 1991). Among Moore’s teammates that year was Andres Gonzales, who in December became the 10th Knight-coached UNLV golfer to earn his Tour card. Gonzales and Moore will join Hoffman at TPC Summerlin next week, as will former Rebels Chris Riley, Bill Lunde and Chad Campbell.
All six will be chasing the same thing: the first-place check of $792,000 and, short of that, bragging rights among their UNLV brethren. “We all want to beat each other’s brains in on the golf course,” Hoffman says. “It sort of drives you. Like if I see Lunde on the leaderboard or Campbell or Riley, you go, ‘God, I can’t let him beat me!’”