SIMPSONVILLE, Ky. -- Golf is a game where strong emotion can often derail a good performance.

Don’t tell that to the Central Oklahoma Bronchos, though.

They might not like it.

Denied a shot last year at the Division II championship they thought could have been theirs by the sudden departure of their coach on the eve of the national tournament, the Bronchos are back this year.

Back, and making a statement.

Fueled by an opening 7-under par 65 from junior Josh Creel (he leads Zack Kempa of Indiana, Pa., by three), Central Oklahoma fired a 9 under 279 to take an impressive six-stroke lead over UNC Pembroke after Tuesday’s first round at the Cardinal Club, a few Bubba Watson tee shots east of Louisville. The men’s golf tournament is one of six championships being contested in and around Louisville this week in the NCAA Division II National Championships Festival.

“These guys have been on a mission,” UCO coach Pat Bates said. “Part of my job has been trying to get out of their way."

DII MEN'S GOLF CHAMPIONSHIP
Day One: Central Oklahoma sits in first
Leaderboard: Team | Individual
Field announced
Championship history

“They’re very disappointed how last year finished. They’re very motivated and ready to play and excited to be here.”

Ranked No. 2 going into last year’s championship tournament in Florence, Ala., the Bronchos were rocked by the unexplained resignation of long-time coach Dax Johnston (he won the 1996 Division II individual title as a UCO player) a week before the tourney began.

The Bronchos made it through the first three rounds of stroke play to become one of eight teams to reach the match play quarterfinals that would decide the team title.

Though Baer Aneshansley smoked his opponent with a 66 to win by eight strokes and Creel won by four, UCO lost its remaining three matches by one, two and three strokes to lose to Central Missouri overall.

It was excruciating for the Bronchos to haven taken the measure of the Mules by a combined eight strokes and still be sent home. It was even worse to think, as Creel still does, that the upheaval surrounding Johnston’s departure took the edge off the UCO players’ games.

“You don’t want to make excuses, but I don’t think we were mentally prepared,” Creel said.

As abruptly as the Bronchos’ championship bid ended, that’s how long the search for Johnston’s replacement was protracted. Bates wasn’t hired until August, two days after the start of UCO’s fall semester.

College coaching was an idea Bates had long toyed with. An All-American at Florida, Bates played professionally on various tours for 17 years, a career that included five victories on the Nationwide Tour.

Bates stopped playing at the end of the 2007 season and settled in as a real estate developer. He liked the work, but with the 2008 recession acting as a brake on the real estate industry, Bates gravitated back to golf.

He had started teaching lessons at Gaillardia Country Club, his home course in Oklahoma City (and now the UCO’s home course as well), when the job opened up.

“I had talked a couple of years ago about wanting to be a college coach,” Bates said, “but it wasn’t where or what I wanted it to be.”

The UCO position turned out to fit like a golf glove. After discussing it with his wife Kristine and his father-in-law Doug Tewell, a long-time PGA touring pro himself, Bates decided to pursue it.

“It’s been great,” he said. “I’ve really enjoyed it.”

Inheriting a strong team helped. UCO won all five of its fall tournaments, and though the spring season hasn’t been as productive, the Bronchos look like they’re peaking. Creel won medalist honors at the South Central/Midwest Regional last week in Jefferson City, Mo., while the team finished a solid third to easily qualify for nationals.

“As a team I think we’re in a great frame of mind,” Creel said. “Everyone’s really excited to get back here because last year was such a disappointment.”

These guys have been on a mission, part of my job has been trying to get out of their way.
-- Central Oklahoma coach Pat Bates

Creel credits Bates’ light touch on the Bronchos’ steering wheel as a major reason for their success. It's a style Bates said he modeled on his coach at Florida, former U.S. Amateur champion Buddy Alexander.

“He’s laid back and jokes with me on the tee, keeps me loose,” Creel said. “It’s awesome. I want to play at the next level, and having a coach who played at the (pro) level is awesome, too.”

Shooting Bates a sly look across the card table in the Cardinal Club grill room, Creel added: “And he can still hack it around a bit from time to time.”

Bates said the players – UCO’s lineup here includes Creel, Aneshansley (he shot 70), Andrew Green (72), Dillon Rust (72) and Derek Franco (75) – have made his job easier.

“These guys love to compete, love to play and love to practice,” Bates said. “I have never had to make them go play. And I’ve played with them a lot this spring, which has been fun.”

Fun times, but this is a serious game the Bronchos are playing here.

And Bates is coach enough to recognize the difference.