Carnegie Mellon Golf set on defending National Title, growing game locally
By Josh Rowntree, Director of Communications • February 7, 2024
Dan Rodgers knows his team is going from the hunter to the hunted in 2024. But that’s not exactly a bad spot to be.
Rodgers, the eighth-year head coach of Carnegie Mellon’s men’s and women’s golf teams, is currently leading his group – he hopes – to a defense of its dramatic NCAA Division III Men’s National Championship victory last spring.
“Thinking back on it gives me some chills,” said Rodgers. “It was such a fun experience to watch it play out.”
The Tartans won the title at Keene Trace Golf Club in Nicholasville, Kentucky last May, doing so by shooting a collective 9-under 279 in the final round to win the tournament by six strokes.
But getting there wasn’t exactly a walk in the park.
Carnegie Mellon struggled down the stretch on the third day of competition and found itself in fifth place entering the final round.
“I said to the guys in the van, and when we got back to the hotel that night, ‘we have it,’” said Rodgers, the former Head Golf Professional at Sewickley Heights. “‘If we can get to that place where we were today, just bear down, and play just a little better, we’ll have a great chance of walking away a champion.’”
Rodgers’ belief paid off, and the Tartans surged on Friday, having their championship capped with a dramatic hole-out eagle from the fairway by junior Brian Xu.
“I’m out on 17, and I can’t see what’s going on on 18,” Rodgers said. “I hear all this commotion, and I look at a friend of mine, and he looks at me and points down.”
It was the second such eagle on a Par 4 on the day for the Tartans, with sophomore Justin Chan accomplishing the same feat on the opening hole.
“After that, I thought, ‘if we lose now, we just weren’t supposed to win,’” added Rodgers, with a laugh. “It was just wild.”
What followed was a celebration that stretched deeper into the summer, starting with a grand recognition for the program’s head coach, who received NCAA Division III Coach of the Year honors.
“It’s pretty cool to be recognized by my peers and the association,” Rodgers said. “It’s pretty special. There’s only one of those awards every year, so it’s pretty cool to enter an extremely proud group of coaches who have won that before.”
The Tartans were also able to visit the White House in June.
“It was wild,” added Rodgers, who was able to bring his wife and children to the event. “This was the first year that the White House had done something like this, inviting non-Division I teams… It’s something that I’m going to remember forever.”
Now, Rodgers and the Tartans turn the page, and look to run it back in 2024 with four of the five participants from last year’s title-winning team back – including Xu and Chan.
“The expectation is that we’re going to be there to compete at the end of the year,” said Rodgers, who feels this team has more depth than it has before.
But much like their championship tournament, the path already hasn’t been straight. CMU performed poorly in September’s Gate City Invitational in Greensboro, North Carolina, placing tenth overall. The Tartans, however, quickly righted the ship to second and third in its next two events.
“It was good for them to experience that deflation in that first event, where it wasn’t going to just be easy again,” Rodgers said. “It wasn’t just going to be us walking away with a tournament victory. Facing some adversity early helped frame the rest of the fall season and what we needed to get out of it.”
Rodgers’ message to his team is simple: the only competition that matters is the last one.
“It’s great to be competitive,” he said. “That’s probably more important right now than winning. We’re trying to peak heading into May. That’s tournament time. That’s the one that matters. The big trophy.”
The Tartans’ success isn’t limit to just the CMU men’s team. The Tartans’ women’s team has finished second, fourth and fourth in each of the last three NCAA Championships. It also has the best average GPA of any sports program at Carnegie Mellon – quite an accomplishment at one of the nation’s most prestigious educational institutes.
“In 13 of the semester’s I’ve been here, their team GPA has been better than 3.6 each year,” Rodgers remarked. “So that’s kind of impressive.”
They’re also impressing on the course so far, putting together a strong first semester in competitions, including three tournament wins.
“I think we’ve got a chance there,” Rodgers said. “We’ve had a great fall… They’re in a great spot to compete for a National Championship, too. We didn’t lose anybody on the women’s side, so they saw what happened on the men’s side and said, ‘hey, we want that.’”
Beyond the wins on the course, Rodgers ultimately oversees the development of young people, both in the classroom and in the golf community. Even though none of CMU’s golfers hail from Western Pennsylvania, Rodgers – a Butler, Pennsylvania native – is set on growing the bond between his student-athletes and the area’s golf scene and history.
“It’s super important, and it’s something we talk about a lot,” said Rodgers. “I’m trying to educate the next generation of kids. Obviously, they all know about Oakmont here in the area. But through the last few years I’ve been able to connect them to Western Pennsylvania – not only through the golf we play here – but I’ve been able to take them a couple of times to Orlando and to Bay Hill and explain to them the connection that Mr. (Arnold) Palmer had to Bay Hill, and to Western Pennsylvania.”
He has also used his students as caddies when he competes in events, such as the Palmer Cup. And both squads will help work with children via the First Tee program at Bob O’Connor Golf Course this year.
All of it is part of an effort to continue to build the game locally, and to shine a light on golf’s past, present and future in the region.
“It’s really neat to have them be part of that,” Rodgers said.
“Anything that I can do to get them the experience of golf in Western Pennsylvania and have those connections to what the history is like around here, is something that we’re trying to do.”
For media inquiries, please contact WPGA Director of Communications Josh Rowntree.
About the WPGA
Founded in 1899, the Western Pennsylvania Golf Association is the steward of amateur golf in the region. Started by five Member Clubs, the association now has nearly 200 Member Clubs and nearly 37,000 members. The WPGA conducts 14 individual competitions and 10 team events, and administers the WPGA Scholarship Fund and Western Pennsylvania Golf Hall of Fame.