MORGANTOWN, W.Va. — This past weekend, as Phil Mickelson was being toasted with shots of Geritol across America as he strode on those nearly 51-year-old legs down the 18th fairway of Kiawah Island, South Carolina, to wrap up his second PGA Championship while becoming the oldest winner ever of a major championship, another man in quest of golf greatness was caught up in the euphoria.
Sean Covich, West Virginia’s golf coach, had not made such history that day, but he was playing a rouund of golf at Bridgeport Country Club.
“I’m playing in a qualifier there soon,” Covich explained. “Believe it or not, my 9-year-old son has played Bridgeport Country Club more than I have, so I wanted to get to play there. We were done in time to watch Phil play 15 through 18. We hurried home because I wanted to watch history and it was amazing.
“That was one of those things where you remember where you were, just like Tiger’s Masters win and when Jack won the Masters at 46 in 1986,” he said, referring to Tiger Woods and Jack Nicklaus, two who carved their names onto golf’s Mount Rushmore.
He’d had a taste of what that might feel like since becoming the man to lead the revival of golf at West Virginia University in 2015 after an absence of 33 years. It was a couple of years ago when the Mountaineers challenged to make the field as a team for the NCAA Tournament.
“We came so close in 2018-19. We were two shots from qualifying as a team. We had a chance but we didn’t close very well on the final two holes,” he recalled.
WVU finished sixth that year at the Louisville Regional, just two strokes off a qualifying score. They shot 1-under-par as a team in the final round and at 862 strokes as a team … close enough to mean it was a meaningful run.
“That kind of sticks with me,” Covich said. “I can picture everything about that week … where we stayed, what we ate, what we wore, everything. It’s almost like it was last week.”
So close, yet in the end they turned around and got in the van and headed home.
“It’s a weird combination of being so proud of the guys getting that far, then to have a chance to make history and not get it done made the long ride home tough,” Covich said.
But as tough as it was, it showed him that it could be done at WVU, as it seemed they were teetering on the edge of a big moment in school history.
“When it does really happen, it’s going to be a cool moment for the guys on that team,” he said. “We’ll feel like we did it for the guys that came before and got us so close. We’ll feel like we all did it together.”
Much has happened in such a short time since then.
“When we started in 2015, that first year, all the way through 2020 when the pandemic hit, I would describe it as a full-out sprint,” he said. “We were doing everything we could to get the program started and were getting a little bit better every year, getting better players, playing at better tournaments, playing better golf. And we went from like 170th in the country the first year to reaching a regional and finishing just two shots away from going to the National Championship Finals.
“Then, when the pandemic hit, we were in the Top 25 at one point in that season and guaranteed to go to a Regional. We had a really deep roster … and then all of a sudden it just all went away.”
Sports were halted.
“It literally came apart because of some injuries, because of some transfers, because of kids graduating, it just sort of disappeared. It was a weird feeling,” Covich said.
Then came this year. He started with a new team for an abbreviated schedule, the only player in his opening day lineup that had played when the team last played being Mark Goetz, a senior who was beginning to find himself late in his career.
“It’s such a great story,” Covich said. “We were his only Division 1 scholarship offer. I’m not saying he wasn’t recruited by Division 1 schools. He went on visits, but no one pulled the trigger and offered him a scholarship or even a spot.”
Goetz had come from western Pennsylvania, Greensburg, and was under the radar.
“We came in late, three days before signing day, actually,” Covich said. “I thought he’d already committed somewhere but he had not. I said ‘we’re gonna get you back down here and I’m going to offer you something.’”
And that’s what they did.
“To go from that, a very talented but a raw player, not very mature player to what he is now is unbelievable,” Covich said.
This year he qualified for the Regional as an individual and nearly shot his way into the NCAAs.
He opened with a disappointing 74 in the Regional but saw it only as a challenge, then jumped from No 33 in the field to tie for fourth place as he shot a 6-under 66 in the second round. He added a final-day 68 to finish second in the field, but only the winner advanced to the NCAAs.
His season was over, but his career wasn’t. Mark Goetz announced he was returning to WVU for a fifth season.
“It’s been a lot of fun,” Covich said of watching Goetz grow into the golfer he is. “It’s had its ups and downs. It hasn’t been easy from Day 1. He’s had to earn everything.
“We have developed a really good relationship because of what he had to earn. He knows I’m not just giving him anything. His spot in the lineup was taken away from him in the past because of him maybe not sticking to the game plan or playing too emotional out there at time. Now, I have full trust in him. That comes with time.”
Time is something college athletes aren’t allowing themselves very much these days..
“The fact he’s coming back for a fifth year is rare in this day and age,” Covich said. “It’s rare for a kid to stay at a school for that long, especially since he could put his name in the portal and go anywhere he wanted to go right now. Everyone in the country has heard about now.
“But he wants to see how far this team can go next year.”
And Covich believes that his rebuilding — no, he says it’s not rebuilding, just resetting — is close to paying dividends.
“I have a feeling this team next year will have a chance to get it done, but in this game, you have to get lucky. It’s hard to always come out on top in this game,” he said.