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Canadian golf coach used to have NHL dreams

It was a bleak and blustery December afternoon; the mercury hovered just above freezing and a shrill wind cut its way across campus. It was the type of day that reminded one just how far away the warmth of springtime golf actually was.

And yet, BG men’s golf coach Garry Winger was still hard at work, tucked away inside his modest office taking care of all the thankless tasks that are needed to make a program successful.

‘My job never stops,’ Winger said. ‘There is always something to do, whether it is sending out tournament invitations, keeping in touch with alumni or helping out a player in need of advice.’

To spend any amount of time around the 10th year head coach is to appreciate first-hand the crafts of discipline and hard work. As golf coach at a mid-major university, Winger is required to juggle a variety of roles; from mentor and father figure, to administrator, to even travel coordinator and team van driver.

He attacks each facet of his job with a businesslike tenacity that has been with him ever since his boyhood days growing up in Canada, where he learned to love sports from his father, who was an exceptional athlete and went on to become a successful businessman.

‘Growing up, my dad was very hard on me,’ Winger said. ‘He expected me to succeed and expected me to give my very best effort at everything I did.’

As a youth, Winger called the southwestern Ontario city of London his home. His first love, as it is with most Canadian children, was hockey. A defenseman, Winger spent much of his time playing on various youth squads hoping to one day make it to the NHL like his hero Wayne Gretzky.

‘Hockey was and still is my first love,’ Winger, a Toronto Maple Leafs fan, said. ‘I just love the physicality and teamwork of it and the toughness that it instills in a person.’

Winger was introduced by his father to golf around the age of five, and although it did not take hold of him in quite the same way as hockey, he nonetheless fell in love with the game.

‘I guess what I love most about golf is the individual challenge,’ Winger said. ‘Its usually just you out there practicing for hours at a time by yourself. If you mess up there is nobody else for you to blame but yourself.’

As he got older, Winger began honing his golf skills at the local country club, working there as a caddy and in maintenance, while pounding ball after ball on the driving range and the course when he got the chance.

‘Our golf season in Canada is painfully short,’ Winger said, ‘But every summer I would be at the club working and practicing. Hanging around there really taught me a lot about the game as far as both skill wise and also in terms of how to conduct myself around a golf course.’

After a successful junior golf career, Winger was not sure what he wanted to do for college. His knowledge of American institutions was extremely limited (he was not recruited for golf at all) and he still clung to dreams of one day making it to the NHL.

‘I really had no idea what I wanted to do,’ Winger said. ‘I had not written or applied to any American universities. The only one I really knew about was Bowling Green because we passed it every year on our way to Florida.’

Fortunately for Winger, the head pro at his country club was connected to former Falcon hockey coach Jerry York. It was York who put Winger in touch with golf coach Greg Nye.

‘I wrote coach Nye and sent him a tape, and he replied and said they would be glad to have me,’ Winger said. ‘I came down for a visit when I was 17 and instantly fell in love with the place. I knew this was where I wanted to be.’

With his dream of playing in the NHL gone, Winger set out to completely dedicate himself to golf, in hopes of reaching the PGA Tour.

‘If I couldn’t be a professional hockey player,’ Winger said, ‘Then I wanted to be a pro golfer, that was my new dream.’

After struggling his freshman year at BG, Winger returned home to Canada and began practicing nonstop.

‘I pretty much just lived and breathed golf that entire time,’ Winger said. ‘If I am going to commit to something I have to give a complete 100 percent effort, that’s just the way I have always been.’

The fruits of his labor began to show back at BG, where Winger went on to compile arguably the most successful career in BG men’s golf history, earning the school’s lowest single season (72.4) and career scoring (75.0) averages. His senior year he led the Falcons to a third-place finish at the Mid-American Conference Championships while garnering all-conference honors.

‘The one thing I really took away from my college experience, more so than individual accomplishment, was the camaraderie I felt with the other guys on the team,’ Winger said. ‘The guys I played with have remained friends for life.’

After college, Winger set about chasing down his dream of the PGA Tour. He started playing some of the various mini-tours in Florida in hopes of earning enough money to keep his dream alive. Although he won a few times in Florida and competed briefly on the Canadian Tour, Winger was never consistent enough to make the PGA Tour.

‘I just remember seeing some of the guys in their 30s down in Florida who had a wife and kids and who were basically living out of their suitcases traveling from event to event,’ Winger said. ‘I did not want that to be me, if I wasn’t going to be able to make it, I wanted to just settle down.’

With that in mind, Winger decided to give up the life of the lonely road warrior and move on.

‘Nye alerted me to an opening at Bowling Green,’ Winger said. ‘Figuring I had nothing to lose, I applied and lo and behold, I got the job.’

Winger went about his new job with the same determined work ethic that he had utilized all his life. He wasted little time in making many improvements to the team, taking a group that had finished 10th in the MAC Championships to consecutive sixth place finishes.

Individual and team victories were not far behind. What Winger would consider the most crowning achievement during his tenure however, would be the construction of the Falcons’ new indoor golf facility.

‘Stephanie Young [women’s golf coach] and I getting this facility built is just a dream come true,’ Winger said. ‘A golfer at Bowling Green now has every resource at their disposal to be successful. All that is left to do is for them to put in the necessary work.’

That opportunity for the players was largely made possible through the tireless effort that Winger had put into his job.

‘Golf has given me everything,’ Winger said. ‘It feels tremendous to be around the game that I love in a place that I love like Bowling Green. I wouldn’t want to be anywhere else right now.’

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