Andrew Belsky was the first student-athlete in Webster University history to be recruited to the school as a golfer. Prior to his arrival as the first legitimate golf recruit, the Gorloks were — as Belsky kindly put it — “not good.”
In each of the initial five years of the golf program’s existence (1995-99), Webster finished dead-last in the St. Louis Intercollegiate Athletic Conference standings. The Gorloks completed the SLIAC Tournament an average of 128 strokes behind the tourney’s champion during that five-year span.
But at the turn of the century, which coincided with Belsky’s arrival, the Gorloks turned their fortunes around. Webster placed second in the eight-team 2000 SLIAC Tournament, just eight shots back of conference champion Maryville University. Belsky recorded the fourth-best individual score at the tourney and made his first of four consecutive All-Conference appearances.
Webster won its first SLIAC championship three years later (by 43 strokes, no less) and has captured six conference titles in all. Belsky, who took over as coach of the program in 2004, has been named SLIAC Coach of the Year each of the five times Webster won the championship under his watch.
“I have seen it from the ground floor all the way up to where we are right now. It has kind of been mine to build over the years,” said Belsky, BA ’04, MBA ’06. “We’re a very respectable program at this point, on and off the golf course. For me, that’s a massive thing. I take great pride in it.”
The Gorloks’ greatest off-course achievement came at the conclusion of the 2014-15 academic year. Webster was named the NCAA Division III academic national champion by the GCAA (Golf Coaches Association of America) for posting the highest team GPA (3.65) in the country. The Gorloks were in good company, as Harvard University won the same award at the Division-I level.
“Being the academic national champion was a huge deal,” Belsky said. “Especially when we’re gone all the time — with golf, we’re on the road three or four days a week, many times for five straight weeks. And yet, my guys managed to keep almost a 3.7 GPA. That says a lot about the priorities of the players.”
The golf team’s academic national championship was the first for any squad in Webster athletics history. Brodie Dakin and Tyler Thorman, the team’s top two players that year, led the way academically as well. For their efforts, Dakin and Thorman were honored as the first two GCAA All-American Scholars in golf program history.
This past July, Thorman received the prestigious recognition for a second straight year. Juniors Jon Hughes and Justin Onken were likewise honored, giving the program five GCAA All-American Scholar awards in a two-year span.
“My philosophy is we want the top total package — academics, athletics and community outreach,” said Scott Kilgallon, Webster director of athletics. “Those are the three biggest things we instill in our kids here, Belsky having hit the top of it. That didn’t just happen. That’s intentional.”
How do these student-athletes miss classes and still achieve high GPAs? “They’re in the vans cracking the books for a seven-hour ride to one of the big meets,” Kilgallon said. “Credit to the coaches for instilling that balance. These kids aren’t sitting watching TV or something; they’re being responsible for their class work. It’s a great example to say academic and athletic success are not mutually exclusive.”
Belsky informs prospective recruits, as well as their parents, of his academic and athletic expectations from the moment they arrive on campus for a visit. Hard work in all phases — be it golf, academics, community service or character development — is the letter of the law.
And yet, Belsky knows when to ease up so his players can enjoy their college experience. He encourages them to take advantage of Webster’s acclaimed study-abroad program. Belsky did just that his junior year at Webster when he traveled to the Geneva campus for a three-month period.
“The players work very hard while we’re at practice, and they are competitive,” Belsky said. “Yet at the same time, whenever we are done for the day, they can go and do other things. This fall, I’ve got four guys going to study abroad in Geneva. If you’re at a big D-I, D-II, players can’t do that. (At Webster), they get to actually experience life while they’re here. It’s not just about golf. It’s about everything that’s the experience.”
Thorman, who graduated this past May, played Division-I golf at Western Illinois University before transferring to Webster for his final three years. Thorman was the 2016 SLIAC Player of the Year after tying for the best individual score — then winning a one-on-one playoff — at the conference tournament.
Thorman’s dislike of playing D-I golf led him to Webster and “the best career of anybody we’ve ever had,” Belsky said. Though he was the top golfer in the SLIAC, Thorman’s 74.68 scoring average placed him 91st nationally among all D-III golfers for 2015-16. As Belsky discussed, the gap between the best Division-III golfers and their D-I and D-II counterparts is hardly a wide one at all.
“If players realize in golf they are either not destined for the PGA Tour or don’t want that lifestyle, then why not go some place I can get an education, a real college experience, study overseas and get to do a lot of great stuff?” Belsky said. “And yet, I can still play competitively. If you look at the top Division-III players and compare them to the top D-IIs especially and some of the top D-Is, the scores they’re shooting are basically the exact same. It’s just they have chosen this path rather than a different path.”
The path the golf program is on is trending in the right direction: five years of dismal golf and last-place finishes followed by a decade and a half of respectable, then competitive, then championship performances. That includes three SLIAC titles in a four-year span (2011-14), two All-American Scholars and one academic national championship.
“This is a great opportunity,” Belsky said. “Where else can you go to beautiful golf courses and travel around the country playing and having fun doing something you’re passionate about? And that’s your only responsibility — show up in class and go play golf. That’s a great deal.”