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On the Links with Atlanta Hawks Coach Lon Kruger

By Shane Sharp, Contributor

CHARLOTTE, N.C. - Atlanta Hawks head coach Lon Kruger has a lot to look forward to this upcoming NBA season. After posting a 25-57 record last season and finishing seventh in the Central Division, the Hawks nabbed the third overall pick in the 2001 NBA Draft, and eventually traded for Marietta (GA.) native and rising superstar Shareef Abdur-Rahim.

With a solid, young nucleus that includes shooting guard Jason Terry and power center Theo Ratliff, and savvy veterans such as former Chicago Bulls star Toni Kukoc, Atlanta stands to be one of the most improved teams in the Eastern Conference.

But during the offseason, Kruger wasn't always holed up in some office all day contemplating his team's prospects. Instead, the Kansas native was out on the links, testing his mettle against some of the Atlanta area's best golf courses.

"I have played in Florida, Atlanta, Chicago, and all around the United States," Kruger says. "That is the great thing about golf is that there are great golf courses everywhere."

Kruger took up the game as a youngster when he started playing in his father's weekly game at the local public course in Silver Lake, Kansas. A talented young baseball player, Kruger would typically join his teammates for a match or two in between practice and games.

In college, golf took a back seat to sports and school, as Kruger split time between playing basketball and baseball for Kansas State. Kruger went on to coach the Wildcats basketball squad from 1986-1990, where he spent the offseason playing many of the tree-lined courses of the Midwest.

"Growing up in the Midwest, those are the kind of courses that still appeal to me," Kruger says. "I like the trees and the narrow fairways and the traditional feel. Florida has great courses, obviously, but when I think of golf, I think of the Midwest. I like the old courses, the big tree-lined fairways that don't allow you to spray it. The older courses, especially in the Midwest, they don't let you get away with too much."

Kruger got his chance to sample some of the best layouts the Sunshine state had to offer when he took over as the head basketball coach of the Florida Gators in 1990.

Rebuilding a program that finished 7-21 the year before he took over (1989-90), Kruger led the Gators to postseason competition in four of his six seasons. With two NIT berths and two NCAA appearances, his best season came in 1994 when he led the Gators to a school-record 29-8 mark and a NCAA Final Four appearance. Kruger earned SEC Coach of the Year honors on two occasions - 1992 and 1994.

Kruger says there was a bitter irony to being so successful at a football-dominated school located in the heart of some of America's best golfing country. His unlikely resurrection of the Gators' hoops program made him one of the hottest young coaches in the country.

But being one of coaching's rising stars also left little time for golf.

"I got out in Florida to play a little bit, playing with the booster groups, but not as much as you might think," Kruger says. "You think I would have played more, but with the basketball season it was hard. There were great courses everywhere in Florida, so it was tempting."

Kruger took over the basketball program at Illinois in 1996, and would go on to discover some of his all-time favorite golf courses in the Chicago area.

"Medinah is probably my favorite course, but I also love Cog Hill where they play the Western Open," Kruger says. "I played those courses with boosters and fans. But what really makes it great is not the course, necessarily, but the people that you play with."

Kruger's success at Illinois led to his hiring as the Hawks head coach prior to the 2000/2001 season. It didn't take Kruger long to find some of the Atlanta area's oldest and most sought-after rounds of golf.

"The golf here reminds me of the Midwest, with all the trees," he says. "I have played East Lake, the Atlanta Athletic Club, the Golf Club of Georgia and the Country Club of the South."

While it may seem like a retreat from the pressures of coaching in the national spotlight, Kruger says that he enjoys the game for the competition and camaraderie it offers, rather than the relaxation.

"It's the competition I like," he says. "Day to day, if you think about the focus that the PGA Tour players have it is amazing. It is amazing that they do it for four days, and we just try to do it for one."

Kruger, 47, has no designs on trying out for the Senior Tour, but he brings the same athleticism and dedication to the golf course that he did to the baseball diamond and basketball court as a collegian.

He is a member at the Atlanta National Country Club, where he carries a five handicap, and participates in a number of local charity golf events.

"Golf is a great game because you play the same game by the same rules everywhere you go," Kruger says. "It teaches patience and manners and with the handicap system, brings all types of players together."

What's in Lon's Bag

Irons: Ping I-3's
Woods: Titleist
Putter: Odyssey
Balls: Titleist Pro V1

Dream Golf Trip

"I want to play the courses of Ireland and Scotland. The booster club at Illinois had a trip planned over there the week I was offered and accepted the Hawks job, so I didn't get to go."

Playing Partners

"I haven't played with any other NBA coaches, but I have played with some college coaches like Jim Harrick (UCLA), Tubby Smith (Kentucky) and Jim Calhoun (Connecticut).

If I could change one thing about the gameā€¦

"Pace of play. Golf is a game in which you are supposed to keep moving."

Shane SharpShane Sharp, Contributor

Shane Sharp is vice president of Buffalo Communications, a golf and lifestyle media agency. He was a writer, senior writer and managing editor of TravelGolf.com from 1997 to 2003.

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