MOON TOWNSHIP, Pa. — Quick, name the region’s only NCAA Division I golf program.
No, it’s not at Pitt. Not Duquesne, either.
It’s Robert Morris University that sponsors the lone Keystone State D-I team west of Johnstown, male or female. Coach Jerry Stone leads the Colonial men out of Scally’s Golf Center and Montour Heights Country Club.
And while other college sports drew more attention for cancelled seasons, the onset of COVID-19 stung RMU golf more than most teams, regardless of sport. Paced by sharp-swinging seniors Max Palmer and Kyle Grube, the Colonials were favored to win the Northeast Conference for a second consecutive spring.
Those hopes zipped out the window, however. The pandemic limited the spring season to a single non-conference tournament in early March, and the Michigan-born Palmer elected to graduate and jump on a good job offer this summer.
But Grube, a grad of Indiana High School, has chosen to take advantage of the NCAA’s offer of an extra year of eligibility for spring student-athletes.
Whenever the Colonials return to the tee box to challenge for another crown — in another conference; more on that later — they’ll feature a ‘super senior’ on the team scorecard.
“Kyle jumped at it,” Stone told me last week. “He said, ‘I don’t want to take away what we’ve worked for as a group.’ He really wanted us to get out there and win (the NEC). It was simple for him.”
— RMU Golf (@RMU_Golf) June 9, 2020
Grube won’t be just any fifth-year player. He’ll be the rare player who has avoided any letdowns, improving his performance in each of his four NCAA seasons.
Since arriving on campus in the fall of 2016, Grube (pronounced GROOB) has progressively jumped from a 78.3 stroke average as a freshman, with a low round of 76 and a top individual finish of 12th, to a 73.5 average and a low of 68 as a senior, highlighted by a second-place finish.
“He’s been busting his hump,” Stone said. “He’s been playing great this year.”
While Grube hasn’t earned an individual victory as a collegian, a recent string of three consecutive runner-up finishes in medal play events, culminating in the Western Pennsylvania Stroke Play last month at Westmoreland Country Club, has him high on the state of his game.
The 6-foot-4 Grube credits his ball-striking work with Indiana Country Club head professional Zack Turek — especially regular examination and application of TrackMan ballistic data — for putting him in position to compete for the top prize tourney after tourney.
“It’s about the positive repetitions,” Grube said. “My game has been great. It’s miles different. It gets you into that feel where you’re confident. It’s hard to say you can’t hit a given shot on the course if you just did it 10 times before on the Trackman.”
But Grube admits that he’s had a gift for the long game dating back to his early junior days. His improving results are due to more than further calibrating his full swing.
Indeed, over the course of his college career, Grube says he’s dropped his number of putts per round by roughly six. In that area, he’s trained with a Stimpmeter-like device called The Perfect Putter with helping him figure out his read and speed in tournament conditions.
“Seeing the line in putting is the biggest part,” he said. “I’m not needing to hit it to five feet to make birdie anymore.”
As with most self-improvement sports stories, though, the impetus is more intangible than technique alterations.
Over the course of four years, Grube has grown from a freshman who Stone “wasn’t sure was really ready” for D-I competition, to an athlete who has fleshed out his practice habits and has better managed his on-course decisions.
“He learned he had to practice harder and better,” Stone said. “Over the past three years, it’s blossomed. Now, during a three-hour practice (window), he’s practicing for three hours. There’s no time off. His attitude has stood out over the past two, three years.
“His short game still needs work, like everyone’s does, but his long game is pretty good.”
Grube agrees with Stone, winkingly claiming he likes his chances better with a 4-iron in his hands than a pitching wedge. He notes that in last week’s Pennsylvania Match Play at York Country Club, three times he made bogey despite drilling a long drive down the fairway.
“The number of shots I leave out there is disgusting,” Grube says with a rueful laugh. “That’s really all I work on with the Trackman is 50, 60, 70, 80 yards, trying to groove it and get it better.”
Overall, though, this is a confident golfer moving his game in the right direction. It’s helped that Grube had a running mate (and freshman roommate) in Palmer at the top of RMU’s tee sheet.
The latter had the edge early in that four-year friendly rivalry. Palmer averaged just a hair over 74 strokes in 87 rounds at RMU, the second-best mark in program history, and never deviated more than a shot in either direction in any of his season averages.
As described above, Grube was more of a slow burn in the NCAA game, but in his final two years he led the Colonials in total rounds under par, with 10. He pulled ahead of Palmer in stroke average by 2019-20, too.
“I think it was maturity,” Grube said. “I always worked relatively hard, but the competition with Max was good. He was miles better than me when we were freshmen. We really pushed each other.
“I didn’t like not being the best player on the team. That bothered me a lot.”
The son of Dave and Marcie Grube, @KBG_21 made the All-@NECsports First Team last year and was on pace for an even better 2019-20. All four of his top-five finishes in the last two seasons, with a third at the 2019 NECs helping seal a title. 🏆#ColonialPride 🔵⛳🔴 #SeniorDay pic.twitter.com/6Xlv7m3LOz
— RMU Golf (@RMU_Golf) April 26, 2020
After multiple years sharing the leadership mantle, the 2020-21 Colonials will be Grube’s team, even though he’s decided not to compete in the non-championship fall season in order to finish a second bachelor’s degree. That decision might be moot anyway, as there’s not a lot of optimism around college golf that the fall season will go forward.
Grube was prepared for that contingency. Already the owner of an undergrad diploma in management, with an intention to make a career in insurance, he is now pursuing a hospitality degree, with an expected completion date of spring 2021.
Even if Grube doesn’t compete for RMU until the new year, he can help set the standard in terms of work ethic at practice. That’ll be important as the Colonials make a step up in conference affiliation; after nearly four decades competing in the NEC for most sports, RMU will join the Midwest-based Horizon League when the new academic year begins.
That means a higher standard of opposition. Both Stone and Grube say the Horizon will be stronger top-to-bottom than the NEC, even if the upper echelon of each league — and the top of each team’s lineup — is rather comparable.
“From a team aspect, it becomes a ton different,” Grube said. “Hopefully it will help Robert Morris get better recruits. The NEC was weaker, and I’ll be the first to tell you that.”
Eschewing the jet-setting lifestyle of many top amateurs his age, Grube is focusing on regional tournaments this summer. Due to high finishes in recent years, he’s exempt from qualifying for what he calls the “big four” — the West Penn Amateur and Open, and the Pennsylvania Amateur and Open.
Pending the rescheduling of the first of those competitions, all will occur in the next several weeks. Considering Grube won’t be back on the tee box for RMU until the new year, motivation and urgency are peaking right now.
“I want a big win,” Grube said. “I’ve had so many seconds.”
What he doesn’t want is to turn pro, even though he says “a lot of people” are trying to get him to consider it. Über-accomplished local amateur Nathan Smith has advised him that playing high-level golf while building a career outside the industry can be a “satisfying lifestyle.”
Smith would know, having won the U.S. Mid-Amateur four times, earning four trips to play in the Masters. That’s on top of claiming four West Penn Amateurs, two Pennsylvania Amateurs and several other top-level tourneys.
For Grube, pulling off a fraction of that without needing to score for his livelihood every week would be more than fine.
“It’s just stressful, man,” he said of the eat-what-you-kill pro tours. “I know I could turn pro and compete and make money, but that’s not the lifestyle I want to live. I want that stable income.”
And RMU would love to have some stability in its first year in a new league. As far as arrangements go, that’s a good one.