College Sports

Wofford golf: A piece of history

No one at Wofford knows what happened to the banner.

Most people in the school’s athletics department have “seen” it; certainly every Wofford golf team member has. Hanging in the team’s meeting room is a 10-by-12, black-and-white photo of the banner — “1973 NAIA National Champions,” it reads — being held by the five members of the Terriers squad who won that National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics title.

Each of those players, all today in their 50s, later received a plaque featuring a reproduction of that photo. But the banner itself?

“I don’t know where it is,” said Wofford golf coach Vic Lipscomb, a 1970 graduate of the school. “I don’t know if we kept it or if it went back to the NAIA.”

The missing banner symbolizes both the passage of time and the fragility of institutional memory. And, perhaps, a failure to appreciate the significance of what those five, and their coach, had done.

Of the handful of national championships won by sports teams from South Carolina, Wofford’s golf title was the first. It came three years before the Furman women’s golf team, led by future LPGA Hall of Famers, won the 1976 AIAW crown; 30 years before Clemson, led by PGA Tour star D.J. Trahan, took home the 2003 NCAA men’s golf trophy.

For those five Wofford golfers — Stan Littlejohn, Pat Crowley, brothers Paul and Vernon Hyman and Marion Moore — what they accomplished over 54 holes and four days that June, 35 years ago, remains a highlight of their lives. And they believe their school should feel the same way.

“Sometimes I don’t think Wofford is as proud of that as we are,” said Crowley, who is 57 and a banking consultant in Spartanburg. “They never have put us in the (school’s) hall of fame. (Littlejohn was inducted as an individual).”

Lipscomb agrees that the Spartanburg school could, and should, take steps to further honor the accomplishment.

“You know what? We need to make a bigger deal of it,” he said. “That’s probably the biggest trivia question of all: the first S.C. team to win a national championship of any kind.

“The Wofford family loved it to death, but it’s been sort of a private thing. We should do more.”

Maybe, Lipscomb said, telling their story is a start.

COACH BUICE WAS THE LEADER

Today, college golf serves as a launching point for PGA Tour careers and is dominated by large state schools (both Clemson and USC rank among the top-20 in several polls). It is hard to comprehend how, during the 1960s and 1970s, tiny Wofford (now 1,200 students) competed with the Gamecocks and Tigers, winning several titles at the now-defunct S.C. Intercollegiate in Hampton.

“That’s how I got turned on to Wofford,” said Moore, now a Realtor in his hometown of Orangeburg. “And they had an Orangeburg connection with (former players) Roddie Stroman and Bill Zeigler.”

Said Crowley, “Golf-wise, Wofford was ahead of its time.”

The reason was W. Earle Buice, whose duties as the Terriers’ golf coach sometimes took a backseat to his main job — as the school’s cafeteria director. Stories of Buice dipping into his own pocket to help provide equipment for players or decent hotels on the road are legendary, and his reputation helped him recruit a then-largely untapped pool of instate junior talent.

“That golf team was his passion,” Lipscomb said. “Earle was a conniver; he’d try any trick in the book, but he was a great guy. Even opposing players loved him.”

Enough so that everyone on the 1973 team — except Vernon Hyman, who received the lone scholarship — paid their own way.

Moore recalls Buice picking up team members in a big station wagon and hauling them the 20 miles to Red Fox Golf Club, the team’s regular practice course. On the road, “we’d have five men in tournaments, two to a room, and as the youngest I’d get stuck with Mr. Buice,” he said. “He’d snore and drink beer, but we had a great time.”

Littlejohn, a senior and team captain in 1973, said the Terriers set the stage for their title run as early as his freshman year.

“We qualified for the NAIA national tournament as the (District 6) runners-up, and after that, we won the district a couple of times,” he said.

