The word "national" isn't in the title of the tournament. But that doesn't matter to the Tennessee State University men's golf team. For the Tigers, the PGA Minority Collegiate Golf Championship is the next best thing.
"We're not really going to get to compete against the Dukes or UCLA or Florida or teams like that," TSU junior Ryan Smith said. "So this is our national championship."
Last year, TSU rallied from 10 strokes down in the final round of the three-day tournament to capture its second Division I men's title in school history. (The Tigers also won in 2005.) Therefore, in their eyes, the Tigers are the defending national champions when the tournament begins Friday at the PGA Golf Club in Port Lucie, Fla.
Still, TSU senior Chris Seibel recognizes it might seem a little unusual for the Tigers to be the defending champions of a minority tournament — when five of the six players on the team are white.
That includes Seibel, who was named TSU's male athlete of the year recently. He is the first while male athlete of the year at the school since the award was established nearly 60 years ago.
"Yes, it is weird," says Seibel, an Indianapolis native. "There might be a whole lot out there, but a lot of them don't have the competition or the game to play at our school. If they do, they are going to go to the big schools."
Tennessee State is a Historically Black College and University (HBCU). As one of many such colleges, it competed in last year's PGA Minority Collegiate Championship.
The tournament not only caters to HBCU schools, but it also features an independent competition for collegiate golfers who are African American, Hispanic American, Native or Alaskan American, Asian or Pacific Island American. That competition features players from all over the country — last year's champion was Dustin Thompson of North Carolina.
TSU sophomore Dorian Vauls, from Dayton, Ohio, is the only black player on the men's golf team at a school where nearly 75 percent of the student body is black. But teammate Smith points out that TSU isn't the only HBCU school in that situation. That was evident at last year's PGA Collegiate Minority Golf Championship, he says.
"Most of the teams are mainly white," says Smith, a three-time state qualifier at Overton. "I think there was only one team that there was more black people on it than white people." Like Seibel, he admits that "it is kind of weird. There are not a lot of black people that play golf. It has definitely gotten a lot more since Tiger [Woods]. But it is still definitely a predominantly white sport."
But the fact that the tournament was established to feature minority schools and golfers doesn't seem to bother TSU's golf team. The way the Tigers see it, it is just another tournament they are trying to win.
"It has nothing to do with race," Smith said. "A national win is a national championship win."
Last year, before the PGA Minority Collegiate Golf Championship, the Tigers hadn't finished better than sixth place as a team in any tournament.
This season, they have a total of six top-four finishes. Seibel and Smith have led the way with six top-five finishes between them. In fact, Smith won his first collegiate golf tournament at the Alabama A&M Spring Classic last month. Seibel has had a total of nine top-ten finishes this season, a 1-over average and was named to the all-OVC first team.
Those two players have been a big reason the Tigers have made such a leap this year. But the program also seems to have newfound confidence.
The difference is readily apparent to TSU Coach Chip Taylor, now in his third year as the head coach of both the men's and women's golf programs. Taylor, a PGA professional, said that started with creating a strong recruiting base, which wasn't easy a couple years ago.
"I had to work on it," Taylor said. "Not because of Tennessee State. It was because we weren't really that great of a golf program. It was difficult at first because we were not known as a very strong program. [But] all of a sudden I am starting to get student-athletes contacting me wanting to play golf here, instead of me going out and contacting them. I've got more options, which is great."
With more options, Taylor hopes the program can reach the next step, which would be winning the conference tournament championship. TSU was eighth two years ago, sixth last year and finished in a tie for fourth with Eastern Kentucky this season.
The Tigers were actually in second place at one point in the second round of the 2010 OVC championship. So it is definitely improvement for a program that has never been to an NCAA Regional Tournament — a problem that would be fixed if they won the conference tournament and received an automatic bid like Murray State did this year.
For right now, though, they'll keep their sights set on winning their national championship. Not only are they trying to win the tournament for the third time in six years, but they realize that there is a sense of pride and confidence that comes from winning it.
"We felt like we were the best team in the country of the smaller schools," Smith said. "That just gives you so much confidence. In golf, confidence is just as important as ball striking ... I don't feel like there is anybody that can beat us as long as we just play our game and play smart. I think we can make it two in a row."
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