By Clay Henry
Mason Overstreet came to college with awesome tools. Great length and a great putting touch produced an instant reputation in qualifying rounds as a talented quartet of freshmen tried to crack the traveling squad at Arkansas.
The only issue was a little bit of an open club face at the top of the swing. Overstreet sometimes didn’t get it square by impact.
“We just had to calm things down at the top,” said Brad McMakin, the Arkansas golf coach. “It was a little bit like some issues Dustin Johnson has had. Mason would leave things to the right.”
A little bit to the right for Overstreet can be out of play. That’s what happens when a tee shot of over 350 yards is off line.
Overstreet decided to make some subtle changes in the swing plane during the Christmas break. The off time would give him some time to groove the new swing.
“It took me two and a half months to get it right,” Overstreet said of a rough stretch to start the spring semester.
“I struggled. Then, about the middle of March, it all clicked and I didn’t have to think about it.”
Clicked is probably not the right word. For the last two months of the college season, Overstreet has been as good as anyone in the country. The freshman from Kingfisher, Okla., was the rage in the NCAA tournament in late May, finishing second.
McMakin has watched Overstreet burst on the national scene with an incredible closing burst to the season. In his 11th season with the Razorbacks, McMakin has watched his phenom sail through all kinds of new pressure situations. Nothing fazes Overstreet.
For example, as the final round of the NCAA stroke play championship began, Overstreet headed down the fairway with a large gallery in tow as one of the lead tee times.
“Mason was looking around on No. 2,” McMakin said. “There was a group from the Golf Channel going around with his pairing. And you could see Mason figuring it out.”
Among the first recognized by Overstreet was Golf Channel field reporter Notah Begay, a former PGA Tour player and a teammate with Tiger Woods at Stanford.
Overstreet told McMakin, “Coach, I had Tiger Woods Golf 2003 (video game) and I played the Tiger Challenge. I used to play Notah Begay. I’d beat him.”
Overstreet confirmed that story a few days after returning from the NCAA tournament in late May. Asked if he informed Begay of the old battles in his living room, he said, “No, I didn’t tell him. I just played.”
Did he ever. The true freshman from tiny Kingfisher, Okla., had the best Arkansas finish at the NCAA since R.H. Sikes won it in 1963. Like Sikes, he was there as an individual after tying for fifth at the regional.
McMakin explained on the plane ride home the next day that it was the best finish by a Razorback in 54 years.
There was a classic reply from Overstreet, “Coach, 54 years is a long time.”
“Really, it was just an awesome week,” McMakin said. “It was a big, big stage and Mason was unbelievable. It was the most impressive performance I’ve seen in my career.”
McMakin has seen plenty. He played on an NCAA championship team at Oklahoma. He coached the Hogs to a team runner-up finish. But never has he seen such a steely performance by such a young player in such a big event.
“The final round was amazing,” McMakin said. “He shot 71 in unbelievable conditions. The wind blew 25 to 30. The rough was penal. He beat every member of the Walker Cup, some of them by 30 shots for the tournament.”
Overstreet shot 7-under for the tournament. He was tied for the lead briefly during the second round and within one shot on a couple of other points over the 72 holes. Ole Miss sophomore Braden Thornberry also shot 71 to win by four shots at Rich Harvest Farms in the Chicago suburb of Sugar Grove, Ill.
“I saw Mason look at the leader board when he was tied,” McMakin said. “He may have been nervous for a little bit, but it didn’t last long.
“It’s hard to do what he did. His ball striking was incredible and his putting was awesome, too.
“Think about this, on very difficult greens, he missed three putts inside 10 feet for the entire tournament.
“The second round, he missed one green. He didn’t miss a fairway. That’s incredible on that course. He probably wouldn’t have missed a green, but I made him go for it on 17 when I thought he could get home in two on the par five. He almost did, but he was behind a tree and he had no shot. The 68 in the second round was incredible.”
