Darryl and Michelle Harris: Spreading GSU Globally Through Golf

Donors help spread GSU worldwide through golf
Panther student-athletes represent globalization of the campus and their sport

Like all sports at Georgia State University, the men’s and women’s golf teams rely on donors to help fund their expenses.

When GSU golfers spectate at Augusta National Golf Club this week, their blue GSU caps and apparel will spread the impact of donor support to yet another international stage: the Masters, the first of four annual major championships in the sport.

Golf draws more private donors than any other non-revenue GSU sport. Their support helps the university’s name spread globally – to Australia, the United Kingdom and across Europe and Asia – where student-athletes live and compete.

The international players, in turn, have helped GSU’s program improve and recruit local players in Georgia.

On April 23, the Panther Athletic Club Golf Classic will bring together GSU coaches from many sports, donors and supporters at Berkeley Hills Country Club, where the GSU golfers practice. Proceeds benefit GSU’s 350-plus student-athletes.

The global impact of donor funding is as bold as the blue Panther cover on Joel Sjoholm’s putter and the stickers on his golf bag.

Nicknamed “El Toro,” Sjoholm (pronounced SHO-holm, left, shown in Morocco) advertises GSU throughout professional events on the European Tour, as he climbs the world rankings to reach the Masters tournament one day. His photo on his Twitter feed showed him with a GSU logo.

He leads a contingent of international pros from GSU that includes Steven Tiley (B.A., 2006), Tom Sherreard (B.A., 2010) and Mark Haastrup, who have all competed in the British Open, another major golf championship.

A GSU athletic scholarship attracted Sjoholm, who was born in Chile and adopted by a Swedish family. “I got better as a golfer every year, and help the golf team get better,” he said during his most recent visit to campus. Before leaving GSU in 2008, he was ranked as high as third among collegiate players. “It was a real privilege to attend Georgia State.”

Sjoholm said that GSU athletics taught him to value the support of others. The golf team would paint their bodies and attend basketball games as a way to support their peers who were struggling. “If you want people to support you, you have to support them,” he said.

Other current GSU pro golfers include Tobias Rosendahl (B.A., 2011), Derek Oakey (B.B.A., 2007), Ty Harris (B.B.A., 2005) and Jonathan Fricke (B.S., 2002). In 2008, Dave Womack (B.B.A., 2001) became the first GSU golfer to play in The Masters.

Darryl Harris (B.B.A., 1973) and his wife, Michelle Harris (B.S., 1977), endowed a scholarship for men’s golf, the team he played for during his time at GSU. Some of his competitors, such as Ben Crenshaw, went on to win the Masters.

“Playing with and watching those guys taught me unmistakably that theirs was a different game, I was not going to make a living playing it, and I had better study very hard in my actuarial courses,” said Darryl Harris, who in 2007 retired after 34 years at ING.

“You hear all the clichés about athletics building character and all, but it’s really true. All athletes have to become great time managers to keep up with the course work – the other ‘course’ for us golfers. Georgia State furthered my love for the game and desire to improve. Today, as executive director of the Georgia Senior Golfers Association, I have plenty of opportunities to talk up Georgia State and enjoy doing so. I use a Georgia State golf bag at every tournament, and in one round I always wear a GSU cap and shirt.”

Today, head golf coach Joe Inman – who played in the Masters seven times – encourages the friends he has made on the fairways to become donors to Panther athletics. His goal for the Panther Golf Booster Club is to build his team an indoor practice facility. He recruited among fellow members at Atlanta Country Club who had no previous connection to GSU.

“People are adopting GSU through golf, and we hope that because GSU golf is something they enjoy, they’ll come watch volleyball and other sports,” said Inman.

“We want people on our team. I know what it takes to help our golfers get to the next level, but without the resources, including an indoor practice facility, it will truly be very difficult. The future is bright for GSU golf, and we want you to be a part of it.”

The most significant contribution came from Chip Perry, CEO of Autotrader.com, the title sponsor for GSU’s invitational tournament last fall at GSU’s home course of Berkeley Hills in Duluth.

The tournament boosts the Panthers’ program in several ways. The team is invited to more and better tournaments, including the one at Augusta State earlier this month where all competitors are given one-day passes to the Masters.

“It is wonderful for our players to watch and see what the guys at the top of golf know that they don’t yet,” Inman said. “They are asking themselves, ‘Can I get to the Masters one day?’ and this is one way they start to have answers.”

After this semester’s spring tournaments, “Our players will go home to Australia, Wales, Sweden and Austria and talk about Georgia State and going to the Masters, which is seen all over the world,” said Inman, who will travel to Stockholm this summer to recruit.

The GSU women’s golf team has two alumnae on the Ladies European Tour: Joanna Klatten and Anna Scott (B.A., 2009). The current Panther team includes players from France, Norway, Denmark, England and Colombia, along with three U.S. players, including two locals: Haley Zagoria of Atlanta and Lauren Court of Lawrenceville.

When they played in Florida, donor Tom Bremer (M.B.A., 1975) showed up to cheer them on.

“It’s just wonderful to have people who recognize that we have a fine women’s golf team and want to support us,” said head coach Cathy Mant, a veteran of the LPGA Tour.

“With so many international players, we don’t have that many family members who can follow us in person. When we have a supporter who can come out, like Tom did, it’s exciting for the players to see someone in GSU gear – it feels warm and good.”

A major draw for international student-athletes is the easy accessibility to direct flights home from Atlanta Hartsfield-Jackson Airport. To help families stay in touch, Panther athletics produces a weekly webcast on the team. Inman also communicates with players’ families via Skype.

“Having international players is a benefit,” Darryl Harris said. “Obviously they show GSU’s access to a greater pool of talent, and also indicate that the program has the mission and reach to be the best we can be.”

But he also pointed out the importance of homegrown players on the GSU roster, who include Tyler Gruca of Alpharetta, Davin White of Griffin, Grant and Jared Cagle of Gainesville.

One of the story lines at the Masters is always whether the U.S. players or international players will dominate. The competition makes everyone on the team better.

“I think it’s important to have some Americans on the team as well,” he added. “We all like to feel some local pride, and we sure don’t want to admit we can’t beat the internationals!”

—By Michelle Hiskey; Contact Kim Cretors, (404) 413-34