FRENCH LICK, Ind. – Inside the Texas Golf Association offices in Dallas are framed photos of past champions of the USGA Men’s State Team Championship.
The players on the 2014 team have all seen them. They have even heard from some of those competitors who have previously hoisted the James R. Hand Trophy, named for a past president of the USGA.
No state has won more titles than Texas, so expectations are always high, especially since the last victory in the biennial competition came seven years ago.
There’s pressure, said Zach Atkinson, 32, of Colleyville. Texas has had a bunch of good players and a bunch of good teams that we’ve sent in the past. It’s a super-big honor to be on the team.
It is even better when you can bring another title home. Led by Atkinson’s 1-under-par 71, the Lone Star State claimed its fourth USGA Men’s State Team title on Thursday, edging Florida by three strokes on the Pete Dye Course at French Lick Resort. Texas now stands alone in the annals of USGA State Team history; they came into this year’s championship tied with Georgia, which has won three USGA Women’s State Team titles.
Aaron Hickman, 36, of Tyler, who shot a 2-over 74 for the team’s other final-round counting score in the 3-count-2 format, wanted to run out on the 18th green and shower Atkinson and Colby Harwell, 29, of Robinson, with champagne. Since none was readily available, he settled for some high-fives, hugs and handshakes.
Of the three members of this year’s team, Hickman had the most experience, having competed in 2010 and 2012 when Texas tied for 17th and 16th, respectively. Those are not customary results for a state that takes pride in winning titles.
So with a three-stroke lead over Iowa and Illinois going into the final round, all three players decided to keep things loose and calm by visiting the French Lick Casino adjacent to the hotel on Wednesday night. Nobody walked away a winner, but all three players had a solid mindset for the last day.
With the winds blowing the hardest they had all week, Texas felt right at home on the challenging 6,910-yard layout.
Wind doesn’t scare these guys, said Texas captain Bill Hanley.
Neither did a late charge from Florida and Iowa. At one point, Florida had pulled into a tie with Texas at 2 under, but Atkinson’s birdie on the 18th hole sealed the three-stroke victory.
I couldn’t tell where we stood, said Hickman. The wind was blowing out there and you are just trying to keep your head down and do the best you can. Today was difficult. I knew that Zach was playing well behind me. I was just trying to get it in the house with as good a score as I could shoot.
All three Texas players finished 1-2-3 on the TGA points list to earn their spots in the championship. Points are doubled for TGA and USGA events in the year of the State Team Championship. Given the size of the state and the depth of golf talent, making the team is considerably difficult. Maintaining that legacy of excellence is also a challenge.
The past few years, Hickman often heard from Terrence Miskell, who helped Texas win in 2005 and 2007. Trip Kuehne, the 2007 U.S. Mid-Amateur champion and runner-up to Tiger Woods in the 1994 U.S. Amateur, is another legendary Texas player to have won a State Team crown.
It’s talked about a lot, said Hickman. It’s something we definitely try to play for as a state, and it’s an honor to get on the team. Those guys hold us accountable when we get up here. We want to play well.
Atkinson, a veteran of two U.S. Amateurs and two U.S. Mid-Amateurs, was asked where this title fit in his golf career. Oh yeah, it’s the biggest. It’s a USGA title.
After the prize ceremony, another celebration was planned at the French Lick Springs Hotel. But instead of the casino, the players and captain were headed to the 1875 Steakhouse to enjoy a fine meal and toast their championship.
The players weren’t concerned about the cost. They figured the TGA could pick up the tab.
And why not. The State Team title was returning to Texas.
All that’s needed now is some wall space to hang another framed photo of a championship-winning team.
David Shefter is a senior staff writer with the USGA. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.