On a course full of doglegs, Overstreet couldn’t use his driver much, so his massive length wasn’t an obvious advantage.
“He couldn’t hit his driver much,” McMakin said. “He’d drive it through the fairways even when he cut the corners. So he hit 2-iron and some 3-woods.”
And, he hit them in the fairway for the most part.
“When he didn’t, he was still so far ahead of everyone else that his strength was an advantage,” McMakin said. “He was hitting an 8-iron from 200 and he could spin it out of the blue grass rough. Everyone else was hitting 6-iron or more. He held the greens, they didn’t.
“Everyone else was hitting it in trouble, having to chip out from behind trees or just to get it back to the fairway from the rough. He didn’t have to chip out once. His ball striking was that incredible.”
Overstreet is a freak as far as length. He flies his drives 350 yards. He routinely flies it on the 18th at Fayetteville Country Club, a 363-yard par four.
“I’ve seen it,” McMakin said. “That’s incredible length. That’s 363, a divot in the middle of the green. No problem.”
But it’s the putting that may give Overstreet a chance at greatness. McMakin has had great ball strikers before, like Taylor Moore, a 2016 UA graduate.
“If Taylor putted like Mason, he’d be winning on the PGA Tour right now,” McMakin said. “He is a great putter. He putts like Jordan Spieth. Mason putts like a Tour pro.
“In the NCAA tournament, he was making them from 15 feet, right in the heart of the cup just about every time.”
Overstreet has always been a good putter, but he’s elevated his play on the greens this spring with intense practice. It started after a Florida tournament when he was paired with UF star sophomore Sam Horsfield.
“Horsfield just turned pro,” McMakin said. “He’s a great putter. I told Mason before that round to watch Horsfield putt, that he’d learn what a Tour pro putts like. It made an impression. Ever since then, Mason has been motivated to work on his putting.
“We left there and Mason told me, ‘I want people to talk about my putting the same way.’ He had a great stroke, but he’s really improved his putting. He’s one of the best putters around.”
Motivated is the right word.
“Playing with Sam at the Gator Invitational got me going,” Overstreet said. “What happened that week, every time I missed a putt, someone would tell me, ‘Sam would have made that one.’ I want people to say that about me.”
McMakin knew Overstreet was good when he signed with the Hogs. He won 31 tournaments in a great high school career against rugged Oklahoma competition.
“I thought he’d be really good after he got some experience here,” McMakin said. “He won tournaments in Oklahoma and it’s great competition there right now. But, he hadn’t played on a lot of different grasses. He had not played all over in junior golf.
“So I just didn’t expect him to be this good on the college level this soon. He has just been great this spring.
“Our guys can’t beat him and we’ve got good players. Still, he hasn’t scratched the surface. His game is going to get better.”
Overstreet said there were talks about that on the plane ride back to Fayetteville after the NCAA tournament.
“Coach told me I played great, but he said he thinks I can play a lot better,” he said. “I know my ball striking can be better. My ball striking has been on for the last month, but I need to do it more consistent for the season.”
His hot putting has been for longer stretches of late.
“I know that’s the most improved part of my game,” he said. “I’ve always been a good putter and there are times I get the feeling that everything is going in. I’m getting that feeling a lot more.”
Overstreet doesn’t look like the typical college golfer. At 6-1 and 220 pounds, he does not look anything like the slender, athletic flat bellies dominating the college circuit.
But make no mistake about Overstreet, he’s athletic and he’s got rare ability. He may be as good of a prospect as ever to come through Arkansas golf.
Well, the obvious comparison would be to John Daly, with victories in two majors. Overstreet is Daly-like in almost every area except the negatives.
“I played with John in college tournaments,” said McMakin, who played on a national title team at Oklahoma in 1989. “Mason is John without all the issues. He doesn’t drink, makes good grades and is a great kid.”
