Saturday, April 15, 2017 | 2 a.m.
UNLV golfer Shintaro Ban stood over a putt on the 18th hole at a recent tournament at Arizona State, deep in concentration. It was the kind of putt Ban, a junior, has made thousands of times, sloping gently left to right at a distance of 16 feet. Not a particularly treacherous attempt on its face, but the type of putt even the world’s most seasoned golfers can miss when the stakes get high enough and nerves enter the equation.
And the stakes were elevated for this putt. Ban had made it to the 18th green in 61 shots, and sinking this putt would give him a school record for all-time lowest scoring round.
Ban exhaled, stroked the ball on a firm line and guided it into the middle of the cup.
Shortly after carding his historic 62, Ban’s phone buzzed. It was a text message from UNLV coach Dwaine Knight, and Ban knew what it was going to say before he even opened it: “Great separation!”
For pupils of Knight, “separation” is a well-worn lesson. It’s key to his coaching philosophy, a core belief that helped him build one of the nation’s best collegiate golf programs over the past three decades. It goes like this: Plant your lower half and fix your head on the ball all the way through impact. By removing all excess movement and “separating” from the lower half, the shoulders and arms are free to stroke the ball on a true line, free of tremors.
That’s the Cliff’s Notes version, but the concept has worked wonders for Knight. A renowned teacher of the short game, Knight has helped golfers improve their putting and mental toughness since he was hired in 1987. More than any other sports program at UNLV — including basketball — men’s golf has been the ideal of consistent excellence over the last 30 years.
Before Knight came to UNLV, the school’s Division I golf program was theoretical. Then the head coach at New Mexico, his alma mater, Knight had to be convinced there was a future in Las Vegas. Steve Wynn promised him the golf team would never go wanting, and basketball coach Jerry Tarkanian and Athletic Director Brad Rothermel sold Knight on the school’s athletic potential.
“Basketball was rocking and rolling at that time, and Brad thought golf could get on par with that,” Knight says. “We had all the resources to build a great program here; it was just a matter of putting it all together. It was kind of a leap of faith, in a way, but there was a real connection with the idea that you could be the best in the nation and win a national championship here. I was really taken with that. There was something about this job that just intrigued me.”
The pitch worked and Knight packed up and planted himself at UNLV. Now in his 30th season, he has truly built a top-tier program from the ground up. He has consistently brought in talented players from all corners of the world, producing current PGA tour champions like Adam Scott, Ryan Moore and Charley Hoffman. He has won at the highest level, including a national championship in 1998. And away from the course, he established a network of more than 100 private donors, keeping the program well-funded even at a time when the rest of the athletic department is struggling to make ends meet.
Knight still has the machinery firing at full capacity. The Rebels are currently ranked 17th in the country and could contend for another national title over the next few years, and it’s due to Knight’s deft handling of the entire program. He doesn’t subscribe to the “10,000 hours theory” and insists he doesn’t have all the answers yet, but the evidence shows otherwise. Knight has seen it all — recruiting battles, academic issues, budget brushfires, tough losses, administrative issues, etc. — and other UNLV coaches will sometimes come to him for advice. Knight is a little too soft-spoken to play the Godfather, but with the way his championship ring sits on his hand, it’s easy to imagine younger coaches waiting outside his office, rehearsing their Luca Brasi speeches.
Knight’s corner office is filled with UNLV golf memorabilia. He is quick to point out photographs, trophies and framed magazine articles from the 1998 championship campaign, but he’s not living in the past — they’re points of reference to prove that the Rebels have done it before, are doing it now and can do it again.
Retirement remains a foreign concept. “It hasn’t really crossed my mind,” Knight says. “You never master this job, especially when you’re dealing with young people. All the experience helps, obviously, but I still see something new every day. And I really enjoy the kids and their dreams to play at the highest level. If you ask me what I’m thinking about all the time, it’s to win another national championship. That’s what I’m gunning for.”
Knight’s sense of security is central to everything he’s done at UNLV. Like a man who builds a cabin by chopping down trees and clearing land with his own bare hands, living inside the end result is the ultimate satisfaction. Knight is content inside the program he has erected, and he’s motivated to keep it going.
The only time Knight ever really considered leaving UNLV was in 1996, when the University of Texas tried to lure him away. Knight had yet to win a national championship with the Rebels at that point, and Texas could offer the big budget and brand recognition necessary to contend on a yearly basis. So he toured the Austin campus, heard pitches from alums Tom Kite and Ben Crenshaw, met all the key decision makers and sat in a conference room with a contract in front of him (the table was shaped like the Star of Texas). Knight’s wife even gave her blessing on the move. But Knight couldn’t put pen to paper.
“It was probably the hardest decision of my life to turn that down,” Knight says. “But I felt such a connection with the people here in Las Vegas. People like Tom Hartley and Steve Wynn talked to me. We’d come close to winning a national championship here, but we hadn’t won one. We lost by three shots in 1996, and that was a stunner. I felt if I went to Texas, with all its resources, we could probably win one, but I could never get away from what the people here in Las Vegas had built for us. I could never break that connection in my heart. I felt like at Texas, you could add to their great legacy, but at UNLV, you get to create your own.”
Two years later, Knight guided the Rebels to a national championship, and the program has been cruising ever since. The job has changed over the years, and Knight has changed with it — it would be impossible to remain at the top of any profession for 30 years without being able to adapt. Knight says he used to spend more time coaching players on their swing mechanics and technique, but most of today’s Rebels have had their own personal swing coaches since they were kids. Now when Knight takes his players out on the course, he’s mostly concentrating on the short game and the mental aspect.
“He knows we work with our own coaches, and he doesn’t want to mess with that,” Ban says. “But he’s always there to help. He gives a lot of putting lessons, which I like. Swing-wise, he’s not focused on technical things. If we want to ask him something, he’s a great teacher, especially about the mental side.”
As proven by Ban’s 62, the separation method is alive and well within UNLV’s golf program, and within Knight. It’s about steadying your base so you can execute, and whether it’s applied to a 16-foot putt or a 30-year career, the results speak for themselves.
“When people get set to make a big putt to win the Masters or whatever, the tendency with all of us when the pressure grows is to come out of the putt,” Knight says. “At the point of impact, you look up. It’s only natural. You want to see where it goes. You want to see if it goes in. And that changes the angle of the club, changes the acceleration, changes the trajectory. The great ones are able to separate and stay back in their position, let the putter go through and let the ball go in the hole. Most people can’t do it.”
Separation is so ingrained in Knight’s players, Ban was expecting that congratulatory text from the moment his putt dropped.
Ban was still elated and reveling in his school record when he texted back.
“Thanks, coach,” Ban replied. “I learned from the best.”