The Sideline: Pat Goss, the quarter-century Cat

Pat Goss peers over his player as he sizes up a putt. Goss has been the head coach of the Northwestern men’s golf team for 18 seasons.

Daily file photo by Andy Gottesman

Pat Goss peers over his player as he sizes up a putt. Goss has been the head coach of the Northwestern men’s golf team for 18 seasons.

Kevin Casey, Assistant Sports Editor

Welcome to The Sideline, a series of profiles of Northwestern’s coaches where The Daily’s sports staff provides detailed looks into the lives and personalities of all 19 varsity coaches.

Pat Goss doesn’t give the feeling he is very impressed with his career.

Though pictures of his pupils hug one wall and a few of his awards hang framed on the other, the display is not overwhelming. He’s holding back. Goss, Northwestern’s men’s golf coach and director of golf, admits he possesses a few more photos that could more properly decorate the room, he just chooses not to put them up.

Actually, it’s surprising anything is there at all. Several years ago, the walls were barren of such material. When Goss eventually chose to decorate, his main purpose was recruiting much more than self-importance.

Really, he comes across as your textbook fatherly sweetheart.

“He’s so affable,” assistant coach David Inglis said. “He’s such a good guy, a nice guy with a good sense of humor.”

So maybe it’s understandable for this 44-year-old not to trumpet his best stuff. Just don’t underestimate what Goss brings to the table.

Origin story

The game of golf can unmask the power of the physically unspectacular.

Goss is average height, not a great athlete and was once described as a doppleganger for Opie on “The Andy Griffith Show.”

After being raised in Crystal Lake, Ill., he played his first two years of collegiate golf at Marshall University, transferring to NU in 1991. Goss describes himself as a mediocre Division I golfer, a player who could have been a stud at the Division III level but nowhere else.

That didn’t stop then-NUhead coach Jeff Mory from seeing something special in Goss.

“I could tell all the way along, even when he was a player, that he had an amazing passion for the game,” Mory said. “But more so, he always wanted to understand more about the teaching and the learning. He was interested in how everything worked.”

Goss graduated from NU in 1992 with a degree in economics, and that same year, Mory secured minimal funding for an assistant coaching position, a job he entrusted to Goss.

Less than five years later, in February 1997, Mory left to become the head pro at Conway Farms, and Goss was hit with the interim head coaching tag. He was 27 and indistinguishable from the members of his team. In restaurants, Goss’ starters would ask waiters to play a game of the guess the coach, and four of the five players beat Goss almost without fail.

But Goss quickly took advantage of his interim opportunity. His team surged under his leadership with a runner-up finish in his first coaching start and, soon after, the team’s first tournament win in four seasons. Three more wins in a row and Goss’ interim title was promptly lifted. As the head coach, Goss helped his team gain a spot in the NCAA Championships, where NU was the host squad.

Shockingly, the Cats led the tournament for the first two rounds, and were in second place with 18 holes to go before fading back to seventh by the end. The final result, along with the rest of the team’s rapid improvement in previous months, turned heads, and Goss was named Golfweek’s National Coach of the Year.

Goss downplayed his role in this turnaround, offering Mory most of the credit for his award. But today, Mory isn’t having it.

“It’s very kind and I’m glad he says that, but our team was actually struggling quite a lot at that time,” Mory said. “We put a lot of pieces together to do really well, and we had the right talent and the right mix of guys. But without question, the fact that Pat came in and offered a different perspective and a fresh one, allowed a lot of things to gel that were spinning a little bit at the time.”

Building on early success

Goss made sure the 1997 season was not a fluke. Over the next three seasons, three more top-20 finishes in the NCAA Championships would follow, including a third-place effort in 1999.

That year, the Cats won the Big Ten Championship, the team’s first victory in that event in 51 years. They won the tournament the next two years as well and made it a fourth in eight years with a triumph in 2006.

NU has qualified for regionals 14 of 17 years under Goss and has made it to the NCAA Championships seven times. Goss has won four Big Ten Coach of the Year awards along the way.

All of this is an accomplishment in itself, considering where the program once was. As late as the early 1980s, NU treated men’s golf as something near a club-level sport. NU placed last in the Big Ten Championships 17 consecutive times from 1967-1983, often finishing miles behind the ninth place squad.