It’s been an amazing finish to the spring for Overstreet. He qualified for the NCAA as an individual with a fifth-place finish at the Baton Rouge Regional. That followed a wonderful SEC tournament, a tie for 13th with an even par score for 54 holes. He’s the first Razorback freshman to shoot even in the SEC Championships.
“He’s incredible,” McMakin said. “He’s improved every week. He’s a great player for a freshman. You think of the freshmen I’ve coached here and no one has beaten what Mason did as far as the SEC tournament.
“I’m talking about Sebastian Cappelen, Taylor Moore, Austin Cook and David Lingmerth. We’ve had some pretty good players.”
McMakin knew Overstreet had rare talent when he was signed out of Kingfisher, a town of 4,500 northwest of Oklahoma City.
“We’ve liked him from the first time we saw him,” McMakin said. “He just needed experience. He’s got all the tools.
“We were on him early. He came to see us as a ninth grader and just fell in love with our facilities. His parents went to OSU, but we knew he liked us from the start.”
It helped that The Blessings Golf Club, the UA home, hosts one of the top junior events. Overstreet got to see the facility in all of its glory in the summer as a young player.
The Hogs had a good season with a young team. Their top five included four freshmen and a sophomore.
All of the freshmen were highly regarded, but Overstreet is the one who raises eyebrows with his length and touch.
“He’s had to improve his short game, but he’s got great hands,” McMakin said. “He’s better around the greens, but he’s always been a good putter. He didn’t putt well at the SEC tournament, or he might have won it.
“That first round (74) was pretty good considering he had a double and a triple (bogey). He had two bad swings in the tournament.”
Overstreet shot a 4-under par 66 in the finale as the Hogs posted the third best closing team round in the history of the SEC Tournament, a 12-under 268.
Overstreet’s 13th at the SEC Tournament started his hot finish. He had two other top 15 tournaments, but none were against such a quality field.
Overstreet is something to watch, on the practice tee or in tournament play. His length off the tee is now a legend at The Blessings where the 620-yard 12th is his personal toy. You better be standing directly behind him or you will instantly lose his ball flight because of the incredible velocity off the club face.
“There are no par fives for him, none,” McMakin said. “There are none anywhere he can’t reach in two shots, usually with a mid-iron. The 12th at The Blessings he plays with a driver and a four-iron. Like I said, he doesn’t have par fives.”
The only three-shot holes would be dogleg par fives, something that won’t allow his driver to come out of the bag.
McMakin helps his players put together a strategy to get around the golf course. Part of that is picking the target line off the tee. It’s different for Overstreet. Do you cut the corner on doglegs? And, by how much? What about houses at the corner?
“It’s nerve wracking, so different for him,” McMakin said. “It’s different than I’ve ever had. You look at the corner and he might be taking it over a house or two, or a bunch of trees.”
The build is powerful.
“Yes, he looks like an offensive lineman in football,” McMakin said. “He’s 220 with big shoulders. He’s just so strong.”
The background isn’t football, but basketball.
“He was a point guard for his high school basketball team,” McMakin said. “He’s got great hands. He won some 3-point shooting competitions. And, he’s very competitive. I think the basketball background helps.”
It’s that background that allows McMakin to turn up the coaching juices when it comes to Overstreet.
“Some you can’t coach hard, but with Mason, he handles it, likes it,” McMakin said. “So I can raise my voice with him, get after him. I know it’s that basketball background that allows for that. He’s been coached hard.
“I did play with Daly. I have seen what he can do. Incredible length and great touch is what John always had. Mason is the same.
“So there are some golf courses that Mason can just over power. He’s also much better about pulling out the 3-wood when the driver isn’t the right club, but he can go after a tight hole with the driver. He did that at SECs.”
McMakin calls Overstreet a difference maker. Is there anyone else like him in college golf?
“I don’t think so,” McMakin said. “There are some good freshmen around, but he does some things no one else can do.”
Just think John Daly, except take away the bad stuff.