By Beth Ann Nichols
There are winners in college golf, and then there's John Crooks. A 30-stroke victory at the Big South Conference women's championship on Tuesday gave the Campbell coach his 120th college title. That's 75 for the women's program and 45 on the men's side.
"I'd never put 'em together," said Crooks, who seemed a little caught off-guard by the weighty number. Duke's Dan Brooks is the only Division I women's coach who has won more titles (117).
Crooks, 64, has been at this so long he now has a grandson on the men's team. He concedes to being more critical with Jeremy than he is with the rest of the team.
"We had a meal recently," Crooks said of his grandson. "And we talked about the things he needed to improve. When I spend time with most of my other players, we talk about what they're doing really well."
Crooks, now in his 24th year as men's head coach and 23rd in charge of the women, is one of the few coaches in the country to command both programs.
It's not difficult for Crooks to recall the first of his 120 victories. The year was 1990 and it was his first tournament at Campbell as head coach.
"There were seven or eight teams," Crooks said. "I remember how nervous I was."
Crooks, by the way, won his second start, too.
He certainly knew how to play the game. Crooks played college golf under the legendary Dave Williams at the University of Houston after having won the 1967 U.S. Junior title, defeating Andy North. The learning curve, he said, came in figuring out how to communicate, motivate and console.
There'd be a whole new curve the next year when the administration asked Crooks to take over the women's program.
Crooks, a father of two (boy and a girl), had zero experience with women's golf.
"Only way I knew to do it was both teams would have to be treated equally," Crooks said. "Same amount of time, and money and effort on one as I did with another."
One of his favorite days on the job came in 1999, when both teams won on the same afternoon in Louisiana.
In the last three years, Crooks decided to switch up his coaching schedule. He realized at the end of each season that both teams often were borderline in terms of advancing to the NCAA postseason. In switching back and forth between the teams in the spring, Crooks said, he was shorting everyone.
"Invariably I'd be at a site and I'd see something going on that really should've been adjusted prior to the tournament," Crooks said.
Nowadays, John Crooks generally takes the women and assistant Tim Crooks (no relation) takes the men.
At the women's conference championship earlier this week, Crooks asked his players before the start of the final round to imagine a day in which each one of them had a career round.
Your low is 66 ... your low is 67 ... you were under par in your last tournament.
"Obviously there are no magic words that turn everybody around," Crooks said, "but maybe the thought was in the back of their minds because that's what happened."
The player with the highest scoring average going into the week, Louise Latorre, won her first collegiate title with a record-breaking total of 3-under 213.
"I did not see that coming at all," said Latorre, a native of France who still seemed to be in a fog about it one day later. Latorre, 18, said going to school six days a week in France until 6 p.m. kept her from practicing on a regular basis.
The time at Campbell has done wonders for her game.
Campbell's 278-289-297–864 set a conference tournament record. The Fighting Camels trounced Coastal Carolina by a whopping 30 strokes.
The last time the Campbell women advanced to the NCAA Championship was 1998. Two years ago at Penn State, the Camels were inside the top 8 with three holes to go and couldn't finish. They missed it by six strokes.
Some players on the team still remember that.
"I think they know their best is good enough," Crooks said. "I think that's the first step to having a chance."