Oklahoma State University athletic director Mike Holder is stepping down from his position Thursday, ending an influential 16-year tenure at the helm of the men’s and women’s programs at the school.
Changes at that position typically carry little importance to the golf world at large, but Holder is a rare exception. Before serving as AD, he spent 32 years coaching the men’s golf team for the Cowboys and transformed the program into collegiate royalty.
His teams won eight national championships and 25 conference titles in Stillwater, Oklahoma, while 38 first-team All-Americans and three Ben Hogan Award winners excelled there. It’s difficult to narrow to a short list the best players he coached, but Scott Verplank, Bob Tway, Hunter Mahan and Charles Howell III come to mind.
Holder’s fundraising ability, a key to his eventually becoming the director of athletics, led to the creation of Karsten Creek Golf Course in 1994 and gave Oklahoma State one of the top public courses in the country. When you walk into the clubhouse, the halls are lined with the overwhelming evidence that Holder has never stopped working to make his alma mater into an undeniable force.
Even now, when the 72-year-old is congratulated on his retirement, he envisions a golf course.
Not playing on one. Working on one.
“Oh, I’m not gonna retire,” Holder told Global Golf Post during an hour-long sit down. “The thing is, I don’t play golf and I don’t have anything else to do, so I might as well get to work. I could mow greens at Karsten Creek, I could rake bunkers.”
Holder is very much not joking about joining the maintenance staff. And it would not come as a surprise to anyone who knows him. The obsession started when Holder, a self-described “chubby seventh grader” living just outside of Tulsa in Sapulpa, Oklahoma, was playing both offensive and defensive line for his junior high school’s football team. The team required that all of its players try out for a spring sport to stay in shape, and there were only two options available – track and field or golf.
Being on the heavier side, Holder didn’t think he could compete as a runner. He also remembered that his father had a set of golf clubs in the garage that went unused.
After getting a few tips from his dad – keep your left arm straight, use an overlap grip – Holder tried out the next day without ever having hit a golf ball in his life. His first swing was a wicked slice that hit a telephone pole wire and miraculously bounced back into the fairway. He shot 50 for nine holes.
“Well I probably didn’t shoot 50, but at least that’s the way I remember it,” Holder said.
From that point, Holder never let go of the game. Jack Higgins, a noted instructor at Meadowbrook Country Club in Tulsa, started teaching him until Holder’s dad was transferred to Ardmore, Oklahoma, where finding a spot to play became a more difficult task. Undaunted, Holder got a job picking the range at Dornick Hills Golf and Country Club – the first course designed and built by architect Perry Maxwell – so he could hit as many balls as possible. Eventually his parents joined the club and Holder played more golf, developing into a good enough player to compete in college.
Holder originally wanted to play for Oklahoma, the archrival to Oklahoma State. There was a good player in Ardmore named Bruce Wilkinson, who played for the Sooners, and he told the school’s golf coach about Holder. When Holder went to Norman, he played nine holes with the golf coach, whose main job was being the assistant basketball coach. An offer for a partial scholarship followed.
“Once you’re a Cowboy, you’re a Cowboy for life."
Ready to go to OU, Holder only changed his mind when the Dornick Hills head pro, an Oklahoma State alum, implored him to play nine holes with then-OSU golf coach Labron Harris.
Harris told Holder he couldn’t offer him a scholarship and wasn’t sure he would make the team as a walk-on. Still, Holder came away so impressed with Oklahoma State that he was willing to turn down the scholarship offer from Oklahoma.
“I didn’t see any trophies in Norman and I didn’t know you could make All-American in golf until I got to Stillwater,” he said. “I thought to myself, ‘They are a little more serious about this here.’ ”
Holder is brutally honest and modest about his playing career, but he was a third-team All-American his last two years and was a medalist at the 1970 Big Eight Conference Championship. His memories are more centered around his failures than his accomplishments.
“It’s more about what could have been,” Holder said. “There’s a great quote by Sigmund Freud that goes ‘If youth knew; if age could.’ And that pretty much sums up my life. I figured out a few years into being a coach that everything you shouldn’t do as a player, everything you shouldn’t think as a player, is what I did as a player.”