Former coach Wally Goodwin began the turnaround that Mory furthered and Goss completed.

Fundraising has been key. Without it, Goodwin never would have been able to recruit or get his team into truly competitive events throughout the country. Mory could not have made this a nationally relevant program without significant outside funds.

Goss takes this part of the job seriously. In 1998 Goss secured a $6.1 million gift from Eric Gleacher, $5 million of which went toward endowing both golf teams’ budgets and the other $1.1 million of which pointed to the construction of the Gleacher Golf Center, a state-of-the-art indoor golfing facility. Goss asserts that it was one of the first of its kind in college golf.

But it takes more than great fundraising to convince talented recruits to ignore the siren calls of southern-based, warm-weather schools and trudge their way up to the Chicago-area cold.

Somehow Goss has managed to get some of the most talented youngsters in a game largely dependent on good conditions to believe that cold weather is actually an advantage to their games.

“I had interest from schools like Arizona and UCLA, pretty warm weather schools, and Goss sold me on the fact that golf is not all about no wind, no rain, warm. It’s not a fixed environment,” said Tom Johnson, an NU golfer from 2000-2003. “If you can get good at golf when the weather’s tough, you’re challenging yourself more and you’re improving. Pat convinced me. In the end I figured it would be better for my game to challenge myself in tougher weather.”

Beyond fundraising and recruiting, much of Goss’ success has come through his emphasis on teaching his players. He was named one of Golf Magazine’s Top 100 Teachers in America in 2007 and was the Illinois PGA Teacher of the Year in 2012.

“He’s taken a player all the way to No. 1 in the world (in Luke Donald) as a teacher, not just as a coach, and there’s nobody else in college who can do that,” Mory said. “He understands intimately what it takes to be the best at the professional level. It’s sort of like having Larry Brown being your coach in basketball. No college coach offers the instructional component he does.”

Goss has even more duties at NU. As the director of golf, he oversees the women’s golf program too. And from the way he speaks, he could be their golf coach rather than the men’s.

“In the latest Golfweek poll, they’re 12th now and I think they’re even better than that,” Goss said. “Next year our top five players return, we have two really strong recruits next year. The program is really going in an incredible direction.”

A pioneer in analytics

Goss’ work extends far beyond Evanston.

The coach has made quite a name for himself in the professional game with his work as Luke Donald’s swing coach, along with recent short-game work with Gary Woodland.

But he has also been a leading figure in the golf analytics movement. Goss feels his mind is wired with a statistical bent, a Moneyball-like approach that gels well with advanced analytics.

But as recently as a decade ago, there was no critical data out there to mine through.

“The statistics and analytics that were being used were not useful,” Goss said. “The traditional stats of fairways hit, greens in regulation, putts per round and up-and-downs never told you the story, they never told you the story of who is the better player and why they were the better player. Then what happened is the PGA Tour started keeping ShotLink data.”

ShotLink was first implemented by the PGA Tour at the 2001 Buick Classic and officially put to full use in the statistics program at the beginning of the 2004 season. It’s a system that works by keeping detailed shot-by-shot data on every player during every round of most Tour events. And that opened up the pathway for hundreds of new stats, as specific as “Approaches From 125-150 Yards” and “Putting From 4′.”

This explosion of information has been quite worthwhile.

“A stroke a round is millions of dollars worth of difference at the end of the year,” said Mark Broadie, a professor at the Columbia University Graduate School of Business. “If you’re trying to figure out where that stroke a round is coming from or where it is going to, you really do need access to this detailed ShotLink information.”

For Goss, it’s been a childhood’s-worth of Christmas gifts. He now runs a database of every stat the PGA Tour has kept on Donald since 2002 and works with multiple statisticians to follow any trends. He can use 10 years of detailed statistical information for any PGA Tour player he works with. He can dream of the day in the not-too-distant future when the European Tour and the major championships start recording ShotLink-like data.

More and more swing coaches are discovering the value in this data, but Broadie, who developed the PGA Tour’s strokes gained putting stat, along with writing a book, Every Shot Counts, on his analytics findings, sees Goss as the pioneer on this front.

