Late last week, the KHSAA Board of Control voted to make sweeping changes to the format of the high school state golf tournament, leaving many coaches and administrators feeling frustrated with the results.
In an effort to reduce the size of the playing field and increase pace of play, now only region winners will advance to the state tournament instead of both region champions and runners-up. The KHSAA is also increasing the number of individual qualifiers from three to seven in each region, which will ultimately keep the field at 144 golfers per tournament -- down from 156 for boys and 154 for girls.
"Clearly there were many issues identified not only with the prior format, but also other issues surrounding golf and participation levels as the board conducted its first comprehensive review of golf in many years," KHSAA Commissioner Julian Tackett said in a release. "There are no easy answers. KHSAA championships are not simply for elite programs and schools flush with participants and historic past performances, nor are they solely for team competition.
"The Board has the daunting requirement of also ensuring there is an opportunity for students from all levels of involvement, whether the school has one golfer on their roster or 40."
The changes have drawn ire from across the state, most notably because two of the last four state champions -- Lexington Christian's boys in 2017 and its girls in 2018 -- won KHSAA titles despite finishing as region runners-up.
For the Owensboro Catholic High School boys' team, the format changes would have nullified the team's best state tournament performance in school history.
"It would've affected us several times," said Aces coach Bretnea Turner, whose squad advanced as a region runner-up in 2015 and went on to place fourth in the state. "We've been to state four years in a row, and I think only one of those years we won the regional tournament."
According to Turner, the problem lies with the KHSAA lessening the overall team impact in favor of a more individualized approach.
"With golf, it's already so hard to create a team aspect," she said. "It's so hard to get players who are frustrated with their round to remember they're not just playing for themselves, but they're playing for a team score. A lot of times, you can get kids to turn their play around when they know the team depends on their score."
In addition to the Aces' trip four years ago, Turner remembers traveling to the state tournament with a full team during her playing days at Apollo.
"I went as an individual in high school, and when my team got to come my senior year, it was the best feeling to have them there to compete with me," she said. "It's so much more fun when you're together, not just going as an individual with your coach.
"I feel like that's what they're eliminating by inflating the importance of individual scores."
Mark Price, a former longtime Daviess County coach who won a state title with the Panthers in 1995, served on a KHSAA golf advisory committee when a similar format change was proposed about 12 years ago.
"They wanted to improve the quality of the field and improve the pace of play," Price recalled. "It's not an unreasonable request, but we shot it down unanimously, because golf, while it's heavily focused on individuals, is still a team sport."
The latest decision also comes on the heels of a proposed change the association made earlier in the year to cut back team representatives at the state tournament from five golfers to four. That measure, following heavy backlash, was eventually scrapped.
"This is the next worst possible thing they could've done," Price said.
A few solutions Price offered included introducing a semi-state round similar to the way Indiana handles postseason golf, splitting the state tournament into a team portion and an individual portion independent of one another or even moving it from the challenging course at Bowling Green Country Club.
Chris Adams, a board member with the Kentucky Golf Coaches Association who coached Central Hardin for 13 years, said he proposed a semi-state round last year following a request from KHSAA assistant commissioner Darren Bilberry to "come up with a solution to make the state tournament better."
"We sent out a survey to every athletic director, coach and principal for golf in the state," said Adams, who won state titles with the CHHS girls in 2005 and 2006. "We got 200 responses back and had a committee that worked for six months. The solution that made the most sense was adding another round to state competition.
"We were asked to come up with that, then when we went to present it last October, Julian Tackett said we were outsiders and that we came up with an unsolicited plan. He shot us down."
Kentucky is the only state in the region that doesn't have a semi-state round or a class system for golf, which Adams said doesn't make sense if the KHSAA is trying to increase golf participation and interest.
"You don't grow the game by cutting 10 or 12 players that get to go to state," Adams said.
Dave Cowden, the longtime coach at Hancock County High School, was on the golf advisory committee that suggested the KHSAA increase team size from four players to five about 25 years ago. Though he admitted changing the format in 2019 will be disappointing for some teams, he understands why it was done.
"With the time slot we have in October, it gives them time for the state tournament to get done before dark," Cowden said. "I understand that, and I hate to say it, but I'm really for the change because it will speed things up.
"If you have rain or bad weather, you're asking a country club that makes its living off its members to extend the tournament another day."
Cowden also supports increasing the number of individuals who advance, which he said will help smaller schools across the commonwealth send more representatives to the state tournament -- thereby increasing their chances at success down the line.
"I'm behind them," he said. "We've had a lot of individual kids that could have gone and played in the state tournament and deserved to do so, but we didn't have enough positions to do it. This will release a few more kids to allow them to play at the state level and to gain that experience."
In an effort to combat the KHSAA's decision, the KGCA will host its own state tournament in September, in which the top 15 teams and 21 individuals (based on state points rankings) will be invited to compete.
No matter which tournament her team ends up at -- perhaps both, one or neither -- Turner is interested to see how it all plays out.
"I feel like it's important to have the best competition, of course, but there are so many other reasons why you play high school sports," Turner said. "It's about the memories, it's about having fun, and you only get to do this four years of your life.
"I'm interested to see what the (KHSAA) state tournament looks like and if pace of play is even a minute faster, because I don't think it will be. If it doesn't change at all, is eliminating the runner-up teams the best choice?"