UTC golf undergoing resurgence heading into SoCon Tournament

UTC golfer and McMinn Central graduate John Houk watches his tee shot in a recent tournament./GoMocs.com

John Houk needed a new challenge.

Three years into his college golf career at NAIA Tennessee Wesleyan University, the former McMinn Central High School standout had already experienced high levels of success, earning All-American status in each of his final two seasons. Yet he had admittedly gotten a bit lazy in his approach, despite results that may have suggested otherwise.

"I got to the point where I wasn't pushing myself to play my best golf," he said. "I was playing pretty average golf and still competing, and I didn't want — I don't want — that to be the way I was. I wanted to play good and still lose and just find a way to get better and I didn't feel like I was getting better at that point."

So he put his name in the transfer portal, attempting to gauge his market and his interest. It just so happened that at that time, new University of Tennessee at Chattanooga golf coach Blaine Woodruff was looking for a player about Houk's caliber.

The pairing, along with the group remaining, have helped bring UTC's program — which has had success historically and at one point in 2008 was ranked as the No. 1 program in the country — back into the national conversation, as the Mocs will begin the Southern Conference tournament, which begins Sunday, as the second-highest ranked program in the conference at No. 45, behind East Tennessee State at No. 31 and slightly ahead of UNC Greensboro at 47.

The Mocs have won tournaments at North Carolina State, Furman, Wofford and most recently, Indiana. Houk won the Wofford tournament, while Paul Conroy was victorious at the Wolfpack Invite (N.C. State).

The potential of getting the program back to where it was is what attracted Woodruff, whose previous program, Pepperdine, is currently ranked ninth in the country, back to the South for the Acworth, Georgia native.

  photo  UTC golfer and McMinn Central graduate John Houk watches the flight of a shot in a recent tournament. Houk has been a part of the Mocs' recent resurgence as a program as the Mocs should be in the hunt for a Southern Conference title this week. /GoMocs.com

"I knew the golf courses in the area that we had access to here, and how good they were. I knew the variety we had," Woodruff said. "I knew a little bit about the practice facility, and then when I came for my interview, I was like, 'Wow, OK, we've got all we need.' Then it was about putting together a team, so Coach (Nick) Robinson and I had a little work there this summer, and thankfully we got three great transfers, we had some guys that came back that were key contributors that were not planning on coming back, and it kind of came together.

"In August, I remember looking at Coach Robinson and saying, 'I think we've got something with this team.' Then it was kind of building the culture, the standard of what was expected, that things are going to be different, that we could be good and expecting to be great."

Those results came as a product of some difficult conversations that the coaching staff had with players, conversations that had to be had to bring out the best version of each individual player.

That's why Houk was willing to take a step up in level and risk not having the same success, although that hasn't been the case. He wanted to be coached and the coaching staff has done just that.

"It was eye-opening to realize how much room I had to improve," Houk said. "The coaches kind of opened my eyes a little bit, which was very humbling at first but also exciting to know that I have so much more potential than I thought I did. It was eye-opening but very encouraging because it was a lot different than what I was used to.

"I was always being told how good I was, and that was one of the reasons I left because I felt I had a lot more in me in they kind of showed me that. So while the criticism was humbling, it was exactly what I needed to hear."

Contact Gene Henley at ghenley@timesfreepress.com.