PORT ARTHUR — Bailey most recruited golfer but it’s apple to oranges
Doing some research prior to Braden Bailey’s recent verbal commitment to Baylor led to interesting conversations with Marty Fleckman, Bruce Lietzke and Britt Harrison about how drastically college recruiting and junior golf have changed since they were the dominant young players in Southeast Texas.
The above trio, along with Chris Stroud and Orange’s Scott Sterling, were the highest achieving golfers to come out of this area in the past 50 years. My original intent was to determine if Bailey, who drew interest from schools all over the country, was the most heavily recruited golfer of any era in the Golden Triangle.
It quickly became apparent that he was, but not necessarily because he’s the best junior player this area has ever produced. College golf didn’t really start to take off until the early 1970s, which was after Port Arthur’s Fleckman and Beaumonter Lietzke were helping the University of Houston dominate like no other school ever has. Consequently, recruiting comparisons are difficult to make.
Fleckman, who won the 1965 NCAA individual championship, helped the Cougars to three team titles and was a first team All-America in ‘65 and ‘66, said UH and Texas A&M were the only schools interested in him. A&M’s interest, he added, was only because another Port Arthuran — Jimmy Fetters — made them aware of him.
And, as he recalls, his scholarship offer from UH was pretty much a short-term deal. More on that later.
Lietzke, because of the way Houston was dominating college golf under Dave Williams — 12 NCAA titles in 15 years from 1956-70 — pretty well locked in on the Cougars by his junior year of high school. He did, however, listen to pitches from LSU, Texas and Lamar.
Strengthening his feelings for UH was the fact his high school rival and good friend, Ben Crenshaw, who was a year younger, told him he was probably going to play for the Cougars. Crenshaw, of course, changed his mind and went to Texas. Lietzke, by that time, was already part of the Houston juggernaut.
Harrison, who like Lietzke played at now defunct Forest Park High School in Beaumont, and won a state schoolboy title, came along in the mid ‘70s, or about the time collegiate golf was starting to blow up. He’d have been widely recruited but was set on Mike Holder and Oklahoma State’s powerhouse, and wouldn’t give anybody else but Houston and the University of Texas the time of day.
Ultimately, he never wavered from OSU and would go on to enjoy tremendous success in Stillwater. His Cowboys won two NCAA titles and finished second the other two years. He was twice named second team All-America. Later he would go on to become the golf coach at LSU from 1988 to 1999.
Stroud, meanwhile, came along when college golf was booming, but didn’t get anywhere near the kind of recruiting rush Bailey did. Houston, whose program had dropped way off, came calling, as did A&M, Stephen F. Austin and a couple of others. Ironically, Lamar didn’t pursue him at first because then coach Brad McMakin didn’t think he’d be interested.
Bailey, then, with offers from UCLA and Arizona State out West, to Notre Dame and Michigan in the Midwest, to Arkansas, Vanderbilt and Central Florida in the South and Southeast, to North Texas, Lamar and Baylor in Texas, and to several schools in between, was clearly the Golden Triangle’s most heavily recruited golfer.
If he hadn’t committed to Baylor when he did, no telling how many more schools would have jumped in. That’s partly a tribute to how good Braden is and partly a reflection of all the big-stage opportunities that are available to junior golfers these days.
National rankings, something unheard of when Fleckman and Lietzke played, put golfers on the radar of college coaches by the time they are teenagers.
The rest of this story, however, should make Bailey happy that he came along when he did, rather than when Fleckman and Lietzke played college golf under a vastly different set of circumstances. Not only was there no such thing as the AJGA, Legends Junior Tour, HGA Junior Tour or even a Southeast Texas Junior Tour for competition, but college golf, at least at UH, was a cutthroat battle for survival.
“Best I can recall, my scholarship was semester to semester,” Fleckman says. “If you could help the team, Houston could help you. We had so many good players there, it kept the pressure on. We were winning NCAA championships every year.
“All of the best high school players wanted to come to Houston. As a result, a lot of guys fell by the wayside because they just weren’t good enough.”
Lietzke, who arrived at UH four years after Fleckman left, doesn’t remember his scholarship being on a semester-to-semester basis, but he vividly recalls how ferocious the competition was and how few players were able to make it through Williams’ almost weekly meat grinder.
“When I showed up, I don’t think there were limits on the number of scholarships you could give,” he said. “My first year there were 22 other freshman trying to make the team, and somewhere between 30 and 40 upper classmen. It was a pure golf factory. We’d have qualifying tournaments almost every week.
“Only two of the 23 golfers in my freshman class — Bill Rogers and myself — lasted four years. Guys would go home for Christmas and not come back. The qualifying was just brutal. It made you tough or made you go home. Tournaments would always seem like a breeze, because you were up against better players in our qualifying than in the tournaments. The key was to play well enough in the tournaments to not have to go back into the qualifying pool.”
Fleckman said he got an inkling of what it was going to be like at Houston while playing summer golf on what was known as the Texas “Beer and Barbecue” circuit. The tournaments, played in small towns in East and West Texas, featured high-dollar calcuttas with fields full of talented players looking to hone their games.
Oh, yes, and to pick up a nice payday from guys who bid thousands of dollars for top players during the pre-tournament auction.
“There weren’t many events for a junior golf in those days,” Fleckman said. “If you were good enough, you hit the barbecue circuit. I played in a lot of those tournaments as a senior in high school. What kind of struck me as funny was I kept running into UH players who were bad mouthing Dave Williams. They would say he doesn’t play his best players.
“I’m thinking if he doesn’t play his best players, how can he do that and win so many championships. I think a lot of guys who were really good junior players went there, couldn’t cut it and got sour. In reality, it was just too competitive. Maybe they saw I was a pretty good player and didn’t want more competition.”
Fifty years later it makes for a great story and graphically illustrates how things have changed for up-and-comers like Braden Bailey.
Sports editor Bob West can be e-mailed at firstname.lastname@example.org