Sean Covich was in his second year at the helm of a budding West Virginia golf program the last time the Big 12 Championships were held at Prairie Dunes in 2017.
That was a weekend to remember for Covich. Texas, led by current PGA TOUR stalwarts Scottie Scheffler and Doug Ghim, edged fellow TOUR man Viktor Hovland’s Oklahoma State squad by a stroke to win at 48-over.
West Virginia finished 131-over — dead last for the event.
“A lot of people don’t know this, but in my office I have a print-out of our score from Prairie Dunes in 2017,” Covich said ahead of his team’s return to the venue for the 2021 Big 12 Championships. “…I know we’re going to do a lot better this year.”
Covich has good reason to think like that, as the Mountaineers have made massive strides in the seasons since. That year, they scored an average of 8.76-over-par every round. This year, that average is down to 6.17 — and at this point, even that might be considered a “down season.”
Interestingly enough, this will be the first time West Virginia will return to a venue for an event — but this time, Covich will have an entirely new crop of players with him in Kansas. The coach has done his best to give his team a scouting report on the 6,759-yard par-70 track, which is continually ranked among the top courses in the United States.
“The greens have got all these little movements to it, and they’re very challenging,” Covich said. “So it’s basically the wind, and then around the greens you have to be really good. It’s so unique…it’s like Scotland in the middle of America, they’ve got these sand dunes out there, and what’s beautiful about it is there are no houses, and I don’t even think there’s a water hazard on the golf course but it’s still one of the most challenging courses in America.”
Mark Goetz, West Virginia’s standard-bearer for 2020-21, is excited to get his first crack at Prairie Dunes. In his most recent start, Goetz took a 12-stroke victory at the Mountaineer Invitational at Pete Dye, shooting 12-under for the 54-hole event. He was the only competitor to finish under par after shooting final round 65.
The senior from Greensberg, Pennsylvania is the only returning starter from a season ago, thrusting him into a leadership role during a season in which his team was forced to play catch-up.
“It was kind of uncharted territory for us, only getting two starts in the fall,” Goetz said. “I think everybody was kind of learning different ways to go about not playing as many tournaments as usual, so I thnk that at this point in the season, I think everybody’s had enough under their belt to really get into some good form and start performing.”
Goetz is getting hot at the right time, as he’s putting up some of the best rounds of his career right has he heads into postseason golf.
“I’ve been working with our sports psych at school and that’s really been helping out,” he said. “It’s to the point now where I’m looking forward to playing this event for sure, then getting home and playing some big events in the summer.”
Goetz has added lots of tools to his game in his four years that will help him at windy Prairie Dunes, including a low, hellacious stinger with his driver. Covich describes his typical tee shot at Pete Dye’s sixth hole — a slightly uphill par-4 — as “an airplane about to take off, and it just never leaves the fairway.”
“Freshman Mark Goetz would have hit it up into the clouds,” Covich said. “But that’s just something you learn over time, to play in the wind.”
The challenge now falls on Covich to set West Virginia’s lineup. Goetz, the team’s low man, will surely ride his momentum from the win into a startting spot — but Covich must balance overall performance, momentum and current form to fill out the other four spots.
“At this point in the year, I’m not going to stress our guys out with qualifying, I’m just going to make our picks,” Covich said. “Obviously throughout the year, we qualify, we compete, and that’s how you get in the lineup. But at this point in the year, like my old boss used to say at Mississippi State, the hay is in the barn…we kind of know who to go with, and we’re going to put the best five out there to give us a chance to play well at Prairie Dunes.”
West Virginia opens the Big 12 Championships on Monday, April 26 with a 9:30 a.m. CT tee time with Iowa State.