The subject of “national championships” popped up at the news conference to formalize his taking command of South Carolina’s men’s golf program, and Puggy Blackmon did not flinch.
“I’m not thinking about (national titles); I’m planning on it,” he said that June day in 1995 at the Faculty House on the USC Horseshoe. Indeed, he wanted more; he wanted a dynasty.
His bold forecast created the raised eyebrows of skepticism from the assembled media. After all, coaches — especially those on their first day on the job — do not focus on such gaudy achievements.
Twenty-four years later, with Blackmon’s announcement Tuesday that he will retire at the end of the season, the Gamecocks have won some national titles. Although the championships have not come in golf — yet — the positive attitude he brought worked wonders and his list of achievements requires no embroidery.
“I’m 68, and it’s finally time for a change,” he said Tuesday. “Last spring, coming back from the (NCAA) regional tournament in San Francisco, I realized that after 38 years, ‘I can’t keep doing this.’ I still love coaching, but this 68-year-old body needs to change gears.”
“This” at Carolina included heading the men’s program for 12 years before turning the reins over to Bill McDonald. His teams annually made the NCAA Tournament and became a fixture in national polls.
“This” included hiring women’s coach Kalen Anderson, whom he has seen develop into what he calls “the best coach in the country.”
“This” includes fund-raising in the lean budget years that led to the teams’ facility and clubhouse at the old University Club (now Cobblestone Park) and Par Tee Golf Center. Remember Spurrier Wines? Proceeds from that Blackmon-inspired program financed the furnishings for the clubhouse.
“This” list is endless with his type-A personality always in high gear.
At Carolina, he has been head men’s golf coach, director of golf development and facilities and, for the past decade, associate head women’s golf coach. Prior to coming to Columbia, he spent 12 years at Georgia Tech, turning a moribund golf program into one of the nation’s finest.
Along the way, he bolstered the junior program in Atlanta from almost nothing to 1,200 youngsters and 50 events in two years and somehow found time to coach the junior world cup team.
“Tech paid me $17,000 a year (to start); we couldn’t live on that and I had to do something else,” he said with a laugh.
Blackmon no doubt would have found “something else” to do in any event. He painted the teams’ clubhouse on occasion and caddied for some of his former college players on professional mini-tours. Under his instruction, David Duval became the No. 1 player in the world. More recently, he helped Mi Hyang Lee climb to prominence on the LPGA Tour.
“I know what we do works,” he said. “The game has changed through the years. The men’s game has gone from finesse to power. On the women’s side, what I used to teach men now works for women, and women are hitting the ball longer and longer.”
Blackmon got started on the road from Georgia Tech to USC with a call from Bobby Foster, then the Gamecocks’ associate athletic director. “He asked me, ‘Did you ever think about leaving Georgia Tech?’ ” Blackmon remembered.
With mutual interest, Blackmon came to Columbia for an interview and met with a group that included athletics director Mike McGee, head football coach Brad Scott and advisor Art Baker.
“Brad leaned over to me and said, ‘Tell me what you’re all about,’ ” Blackmon said. “I told him, ‘If I get this job, I’m going to make this a golf school. What do you think of that?’ He said, ‘I like it, I like it.’ ”
Carolina fans should like what Blackmon brought to the university. He has earned a bundle of national honors and induction into multiple halls of fame. His fingerprints are everywhere.
“It’s been fun,” he said. “The last 10 years with the girls have been delightful. To see the men’s and women’s programs grow like they have is gratifying.”
Count on this: his next step will be full speed ahead.