When Adam became a Rebel
Adam Scott’s time as a college golfer at UNLV was brief but essential to his development as an elite player
October 31, 2017
By Ben Everill, PGATOUR.COM
- October 31, 2017
Inside the PGA TOUR
All access with Adam Scott in Korea
The thing that convinced Adam Scott to leave his native Australia in the fall of 1998 and attend school 8,400 miles away in Las Vegas wasn’t the twinkling lights that stayed on all night on the Strip.
Nor was it the “What happens here, stays here” mentality, the famous tourism slogan celebrating its Sin City reputation. Nor was it the casinos – Scott, then 18, would be leaving a country where he was old enough to gamble and drink, to one where he wouldn’t be.
Yes, part of the appeal was the University of Nevada-Las Vegas’s reputation as a golf school, especially with the Rebels coming off a national championship season. But even that wasn’t the primary attraction.
So what exactly did lure him to a city he had never visited?
It was the school’s brochure.
“I literally picked the one with the best‑looking prospectus, and that was UNLV. They had a really beautiful glossy magazine about their golf program,” Scott says with a laugh as he reminisces.
“I didn't visit or anything, so I didn't really know. I just thought, wow, they've got the nicest magazine, it looks really good, and hey, they were also the No. 1 ranked team in the country at the time I was looking, so things seemed to be stacking up pretty nicely.”
While Las Vegas gobbles up and spits out thousands of people every year, Scott’s brief time in the city as a teenager as part of UNLV’s golf team (1999-2000) is a critical building block in the 13-time PGA TOUR winner’s career.
His stay lasted just a little over a year, he was never individually victorious in a college event, but the Australian native most certainly figured out how to win. In other words, unlike most people who visit the city’s 104 casinos, he found success in Las Vegas.I literally picked the one with the best‑looking prospectus, and that was UNLV.
He got plenty out of a city that often takes away, and walked out while on top. And he loves UNLV for it. Thankfully, they love him back.
This is not to glorify leaving higher education before claiming a degree – although for Scott, it was soon obvious he should run early, as his development demanded it.
But despite being touted as one of the best junior golfers in the world, perhaps arguably the best, Scott arrived in Las Vegas a long way from being a future winner of THE PLAYERS Championship and the Masters.
He needed grooming.
AN UNUSUAL PATH
While it is quite customary to see young American players of such distinction flood into the college golf scene, in Scott’s homeland there is no equivalent college sports system.
Big sports in Australia such as cricket, Australian Rules Football and Rugby League are littered with teenagers in the elite teams. If you’re good enough, you’re old enough, and you go in against the men.
Baptism of fire so to speak.
Most young Aussie golfers back then stayed in the local systems and tours, or tried to go straight to Europe or Asia and cut their teeth there.
Going to the USA for college was for those young players who were good … but not great. It was a way to get an American degree for free and see how the golf skills evolved in the process.
Most budding Australian golfers still bypass the college option. The likes of Jason Day, Curtis Luck and Ryan Ruffels never set foot on an American campus. These days the paths include the Web.com Tour or the Mackenzie Tour-PGA TOUR Canada, PGA TOUR China or PGA TOUR Latinoamerica.
But Scott, along with his dad Phil, saw the value of the American college system. Even if that was to be in the kind of “one and done” fashion you commonly see from basketball stars.
He wanted to make it on the PGA TOUR one day, so where better than to get used to the culture but the country itself.
“There's a period between when you finish high school when you're 17 and potentially a good player to when you're naturally ready to play professional golf, and of course that's different for everybody,” Scott explains.
“I could shoot good scores as a 17-year-old, but could I do it 25 weeks a year in an unlimited, wide‑open field? The short answer was no … I wasn’t ready.
“It's a big maturity time for a bloke, too, developing physically and mentally, and at that point you're still growing. A lot of things are uncertain … so what's the best way to kind of nurture that?
“Even though golf is golf, it is different in the USA, so getting comfortable with the culture, the golf courses, the style of golf, all of that kind of stuff was important.”
LOW-KEY SALES PITCH
When word started to get around in 1998 that Scott was interested in playing college golf in America, the recruiting began.
But of course, when you’re based in Australia, it’s not like you can go visit prospective schools easily. Scott would have to be courted when he was stateside for the big junior tournaments.
