By Skip Tate
Doug Steiner is a week into an extended recruiting trip, sitting, for the moment, in the clubhouse of the Atlanta Athletic Club, which is hosting the U.S. Junior Amateur Golf Championship. He’s taking a few minutes to rest his feet, which carried him over 54 holes the day before as he followed the play of teenagers from around the country, particularly one top 50 player who’s just six strokes off the lead.
Recruiting a golfer who’s within a few shots of the lead of the largest junior amateur tournament in the country is on par these days for the University’s men’s golf coach. For the last 14 years, Steiner’s built the golf program from obscurity into one that’s now on the verge of national prominence. Golfers ranked in the top 50 nationally or who live beyond Greater Cincinnati are no longer outside the realm of those he’s able to recruit.
“I can now come to these tournaments, and these kids are aware of Xavier,” he says. It’s a major change. When Steiner took over the program in 1988, it had no scholarships, a miniscule budget and recruiting at a national tournament wasn’t even a consideration.
“The highlight of our year back then was going to Butler University in Indianapolis for a tournament,” he says.
Prospects, to say the least, were dim. Still, he preached patience and putting, and now, after more than a decade, the results are showing. Four former Xavier golfers are playing on various pro tours. The current team features back-to-back Atlantic 10 Conference freshman of the year players on the roster. And this year’s class includes a Rolex High School All-American.
The Musketeers finished first or second in the Atlantic 10 Tournament five times in the last six years and had three individual winners and one runner-up in that stretch. In 2001, the team made the NCAA Tournament after smashing the conference, course and school records with a remarkable 23-under-par performance in the A-10 Tournament. Sports Illustrated named then-senior Tim Donovan golfer of the week, and Golf Week magazine dubbed Xavier the NCAA Tournament’s Cinderella story.
“My goal has always been to simply get better every year, even by the smallest amount, knowing that eventually we’ll get to where we need to be,” says Steiner. “We don’t have too much further to go.”
Four years ago, the team finally got a full allotment of scholarships, and last year Steiner was hired full time as the director of the University’s golf programs, giving him the focus and finances to raise the team another notch. For the 13 previous years, he coached the team in the afternoon after teaching sports marketing classes all day at a local high school.
“Now I can really focus on making the team better,” he says. “Before, everything was so fragmented I’d be thinking of 50 different things at once.”
It was exhausting, but the combination of sleep deprivation and golf knowledge worked. Five times, Steiner was named coach of the year in the A-10 and in Xavier’s former stomping ground, the Midwest Collegiate Conference. What has proven to be just as helpful, though, is Steiner’s knowledge of sports marketing. In 1993, he recruited a local player named Jamie Tillman, whose father was an executive of The Kroger Co. Through that connection, Steiner was able to put together a tournament known as the Kroger Intercollegiate Invitational at the Old Colonial Country Club in Memphis, Tenn. Teams from around the nation flocked to the tournament in an effort to play the course and enjoy the star treatment Steiner made sure they received once they arrived.
“It became one of the premier events in the country,” says Steiner, “and was our first big step.”
The teams returned the favor by inviting Xavier to their tournaments, creating a better schedule, which, in turn, enticed better recruits. Guys like Steve Dixon, who was the team’s four-time player of the year and is now on the Canadian Golf Tour, came. So did players like Donovan, T.J. Wilson and Jeff Marr, who are all now on the Golden Bear Tour.
They, in turn, helped Steiner with a goal: “We’ve lowered our stroke average every year for the last 14 years,” he says. “I never thought we’d get under 300, but two years ago we shot 296, and last year lowered it to 294.”
And, Steiner says, it should continue. “The players coming in are the best ever,” says Steiner. “This could be an unbelievable season.”