Fore!

Tony Alfieri

Greg Osbourne, Glendale College’s men’s golf coach, gets a phone call from the coach at California Lutheran University. It’s about Ryan Richardson, one of Osborne’s standout players and a potential recruit for his colleague’s program. But there is more on the line than that.

It’s almost as if Glendale’s entire season has culminated in this call. Ringing in Osbourne’s hand is the answer to whether his team’s first year was worth the uphill struggle.

Osbourne, 50, knows Richardson, 22, can compete at any number of schools. That’s how he trained him. But beyond that Osbourne is determined to solidify his legacy as a “stepping-stone” for players to get to bigger opportunities.

His part-time assistant coach, actor James Caan, understands his passion. More popular as Sonny Corleone in “The Godfather” and, more recently, Will Farrrell’s father in “Elf,” Caan abandoned show business for six years to coach his son in sports.

“People said, ‘Don’t you miss the creative side?'” Caan says. “And I said, ‘Listen, there’s nothing more creative than taking a kid who thinks he can’t do something and proving to him that he can do it. Sometimes you change a kid’s life.”

Caan became Osbourne’s pupil and chum in the ’90s after Osbourne commented that Caan had “the worst swing I’ve ever seen.” Admittedly, Caan follows a do-as-I-say-not-as-I-do approach to golf, but after years of playing together he and Osbourne share a discerning eye.

“[Caan’s] knowledge is [Osbourne’s] knowledge,” Richardson says. “When we’re out there on the range it’s like there’s two
of Osbourne.”

Richardson was a baseball player at San Francisco State when he read about Caan joining the Glendale team. With a career as a slugger looking unlikely, Richardson left the batter’s box for the teeing green. He cites Caan’s involvement as a factor in choosing Glendale. Plus, Richardson saw the chance to make an immediate impact in a program that had been dormant for 23 years.
Budget cutbacks in the ’80s cost Glendale its original golf team, but it was brought back from the dead when alumni Mike Haney challenged the college during his GCC Athletic Hall of Fame induction in 2006. “We need golf back,” he said.

While funds were raised the school had to look no farther than an old roster to find a pro-caliber instructor to fill the coaching position: Osbourne was a football player and MVP of the golf team at Glendale from ’76 through ’77.

Osbourne moved down from Washington to take the position. At the time, his main resources for recruits, high schools, were already out for the summer. He scrambled to assemble a team, sometimes playing phone tag with prospects for weeks, and even recruited childhood friend Marc McClure – Jimmy Olsen in “Superman,” also the star of “Smallville” – to round out the squad.

“It was a ‘Bad News Bears’ scene,” says McClure. “A bunch of guys signed up for advanced golf, and the next thing they know they’re on the golf team. No one even knew there was a team. One guy learned golf by reading a book. Another guy enrolled in the wrong Glendale College [the one in Arizona]. It was a great mixture.”

To Osbourne, inexperience was irrelevant.
“I told the guys,” he says, “don’t look at ourselves as a first-year team. Look at ourselves as a successful, championship team and believe it.”

The team had to look no further than their head coach for a role model. Osbourne had so personified the essence of a golfer that Titleist hired him to promote its golf balls in advertisements during the ’80s and ’90s.
Richardson credits Osbourne with shaping his awkward baseball hitter’s swat into a structured and developed golf swing. “If it wasn’t for [Coach Osbourne],” he says, “I don’t know what I’d be doing.”

Another advantage was the school’s close relationship with Oakmont Country Club. While other teams scrounged for time on private courses, Glendale had three days a week to indulge in the legendary beauty and rigor of Oakmont’s sprawling grounds.

Combined with DeBell Golf Course in Burbank, where Osbourne is PGA Head Professional, the team had seven days a week access to golf, a privilege McClure describes as “absolutely unheard of.”

McClure reveled in the stares from Oakmont club members as he carried his GCC golf bag during practice. “I could tell they were jealous,” he says.

