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Yale University's Golf Coach

Robert Lewis Scottish bulldog

Photo: Robert Lewis

It's 8:30 A.M. on the first Saturday of April, and the Yale men's golf team gathers in the clubhouse of the university's rugged old course in the wooded hills of New Haven. Thanks to a bone-chilling cold snap, the temperature outside hovers a few notches above freezing. A forty-five-minute frost delay has pushed back the start of the annual Yale Spring Opener, a two-day, thirty-six-hole war of attrition with a field of nearly 120 players from nineteen schools, including Harvard, Cornell, Dartmouth and Brown.

All of which suits Dave Paterson, Yale's seventy-one-year-old coach, just fine. "The greens are a little fast, a little bare, and they're running quite nicely," he says in a faded but unmistakable Scottish brogue. Nicely, of course, is a relative term: The bumpy greens are playable only in that they have been even worse all week.

Ruddy-faced, bespectacled and dressed in a tweed sport coat and blue sweater, Paterson sits by a bay window, glancing out at the landscape of muted greens and browns. "The boys," as he calls them, sprawl on a sofa and armchairs beside him, jiggling their legs and watching the Golf Channel to pass the time.

Now in his final season as Yale's head coach, Paterson has developed a reputation for toughness. And with good reason: Over the years he's run this tournament and another Yale event in the fall with an intensity approaching military zeal, sternly enforcing local rules and refusing to halt play even in the harshest weather. Nearly all of Paterson's players have stories of competing through steady rain or accumulating snow on the Yale course—a bearish layout of blind shots and deep bunkers that's intimidating even in perfect conditions. "I hit a putt and the ball was actually gathering snow as it got to the hole," recalls Ed Brockner, class of 2001. "I said, 'Coach, we've got to stop this.' He said, 'Go play. Let me worry about it.'"

The annals of Scottish golf are full of hardened characters, but Dave Paterson deserves his own entry. The son of a club pro and greenskeeper whom he describes as a "tough, gnarly old man," Paterson grew up on the moors north of Glasgow. He stood on ration lines in postwar Britain. He served in the Royal Air Force. In thirty-one years at Yale, he's mentored his players but never coddled them. Underclassmen must earn his respect. He's taught golf as a game of failure, emphasizing that the person with the least amount of failure wins.

But there has always been more to Paterson's coaching than pure Calvinism. An assistant pro at Turnberry and a part-time tour player in his youth, he positively loves the game and can slip into reverie talking about the evolution of the putting stroke, say, or the inside-out swing of Bobby Locke. He has a sense of humor that opposing players and coaches rarely see. And his sternness comes with a higher purpose: to instill in the privileged young men he coaches a heightened sense of resolve. Few of his graduates have gone on to careers as pro golfers, but countless have become leaders in business, academics and law (see page 132). Their coach, they say, had something to do with it.

"Pretty much anybody who's played for him would say this: He's really like a second father," says Brockner, the director of development for the First Tee of Metropolitan New York and a course-design consultant. Most of Paterson's teachings, he adds, went way beyond golf. "He taught us that you've always got to just keep grinding—nothing's ever going to be given to you."

Surprising as it might sound, in many senses that accurately describes Ivy League golf. Yale may be blessed with its 1926 Charles Blair Macdonald course (see page 133), and Harvard may practice at The Country Club. Princeton, Dartmouth and Cornell have courses on their campuses, and Columbia, Brown and the University of Pennsylvania enjoy access to fine clubs. But golf in the Sunbelt this is not. The season typically lasts just six weeks in the fall and another six in the spring—half the length of the schedules at warm-weather powerhouses such as Wake Forest and Arizona State. Shirt-sleeve weather is almost unheard of; more often players swing through layers of clothing and slog under umbrellas. "Just about everything is working against your favor: the course, the conditions, the time of year, midterms, whatever it is," explains Colin Sheehan, who played for Yale in the mid-1990s. "It's probably the least favorable environment to ever have to post a score for eighteen holes."


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