Dwaine Knight was the coach at UNLV at the time and still is to this day. He remembers how a young Scott broke a course record in qualifying for the U.S. Junior in California and quickly became someone to watch.
He then recalls seeing Scott at the junior world championships at Torrey Pines. With him that day was Jay Brunza – the psychologist who had been such a huge part of Tiger Woods’ journey through the junior system as his caddie and confidant.
“Jay was working with our team, so he and I walked out and followed Adam at Torrey Pines and I'll never forget we went out to 13, the par‑5, and Jay took one look at Adam's swing, and he said, ‘Man, that reminds me a lot of Tiger Woods,’” Knight says.
“From that moment on, we were really smitten with him, not only as a player but just as a person. He was kind of low key but just a quality young man, and his dad was designing golf courses all over Asia and stuff at that time. We really liked his family.
“So we tried to get him interested in coming to UNLV.”
Back then UNLV had a hot team led by future PGA TOUR player Charley Hoffman. They would be national champions in the spring of 1998 – a fact most people feel was the clincher for Scott to commit to become a Rebel for the next season.
While Scott says the school’s recent success helped, his teenage self was actually sold by those superior promotional materials.
His gut had him following the magazine, but Knight – currently in his 31st season as UNLV’s golf coach - sealed the deal with his understated personality.
It is a trait Scott has built his own persona and career on. The 2013 Masters winner has always been a class act and lets his golf do the talking for him.
Some other colleges came at the prodigy hard with over-confidence, bravado and brashness. Others almost begged for him to join their set up.
“That was more off-putting than helpful if I think back about it,” Scott admits.
“Dwaine had a much quieter nature about him, and that probably appealed to me. You could kind of get the feeling that although he may have really wanted me to go there, he was not desperate. He was just calm and confident and kind of reassuring that he had a good program, that it was a good environment to go into.”
And so Scott signed his letter of intent.(Photo credit: UNLV)
'A DIFFERENT SPECIMEN'
Believe it or not, Scott wasn’t always the heartthrob he turned into when he hit the pro ranks of golf.
There were no high-end fashion brands lined up for his services.
He wasn’t fronting timepiece ads.
He certainly wasn’t in the crosshairs of any Hollywood starlets.
When he headed to UNLV … well, let’s let former teammate Hoffman describe it.
“He was a different specimen than he is now,” Hoffman smiles.
“He had a lot of growing to do on his body side. He was this skinny little kid that had knee problems and could barely walk. It's definitely a different human being now than he ever was in college.”
Scott says he was an 18-year-old that looked 12. While there might have been initial concern the temptations of the city could corrupt him, there was no way he could pass as 21, the legal age in America.
“I wasn’t trying but even if I wanted to I wasn’t getting a seat at a casino table anywhere – no chance,” he laughs.
And to top that off, Scott was not the epitome of cool that he quickly became. He wasn’t hitting up sorority parties and using his Australian accent to his advantage. He wasn’t really venturing far from his golf team buddies. It was up to Hoffman to “adopt” him, drive him around town, and show him the ropes.
“Everyone in college golf carried their own bag in those days. Everyone. But Scotty took a pull cart. He certainly stood out because of that,” Hoffman chuckles when recalling Scott’s far from cool style.
To be fair, pull carts have always been common in Australia. But it also helped Scott deal with the dodgy knees Hoffman referenced.
Scott loves Australian Rules Football but quite frankly, he never had the knees to dream of playing the game at a high level.
In fact, he might have drowned in shallow water in Hawaii if it wasn’t for Hoffman and his other teammates.
In the Aloha State for a tournament, Scott was wading in the ocean when a small wave felled him.
“Literally a knee‑high wave took his knee out,” Hoffman recalls. “He dislocated his knee, and we all thought he got bit by a shark or a sting ray or something. He went down.”
“I was basically drowning in like a foot or two of water, and Hoff and one of the other players had to carry me up onto the beach, and get the knee back in place,” he adds.Everyone in college golf carried their own bag in those days. Everyone. But Scotty took a pull cart. He certainly stood out because of that.
While Hoffman loves reminding Scott of his early frailties, he’s quick to point out that a brave Scott iced the knee the next few days but still got out and played the tournament. He wasn’t about to let his new mates down.
“I think he shot 67 or 65 on the last day to help us win the tournament,” Knight remembers.
“It was pretty amazing.”
