ETSU's global game: Around the world in 12 golfers, 43,000 miles

      ASN illustration via Google Maps; ETSU photos via Google Images (distances are approximate)

      Any chance golfer Rhys Pugh gets to drink sweet tea and order a plate of biscuits and gravy he goes for it.

      “Southern cooking, I love it,” said Pugh.

      Pulled pork, catfish, ribs and fried chicken delight Pugh as well. Johnson City, home to East Tennessee State University, is Pugh’s current home but Southern foods are fairly new to him.

      Pugh isn’t from Tennessee. He didn’t grow up in the South either. In fact, Pugh isn’t from the United States.

      You have to look almost 160 miles west of London, England, to the town of Pontypridd, Wales, where cockles, leek soup, Shepherd’s pie and roast lamb with laver sauce are more popular menu items. That’s where Pugh was born and raised.

      Pontypridd is five time zones and approximately 3,900 miles away from Johnson City but that didn’t stop Pugh from attending ETSU to play golf. It didn’t stop women’s golfer Vivienne Chin – who is Malaysian – either.

      Pugh and Chin aren’t the exceptions on their teams; they are the norm. This year’s ETSU men’s and women’s golf teams are full of players from all over the globe. Having a multicultural roster isn’t something new either. Both squads have been doing it for years.

      “It is a 36-hour flight and I don’t get to see my parents that much,” said Chin. “They’re on the other side of the world but there are positives coming to America to play golf.”

      [caption id="attachment_1009" align="aligncenter" width="648"] Rhys Pugh, one of 10 international players on ETSU's golf teams. (ETSU Photography)[/caption]

      Men’s head coach Fred Warren left his assistant job at Oklahoma State to take over ETSU in 1986. A very talented Irish player was hoping he could make OSU’s 1986 team.

      “J.P. sent a letter to (Oklahoma State) and they weren't interested in him,” Warren said. “Because of my

      J.P. would be J.P. Fitzgerald, who now caddies for world No. 1 Rory McIlroy, who nearly played for ETSU.

      Fitzgerald was the first international player for Warren at ETSU instead of McIlroy.

      “I decided if I can get one of the best players from Ireland every year it would be like getting one of the best players from Florida, Georgia or Texas,” said Warren. “We’re not a flagship school so for a number of years I focused on Ireland.”

      Keith Nolan, another golfer from Ireland, came to ETSU immediately after Fitzgerald.

      Nolan was ETSU’s first Walker Cup player, a three-time All-American and played on both the and PGA Tours for more than 10 years before caddying for Lee Janzen.

      “Once Nolan became a very good player, word of mouth spread in Ireland and I started getting some really good Irish players,” Warren said

      Warren’s recruiting prowess led to a lot of success on the course. When other schools started recruiting in Ireland, Warren extended his radius into Wales, Scotland and England.

      “Initially I wouldn’t go to Europe (to recruit) because we didn't have the money,” said Warren. “Like a lot of schools though, we got private funding. I was able to raise money for it.”

      When Stefanie Shelton arrived in Johnson City in 2002 to coach the women’s team, she threw her recruiting net far beyond Western Europe to get the best team possible. The first two resumes that came across her desk were from a player from Colombia and another from Asia.

      “I wanted to build a program when I got here. I didn’t care where the players came from,” said Shelton. “Coach Warren warned me about getting so many different nationalities together. Personalities would clash and the cultural differences would be too much to keep a team together. Two years later we had six players from six different countries. It worked though. They got along great. It actually made the atmosphere more competitive. They were close. None of them had different families nearby so they quickly formed their own family.”

      [caption id="attachment_1011" align="aligncenter" width="648"] Gudmundur Kristjansson traveled 3,000 miles from Reykjavik, Iceland, to play for ETSU. (ETSU Photography)[/caption]

      Warren’s roster now includes players from England, Iceland and two from Poland. The culture change isn’t the only difference the players have to get used to. Gudmundur Kristjansson grew up playing in Iceland where there was more lava than trees around the courses. The grasses were completely different too. For Kristjansson as well as Mateusz Gradecki and Adrian Meronk, who are from Poland, golf was only as a four-month sport — September to April. All three had to travel to Spain and Portugal in the winter to practice and play.

      Shelton’s roster is a United Nations of sorts. In addition to Malaysia, there are players from Canada, Latvia, Czech Republic and England.

      In 29 years coaching at ETUS, Warren’s teams have made the NCAA regionals 23 times. Shelton has guided her squads to the NCAAs four times in the last six years.

      “I realized a long time ago that golf is a global game and there are golfers all over the world,” said Warren. “At a mid-major it is harder to get the blue chip recruits. We just have to work harder and look harder.”