The Team Spirit of Individual Success

InterviewGolfTeam Building

Alan Bratton rattles off the numbers almost mindlessly, running through the Oklahoma State golf history from memory. He explains that the program began in 1947, and if you take away the season canceled by COVID, the Cowboys have been eligible for 75 championships. “We’ve been to 73 of those,’’ Bratton says. “And out of those 73, we’ve finished in the top five 57 times.’’ He says this matter of factly, as if the absurd numbers are somehow normal.

Then again, to Bratton, they are the norm. A player under legendary Mike Holder, Bratton has lived, breathed, and exemplified the excellence that is Pokes’ golf and owns a unique Cowboy trifecta. Bratton has won a national championship as an Oklahoma State player (1995), assistant coach (2006), and head coach (2018). Such success is what every athlete and coach dreams of, but Bratton was just the fourth head coach in Oklahoma State history when he took over in 2013, and being handed the keys to such a powerful kingdom doesn’t come without its own implied challenges. Namely, don’t mess this up.

Pressure and sport are practically synonymous. If someone is keeping score, the job is to win. But the pressure to uphold a legacy of success is incredibly daunting. It is one thing to set high standards; it’s altogether another to be expected to continually achieve them. Bratton has been able to uphold the Oklahoma State tradition in large part because he personally was a part of it. He understands the DNA of the place, not to mention what works and what doesn’t.

But translating what he knows so well to young athletes and more, finding young athletes who will embrace the level of expectation, is not easy. Not everyone gets it like Bratton gets it. “There’s obvious pressure here,’’ he says. “That being said, I wouldn’t want it any other way. That’s what drew me to play for Oklahoma State.

I wanted to be able to play for a place where the expectation is to contend for a championship every year. But now it’s up to me to fi nd guys that will embrace the same thing. I tell people all the time that they owe it to our former players and our future players to uphold the standards. If they can’t handle that, this isn’t the place for them.’’

Bratton searched for something to help him. He’d tried a few personality assessment programs, but nothing really cut to the core as he needed it to. A colleague within the Oklahoma State athletic department suggested he look into Profile. Soon, Bratton was on the phone with Profile CEO Chad Brown, getting an in-depth lesson on what Profile can and has done for teams. A year ago, he decided to give it a try, and in just a short time, he found it to be incredibly useful. “It’s not just the vetting,’’ he says, “it’s the conversation starter. It’s the questions it can help you ask that are so powerful.’’

College golf is unique. It remains very much a traditional individual pursuit, and yet there is also the goal of a team championship. To plenty of people, those things can seem and feel counterintuitive. The not-so-secret sauce to Oklahoma State’s success is it has managed to find people who understand the balance. Bratton remembers his own experience. He redshirted as a freshman yet found veteran golfers who took him under their wing. They worked with him to make him better, and rather than see his improvement as a threat, they understood it would only make them better golfers.

Not everyone operates that way. Some see other people’s success as a threat. Not Bratton. His Profile self-assessment only reinforced what he already knew about himself. He doesn’t tolerate selfishness and responds best to people who see the value in a very specific sort of competition. “To me, competitiveness is not: I have to squash you to lift myself up,’’ Bratton says. “I want people who understand that you need that guy to be his best so he can push you. You’re only hurting yourself if you’re not trying to make your teammates better.” In just a year, Profile has helped him understand that while everyone might say they feel similarly, not everyone truly believes it. Technically, only one person can actually finish with the lowest score and win a golf tournament. While athletes might say they welcome the push to chase others, they get angry or jealous when someone else hoists the trophy. They fail to recognize that when a team collectively seeks greatness, it also improves the individual.

Bratton wants - and Oklahoma State requires - golfers who can operate both as alpha dogs, dogged and unafraid to handle the sort of pressure that being part of Oklahoma State golf requires, yet willing to foster and nurture growth in others so the Cowboys as a unit can be their best. Some of Bratton’s best golfers did just that. Viktor Hovland, now the fourth-ranked player in the world, was an All-American in 2018, and his teammate, Matthew Wolf, who competes on the LIV Golf tour, was the Big 12 Newcomer of the Year. They played off one another, helping Oklahoma State win a school record 10 tournament ties and ultimately the national championship. “You need guys who want to break records, put their name on the wall, all of it,’’ Bratton says. “But who also embraces the team.’’

Yet, with the benefit of Profile, Bratton also has to come to recognize that some of that responsibility also falls to him. He knows the pressure of Oklahoma State and the recipe to overcome it, having played in it and coached in it. He has not, he admits, always been great at relaying the message.

Because he has such an intolerance for selfishness, he has sometimes been too rash in tagging someone he views as too me-centric as unfixable. Rather than work to fi nd a common ground, he frequently would ask his assistants to handle golfers he didn’t think he could get through to.

Instead, he realizes now he didn’t try to meet them in the middle. What he mistook as selfishness might very well have been a lack of understanding, and had he better communicated what he needed, they as individuals - and Oklahoma State collectively- might have enjoyed more success.“Rather than me putting them on the defensive, I maybe could have reached them and developed better relationships with them,’’ he says. “This tool (Profile) would have given me more options to how to better coach them and also to have better relationships with them today.’’

Such communication and recognition skills are perhaps more important now than ever. Like every college sport, the financial opportunities in collegiate golf have grown exponentially since Bratton’s day. In 1991, Phil Mickelson became the fi rst amateur to win a PGA Tour event. He returned to Arizona State for his senior year, where he won another individual NCAA championship. Alabama’s Nick Dunlap won a pro event in January 2023; he turned pro within days, even before his college team’s season ended.

Even for college athletes who don’t win on Tour, the chance to market themselves individually through NIL and social media is considerable. All of which, of course, flies in the face of the very foundation of Oklahoma State’s success: pursuing team excellence in conjunction with - if not instead of - individual notoriety. “A lot of people are in a rush to get to the next level,’’ Bratton says. “Like there’s a benefit to doing that quickly. I train our guys to understand you want to be good enough that you go out and you stay. Aim for the duration.’’ Aim for the duration.

That formula, after all, has worked well for Oklahoma State for some 70-odd years.