These team wins were essentially the highlight of Scott’s on-course time at UNLV. In his freshman year, his best individual finish was a T4, and his scoring average a relatively uninspiring 74.5 from 10 tournaments.
But he was improving as the year went on, and his team-high 11th at the NCAA Championships helped him to All-American honors.
When he returned as a sophomore, he had clearly taken things to another level over the break and averaged 71.08 from his four tournaments before leaving school behind.
“People ask me all the time, who was the most impressive player I’ve coached, and I've had some obviously win the national championships individually, but the most impressive player for me, just pure talent-wise, was Adam Scott,” Knight says despite overseeing the likes of Hoffman, Chad Campbell and an incredible amateur career from Ryan Moore.
“When I first saw Scott play down at Torrey ... I just thought he had it, whatever that ‘it’ is, he had it, and he of course went on and accomplished so much. And I still think he has more in him.
“Even though he had a brief time here, he was a significant player for us.”(Photo credit: UNLV)
BRIDGING THE GAP
While the on-course numbers might not have been showing the maturity of Scott in earnest, UNLV was certainly filling up the experience meter.
The team, as defending national champions, was invited to a lot of big events and Knight was providing a very TOUR-like environment.
“The whole time was an incredible experience, and what Dwaine set up there in Las Vegas gave me a glimpse of what TOUR life would become because he organized boosters to donate their private jets to take us to tournaments in college,” Scott says.
“I mean, it was ridiculous. Shadow Creek was our home course and we had the run of the town's golf basically. We could call up any golf course in Las Vegas and go and play and we were welcomed out there as a team. We had the best time playing the best tracks. It was great.”
Scott also got to tag along to a White House visit for the championship team where he met President Bill Clinton and enjoyed a game with the leader of the free world while still a teen.
“I saw President Clinton the other week at the  Presidents Cup, and he still remembers I played golf with him at the White House and in college,” Scott says.
“It was an incredible experience.”
Of course, Scott had also met and begun to work with Vegas resident Butch Harmon, the man who coached Tiger Woods during his early career dominance.
Seeing close hand what Woods was doing inspired Scott to make his move. And he was frankly over the academic demands college brings.
He wanted to be working as hard and often as Woods, not hitting study hall or the library.
“I was on a mission to become the best golfer in the world, and school wasn't really on the radar at that point,” Scott says of his decision to leave UNLV early in his second year.
“But they had played a really good and important role and I have to give them a lot of credit because it was the adversity time in my life where as a 17-, 18-year-old, I had stepped out of being the biggest fish in the pond to a no one in another country, not knowing what's going on and being very uncomfortable.
“Whether it was with golf or just daily life living on campus, it toughened me up a bit, and Dwaine and the other guys, Charley Hoffman, they all did. It was a good learning time for me, and that was exactly what it was meant to be.”
Of course, Knight and the team were sad to see Scott go, but they knew he was a talent that would be hard to hold back.
Hoffman was unhappy to see what he called “easy money” go from the card games the team would play on the road or in the team room.
Scott laughs off the teasing that he turned pro to make his own money after losing plenty of his dad’s cash to Hoffman at cards.
Basically, it was just time.
“We are so proud he was here. He told me one thing that was really interesting … he said, even though we speak the same language, one of the things he learned most about his time here was the cultural differences between our country and Australia, and that really helped him bridge that gap,” Knight says.
“Between that and the relationships he made here with teammates and Butch, relationships he’s had through his life, and his ongoing relationship with us, it’s been great.”
And it proved an astute decision. In eight starts as a pro on the European Tour in 2000, Scott had four top 12 finishes (he’d had two top-6 efforts while still an amateur) to earn a full card for 2001.
A year later, he was 15th on the European Tour money list and won an event on the Southern African Tour.
In 2002, when he would have been a senior at UNLV, he won twice in Europe.
By 2003, he was splitting time in Europe and the PGA TOUR, winning on both.
And in 2004 he became the youngest winner of THE PLAYERS, a record that stood until Si Woo Kim broke it last season.
As it stands now, Adam Scott has 13 wins on the PGA TOUR, five European Tour wins, three in Asia, four in Australia and one in South Africa. He has a further unofficial (rain shortened) TOUR win and was part of a World Cup winning partnership with Day in 2013.
His win at Augusta National the same year has etched him in Australian folklore, as the first and only player from down under to don the green jacket.
Clearly Adam Scott left Las Vegas a winner. How many of us can truly claim that?