“Pat isn’t just a swing instructor — he coaches the whole player, and he critically looks at each part of the process in order to continually improve,” Broadie said. “Pat was the first coach to embrace and use strokes gained and advanced golf analytics, and this shouldn’t be a surprise since it is consistent with his entire approach to coaching.”

It doesn’t stop there for Goss. He uses a ShotLink-type system, called “Shots to Hole,” to measure his college players’ detailed shot-by-shot data against PGA Tour averages. In addition, Goss incorporates Trackman and 3D Biomechanics at the college and professional levels. Trackman is a radar device that measures a golf ball’s speed and spin on a hit, as well as its axis tilt, maximum height, angle coming down, etc. 3D Biomechanics measures a player’s body functions, where the strengths and weaknesses are during a swing.

Goss interprets the biomechanics data of his college players himself, as, according to Goss, NCAA rules prohibit an outside firm from doing more than capturing the information.

Sam Snead, when asked how he hit a draw, responded “I think draw.” Goss certainly could never think that way, and the data backs him up.

The ballad of Luke Donald

Goss and Donald have been intertwined ever since Donald’s electric college years at NU.

The duo met at NU, where Goss was the coach and Donald his star player. Donald became the No. 1 amateur in the nation, kept Goss as his swing coach after college and eventually became No. 1 in the world as a professional, with the help of a world-class short game the two concocted early in Donald’s pro career.

Goss, of course, found great pride in seeing Donald rise to the top of professional golf in 2011. Even if it was hard to fully enjoy Donald’s rapid ascent at the time.

“When we were in the middle of it, I don’t know how much I enjoyed it,” Goss said. “It was just about constantly getting better, and I think it was one of the things that allowed Luke after he got to No. 1 in the world to really become the first player to continue to distance himself at that position since Tiger Woods.”

Donald has since fallen to No. 29 in the world and switched his swing instructor to Chuck Cook in August 2013. Goss remains his short game instructor and stats maven.

The move hasn’t hardened Goss against his pupil and longtime friend — the coach understood the inevitability of the move.

“That was something I had anticipated from day one from coaching him,” Goss said. “I certainly wasn’t idealistic and thinking that I would coach him until the day he was done. We probably made it a lot longer than any relationship basically ever does.”

Goss and Donald remain incredibly close friends today. Goss is adamant that he supports Donald over the Americans in the Ryder Cup, regardless of how much it could impede a U.S. victory.

“I spent so many years with Luke and our families are so close,” Goss said. “To be a part in seeing someone you really care about achieving their goals at the highest level, obviously I’m very proud of and I’m proud of any small role I played in it.”

Northwestern lifer?

Goss’ time at NU is approaching a quarter century, and he doesn’t appear to be showing any signs of frustration with this place. He still runs his team in the same way he did from the start.

“In my experience, it’s still the same,” junior Matthew Negri said. “We’re still really close. He treats us like family. He’ll be around us with his family, it’s the same kind of family-oriented team.”

And it’s not like Goss hasn’t had options to leave over the years either.

“When Stanford was hiring a new coach a number of years back, with Wally Goodwin having been there being a former Northwestern coach, I think Pat had an inside track on the job if he wanted it,” Johnson, the former player, said. “But he didn’t. Like Pat Fitzgerald, I think at times Goss has been the most desired golf coach in the country but he’s chosen to stay. It goes to show how committed he is to our program.”

Goss is also the ultimate multi-tasker.

Aside from all his NU-related duties, the married father of three is currently writing a book on golf analytics with Donald, Steven Levitt and Stephen Dubner, the co-authors of “Freakonomics,” a collaboration he hopes will be finished within the next couple years. He also remains vice president of the Board of Governors at The First Tee of Greater Chicago and chairs their Luke Donald’s Taste of The First Tee fundraiser.

Goss doesn’t get the sense he’ll be moving on from NU anytime soon and neither does his former coach. Goss just cares too much about the people there.

“He thinks about his players and what their lives are going to be like all the time,” Mory said. “Coaching isn’t a job where you punch out and go home. Whether it’s about thinking how these kids will do in business or after school or how they’re doing with class, their families or their personal relationships, he really does think about these kids all the time. And as a golfer he’s always thinking about how to make them better too.”

Email: [email protected]
Twitter: @KevinCasey19