BILLINGS — Golf coaches Jim O’Neil of Laurel and Mark Hutchinson of Billings Central were looking to shake things up a bit.
So this season their respective boys golf teams will have an interesting season-opener on Wednesday.
The Locos and Rams will square off in the rare high school dual at Fairmont Hot Springs, an event that will see the boys teams tangle in a match-play format. (Because Billings Central doesn’t have a large enough roster on the girls team, the teams will play stroke play for them.)
It was just a couple years ago that the Montana High School Association approved dual-play for high school golf. Most teams prefer to spend their time at invitational events, but O’Neil and Hutchinson thought match play would provide a unique challenge for their players.
“Just kind of a fun way to start the season was the idea,” said O’Neil, whose boys team is the defending two-time Class A state champion while the girls are also defending champs. “I think we’re going to be good, I think Central is going to be good, so I think Central is a perfect match for us in that match play.”
Hutchinson noted that match play is popular at the amateur and professional levels, so it's good exposure for the high school players to experience the format. In match play, teams/players count the number of holes won rather than going by number of strokes taken for the round.
“It’s a different kind of golf,” said Hutchinson, who expects to have a deep boys team even if it might not feature a superstar player. “You can be more aggressive because if you blow one out of bounds, it’s just one hole, it’s not eight shots.
“I think it could get kind of intense, because I know my kids want to show something to those Laurel kids. It’ll be really pressure-packed.”
Not to worry, though. Both O’Neil and Hutchinson said the intensity will be left on the course. Players from both teams regularly golf with one another in the summer and are good friends, Hutchinson said. And the teams will travel to Fairmont on the same bus, necessitating tranquility.
“Now, you put the two football teams on the same bus there’s probably going to be trouble,” Hutchinson joked.
O’Neil had his own quip: “It’s still Laurel-Central and we still want to beat each other’s brains out. But at the end of the day we’re going to be able to get on the same bus.”
The next day, the teams will play the Old Works Challenge at the Anaconda course, which will add western powers Hamilton and Whitefish to the mix in a four-school stroke play event.
“I think this is really going to be a fun thing for the kids. It could be a couple good days for the parents, too, because now they can get out on the course to watch.”
Ah, yes, about that part. The MHSA allowed parents and fans to walk the course with the players during postseason play last season. This season, galleries will be allowed on the course for the full season.
Neither O’Neil nor Hutchinson are expecting many problems, as long as coaches keep a keen eye out for parents who might be misbehaving.
O’Neil had a simple rule for parents on the course to live by: Be there to support your son or daughter. Don’t coach, don’t criticize, don’t officiate. Just watch.
“If we get off on a good foot and do it right, then the good parents who are educated can help police it,” he said.