The season’s first tournament came at the Spring Valley Lake Country Club in Victorville (the scheduled opener in Ventura was rained out) where Glendale looked every bit an established program. Coaches complimented the players on their attitudes and appearance. Many marveled at how quickly the program came together. Osbourne himself was overwhelmed with pride seeing his players with the “GC” emblazoned on their uniforms.

But professionalism wasn’t enough to overcome the competition of an experienced league more familiar with the course.
Ryan Richardson faltered among his opponents. “I felt like a ninth grader going into high school,” he says. “We were like a virgin to the whole league. We didn’t know what to expect.”

Or as Osbourne simply states, “It was a rude awakening.”

A near last-place finish didn’t stop them from staging an extravaganza for their home tournament weeks later. Family, faculty, and foes were treated to a taste of Oakmont’s elegance and barbecued Angus beef sandwiches. The compliments abounded again, and not only from the opposition. The members of the council responsible for raising the funds and reviving the team were deeply impressed by what their efforts
had wrought.

Which made a mid-season slump all the more agonizing.

Maybe it was the strain from consistently finishing at the bottom. Maybe inexperience was catching up to enthusiasm. Whatever the reason, the team had become “stale” and too “comfortable.” The pride that was the basis of the program was buried in the difference between the right to play and the privilege.

A team privacy code prohibits divulging the exact events that led to the spiral of discontent, but in a meeting that player Dave Song can only describe as “emotional” Osbourne clearly voiced what was at stake.
“He put his foot down,” Song says. “He said, ‘Why are we wearing these hats with GC written on them? Why are we wearing these shirts? Why did the council donate money? We’re either going to end it right now or respect the program for what it is.'”
Osbourne insists, “they got it after that.”

Not only did the meeting instill pride and improve play, but it also created a chemistry that extended beyond the course.
McClure remembers the day his daughter crashed a qualifying tournament. In desperate need of fatherly support, she hopped the fence, still dressed in her school uniform, and ran crying to the 11th hole where McClure was composing a shot. He reassured his daughter, and his three teammates kept her spirits up while McClure finished the hole. She shared a hug with all of them afterward.

“It was a priceless moment,” McClure says.
Osbourne is proud of the solidarity spawned by the turbulent season.

“I felt a lot of schools didn’t have the camaraderie we had,” he says. “Knowing that they are a part of an institution, which is something I felt when I played here, is part of the team concept. The fact that you’re going to compete and represent something, not just playing for yourself.”

Song compares each player to a piece of a puzzle. As the final tournament arrived, the puzzle was a cohesive picture of spirit and technique. The team was shooting 10 strokes better as a whole, and the praises once focused on the intangibles now focused on their game.

Ryan Richardson recalls being informed that his tight playing looked like it was sending him to the finals. It put the whole season in perspective.

“I felt inspired,” he says. “I went into second round looking back on our first tournament ever. I felt like a senior instead of a freshman. I knew what I was doing and I was in the right place to go to the finals.”

The team fell short of a championship, but cemented itself as a model of attitude and enthusiasm, and to everyone’s relief, a competitive force on the rise.

McClure vows to return next year to lend his “older guy’s point of view” to his teammates. He predicts his game will improve since his daughter will be in college instead of hopping fences.

Caan plans to spend more time working with the team, too. He may make it full-time “if they can pay me enough to support four wives and five kids,” he says. “Instead of the six bucks Greg pays me, maybe twelve bucks.”
New recruits have committed to Glendale next year and all of this year’s players will return. All, that is, but one.

When Osbourne concludes his phone call it’s hard to tell if he is more excited to get the news or give it. He calls Richardson and tells him he has been recruited to golf at California Lutheran University next fall. (If Richardson accepts, it would coincide with Osbourne’s induction into CLU’s Athletic Hall of Fame.)

“There can’t a better feeling,” Osbourne says, “than talking to a coach and referring someone like Ryan to another program. When he looks back he will represent
this school.”

The old saying is shared that an individual’s achievements are only as good as the team’s achievement. Richardson’s success is success for the entire program.