No California junior college coach has been more successful than Gary Peterson. He has guided College of the Canyons golf teams to 12 state titles (nine men, three women) in his 35 years. On the men’s side, that includes four in the last seven years and includes 2019, when the Cougars beat the field by 18 strokes. That matches what the women did last fall.
That’s not all. The men haven’t finished lower than second in seven years.
“We’ve had a pretty good run,” Peterson said.
Like any wildly successful coach, there is a method to his genius. John Wooden had his pyramid of success. Peterson has a three-pronged approach. Without giving away any trade secrets, Peterson said golf is a metaphor for life.
“You have to be honest, work hard and practice to be good,” he said.
A look at the three points:
“It’s easy to cheat in golf,” Peterson said. “Look at our president. He cheats all the time.”
But at Canyons, as is often the case on in golf, it is up to the individual to keep his or her own score, not drop a ball or kick it back into bounds. The honor system is in effect.
That doesn’t mean there isn’t any cheating going on. From time to time, a player will confidentially tell Peterson he or she saw a teammate do something outside the rules. Peterson will investigate by closely watching that player. He also will tell him/her that the behavior has been brought to his attention. If Peterson catches it, one of two things happen. If it’s during a practice, he will “rip them a new one, and if it happens again, they’re off the team.” If it’s during a match, the termination is immediate.
Peterson has kicked one player off a squad – not for cheating but for burying a putter on a green. The termination was still immediate.
WORK HARD (OFF THE COURSE)
Once, Peterson’s rosters were almost entirely made of local golfers. That was the case when the Cougars won their first men’s state title, in 1993. Four of the six that carded 792 at Monterey Peninsula Club were from Hart or Saugus high schools.
Earlier this month, none of the golfers were local; the winner was from Japan, two were Frenchmen, one was Australian and one was from Lancaster. There was only one Santa Clarita player on the roster.
“If I didn’t have to go international, I wouldn’t go international,” Peterson said. “If I could be assured of a local team, I wouldn’t go outside the neighborhood.”
The reason is simple: As the valley got bigger and golfers got better, they started receiving NCAA Division I and II scholarships. This makes Peterson have to work harder to fill a roster.
Not that he’s having too much trouble. He carried 23 this year, although not everyone played (more on that later).
Peterson also has to figure out where to play. Very few courses let the golfers tee off for free, meaning Peterson have to figure out how to stretch his $10,000 green-fee budget across two programs. He said golfers typically are charged between $10 and $18 per round, a deep discount to be sure, but if each player typically is on a course three to four days a week, fundraising is a must.
Of the 10 courses Peterson said the teams frequent, only Sand Canyon and Valencia country clubs allow free rounds. He said Sand Canyon has granted 10-12 days of free rounds, but Valencia only twice a month for a maximum six players.
“We have to watch it carefully,” he said. “I smile a lot and say, ‘Thank you, sir.’ ”
Players also are expected to volunteer at various events and tournaments, often at Valencia. Peterson said the men’s team typically engages in long-drive and beat-the-pro competitions but also might act as witnesses on certain holes or fill groups that have no-shows.
WORK HARD/PRACTICE TO BE GOOD
With 23 on the men’s roster but only six on the course for any tournament, the competition to actually play is fierce. Only the toughest can play, and only 12 played in tournaments this season.
It really is a survival of the fittest. In Peterson’s system, all the golfers play five days a week for four weeks, and every score is counted. The golfers with the six lowest scores play in the first tournament, which for the men is often COC’s lone home contest, the start of February at Valencia. Of the six, the three with the lowest scores automatically compete in the next match; the other three go back into what Peterson calls “the pit,” which is made up of all the golfers who averaged 76 strokes or better.
For the rest of the season, rounds on Wednesday and Friday are counted toward which six will play the next tournament. Again, the top three play the following match and the bottom three go back into the pit.
“You start out and go bogey-bogey-bogey, a young man’s inclination is to just give up,” Peterson said. “But to say, ‘I’m not going to give up. I’m going to focus. I don’t want to go into the pit,’ it hardens them. It will make them aware of their ability to recover. It makes them a strong individual because they don’t give up.”
This year, only four golfers competed in every match, but the competitiveness had its intended effect. By the time the state tournament came around, they were so battle-tested that the pressure of a state tournament was just another leisurely stroll around the course.
It also makes champions. Four times has a COC golfer won an individual state title (one woman, three men, including Nobuhiko Wakaari this year), and COC has become like a breeding ground for Division I and II schools.
It’s normal now for Peterson to recruit an international player who will come for one or two years – or in the case of Jones Comerford last year, one semester – and move on to a larger school. Comerford is now at South Dakota State, but Peterson said he has sent numerous players to San Diego State, San Jose State, Cal State Northridge, Cal State East Bay and Cal Poly.
“D-I coaches know we have an extremely internal competitive team,” Peterson said. “They have to compete against themselves to compete in a match. That’s why we’re so good.”