Littlejohn, Crowley (a transfer from Belmont Abbey) and Paul Hyman were seniors in 1973; Vernon Hyman was a junior, Moore a sophomore. Wofford that year had beaten N.C. State and future PGA Tour player Vance Heafner in a match and easily won District 6, which served as the host for the national tournament. Buice — later inducted into the NAIA’s hall of fame — chose Village Greens Country Club in nearby Gramling (near Inman) as the site.

With school out for summer, Buice had his team play practice rounds at Village Greens a week before the rest of the NAIA teams, led by defending champion U.S. International of California, showed up. The coach also did a masterful marketing job, drawing coverage from local newspapers and TV stations and even several national golf magazines.

His players were ready.

“I didn’t know enough to know where we stood nationally,” Moore said, “but (his teammates) all said, ‘We’re good enough to win it all.’ ”

NATIONAL CHAMPIONSHIP RINGS

That became apparent when the Terriers took a two-shot lead after the first of four scheduled rounds. Heavy rains that plagued the tournament all week forced cancellation of the second round, and NAIA officials decided to reduce the event to 54 holes.

Wofford likely would have won regardless. The next day, Buice’s squad increased its lead over St. Bernard of Alabama to nine shots, and in the final round, the Terriers boosted the winning margin over runner-up Campbell College (now University) to 14 shots, then an NAIA record.

The Terriers were hardly overconfident, though. The first day, standing on the first tee, “I was about to puke” from being nervous, Crowley said. “Paul had served in Vietnam and was older; he was standing there, and when we tried to talk to each other, no words came out.”

By the final round, Buice’s players knew the title was theirs to lose. Vernon Hyman, never a factor after breaking his eyeglasses, caught up with Crowley on the 16th hole that day.

“I was just trying to concentrate, and he said, ‘Don’t worry about it, we’ve got it sewed up, and you’re going to make first-team All-American,’ ” Crowley said. “I wished he hadn’t told me, but it didn’t make any difference.”

Leading the way for Wofford was Moore, who not only was the team’s fifth man but also had to beat teammate Bud Keels in a team qualifier. A week before the tournament, he had driven to Columbia Country Club for a lesson from legendary teacher Melvin Hemphill.

“I was the surprise (making the tournament roster),” Moore said. “Melvin turned me around, and I started hitting it good.” Good enough to shoot rounds of 71-73-72 for even-par 216 to place third, a shot ahead of Paul Hyman (217, fourth); Crowley (220, eighth) and Littlejohn (222, 12th) joined them as first-team All-Americans.

When it was over, the players dealt with the atypical media crush before adjourning to Paul Hyman’s apartment.

“We ordered food, reminisced,” said Littlejohn. “Then we all sort of said, ‘Now what?’ ”

There was no PGA Tour pot of gold awaiting them.

“The next day, for (the seniors), it was ‘Uh-oh, time to go to work,’ ” Littlejohn said. “Until then, we’d just been playing golf and trying to win.”

Buice retired a few years later and died in 1983 of complications during open-heart surgery. The players went their separate ways, lived their lives but occasionally looked at their plaques and remembered that special time.

Around 1982, Crowley — whose brother played golf at Wake Forest and was part of four NCAA titles — saw a story about the 1981 Clemson national football champions and the rings they received for that title.

“I thought, ‘That would be nice to have,’ ” he said.

When he approached Wofford, though, he says the then-athletics director (he doesn’t recall his name) refused to pay for team rings. Finally, after going through the NAIA office, the players paid $350 apiece for national championship and All-America rings — except Moore, who refused to do so, saying, “If they weren’t going to give me one, I wasn’t going to buy it.”

He kept his All-America certificate, which still hangs on a wall in his real estate office. And he has the plaque — the one showing him, his teammates and his coach. And, of course, the missing NAIA banner.

“It’s so far removed from now, it’s hard to believe,” he said. “But every day, I appreciate it even more. We’re a piece of history.”

With or without their banner.

Reach senior writer Bob Gillespie at (803) 771-8304.

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