If being a player didn’t go according to plan, his career as a coach more than made up for it.
The Vietnam War had a lot to do with Holder’s transition to being a coach in the first place. He still remembers his draft lottery number being 147. The year before, when Holder was in school and couldn’t be selected, that number was within the range of people called to fight. There was a chance he could avoid selection by going to graduate school, but Holder had not kept up his grades and didn’t like his odds of getting accepted. After a long discussion with a professor in the business school, Holder found a way into the MBA program and would get his degree in 1973.
As Holder was finishing graduate school, Harris decided to retire and asked his former pupil if he would like to apply for the coaching job.
“I told him, ‘Oh, I’m not interested in coaching,’ ” Holder remembered. “And he said, ‘Well, do you have any other options?’ And I said, ‘Well, not really.’ ”
When Holder applied and was offered the job as a 23-year-old straight out of college, he didn’t understand why – until he was told the job only paid $6,500 a year. To supplement his income, Holder taught in the college of business and earned an extra $2,400.
“I thought, I’ll do this a year, practice every day like coach Harris did and if I don’t like coaching much, I’ll try to get my card and play the PGA Tour,” Holder said. “One year led to two and the next you know, I had done it for 32 years.”
Early in his coaching career, Holder had grand ideas to improve upon Harris’ philosophy. Instead of a more laissez-faire approach, Holder wanted players to qualify for tournaments on specific days, with a scorecard in hand, and then to come to practice at a predetermined time.
The older he got, the more he reverted back to the way Harris did things. Well, not everything. In the mid-1980s, Holder’s wife, Robbie, started doing workouts to video and transformed her body, which was enough to convince Holder that his teams should be working more on getting physically stronger. They started running early in the morning. Then they started lifting weights.
“None of the players liked it,” Holder said. “They always pointed to, ‘Well no one lifts weights,’ and my reply was, ‘Well how do they know?’ They had said the same thing in basketball and eventually everyone was lifting weights. It felt like a natural evolution that it pays to be strong.”
The players may not have liked it, but Holder usually ran right alongside them. And it’s difficult to argue with the results.
When asked what he loved most about coaching, Holder gives his most passionate response, one every college coach should hear.
“Every one of those youngsters is you, when you were that age,” Holder said. “They have their whole life ahead of them ‒ all their hopes, dreams and aspirations. You can be a part of them understanding how good they can be. Most youngsters don’t understand what kind of potential they have. There’s nothing better in life than that. Coaching golf at Oklahoma State is the best job in college athletics, period.”
That feeling Holder had coaching his players has led to one of the great family atmospheres in college golf. There may only be five players in the lineup when the Cowboys play in an NCAA Championship, but all of the former players are there in spirit. Few programs in the country have an alumni base that stays so involved with the current team.
“Once you’re a Cowboy, you’re a Cowboy for life,” Holder said.
Holder would have continued coaching well beyond 2005 when he unexpectedly got into the running to become the school’s director of athletics. The late T. Boone Pickens – a business magnate who greatly supported the university and has his name on the school’s football stadium – was a close friend of Holder’s. The two agreed that the school needed to take football more seriously.
“We had an embarrassment of a football stadium,” Holder said. “There was no commitment to football … we needed to make a financial commitment to see if we could be any good. (Pickens) was willing to donate the money to the program but he wanted someone as AD he could trust and unfortunately we were good friends.
“I told him no for months, but eventually I thought it was worth a try to be a team player and see if we could help the football program.”
Much like Holder’s golf career, his tenure as an AD didn’t have many weaknesses. The football stadium is now a horseshoe with 60,000 seats, the team has never had a losing season under his watch and an Athletics Village, full of state-of-the-art facilities for every sport, has been completed.
Holder will always be a central figure in the school’s history. But no matter what he has accomplished outside of golf, the game will always stand alone in meaning.
“At the end of the day, I’m still a golf coach pigeon-holed into an AD job,” Holder joked.
If that’s still the case, you’ll know where to find him – out at Karsten Creek, probably mowing greens and raking bunkers.
Top: Coach Mike Holder with then Oklahoma State junior Hunter Mahan at 2003 NCAA Championships