Keeping Score

Coaches elevate roles amid NCAA drama

STILLWATER, Okla. – It became obvious early on the back nine that the national title would come down to the final group. In the four years that the NCAA Division I Women’s Championship has been televised, this scene – the deciding match going extra holes – has played out three times. It’s all that you could want, in terms of growing viewership and buy-in for the sport. The drama is real.

Viewer feedback also called attention last week to the fact that the drama is slow (“From the Morning Read inbox,” May 25). There was considerable coach-player deliberation during the final holes Wednesday at Karsten Creek Golf Club. Sometimes a player was outnumbered by her coaches – this was especially obvious on the 19th hole when Alabama senior Lakareber Abe was surrounded by both coaches. Arizona junior Haley Moore stood in her corner with associate head coach Derek Radley. Five people on the green for the final twosome prompted the question: How much coaching is too much?

Rewind a few holes to answer that and note specifically Radley’s entrance into the foray. Moore is well-known to her coaches and teammates, and now all viewers at home, as an emotional yet powerful player. She was leaking oil at the start of the back nine in the anchor match, and 1 down to Abe after No. 12.

Radley arrived at a critical moment and effectively took up as caddie. He helped Moore read the wind, get the right yardage to landing areas and notice green contours. All are easy things to lose sight of in the heat of the moment, no matter how many times a competitor might have played a course. Maybe most importantly, Radley calmed Moore.

“I just kept breathing, and my assistant coach [Derek Radley], he was by my side the whole time and was with me no matter what would have happened,” Moore told Golf Channel after her 1-up victory delivered the national title for Arizona (“Keeping score,” May 24).

Here’s a player who has competed for three seasons of college golf and qualified for numerous junior and amateur events, but at that level, there are no TV cameras seeking close-ups. Radley’s calming influence helped balance that unfamiliar element. For her part, Arizona head coach Laura Ianello was on the sidelines trying to keep the excitement to a moderate level – in essence, trying to keep Moore’s teammates out of her head.

Rewind again to the 25-foot eagle putt that junior Bianca Pagdanganan dropped two days earlier at No. 18 just to get Arizona into a playoff to make match play. There was no coach involvement, even though Radley and Ianello were steps away. 

On-course coach-player interaction is dictated by player personality and situation. It also may be directly communicated by the player. That was the case for Texas A&M senior Maddie Szeryk, who tried having her coach by her side for most of the first round, only to go it almost completely solo in the second round.

“For Maddie’s game, she hasn’t had me all year,” said Texas A&M head coach Trelle McCombs, who was not retained after the season. “She’s matured enough to make her own decisions.”

For all the hands-on coaching that the TV cameras brought to life at the national championship, keep in mind that there are hundreds of solo player experiences which the camera doesn’t catch throughout the year. The majority of college golf is played without a coach by the player’s side, but it’s a great advantage when a golfer needs it. And isn’t a coach’s job to be a resource for his or her players? The golf course is, after all, the college coach’s office.

National-championship golf often presents images we aren’t used to seeing in the regular season. That’s true of championships in general. Everything means more with an NCAA title, a Super Bowl title, a major title, etc., on the line.

The format itself underscores the stakes. Match play is beginning to creep into the regular season, but the overwhelming majority of events still are played in a stroke-play format. Match play creates more excitement and just works better for TV. It demands that coaches bring more strategy into play – from setting the lineups to being on-hand at the right time – than at arguably any other point in the season. We are likely to see similar moments of intense coaching this week as the final matches of the men’s national championship play out at Karsten Creek (scores).

In some cases, such as in the final moments of the championship, coach involvement can greatly slow down the pace. In other cases, a coach’s presence brings a confidence that can quicken a step, a club choice, a pre-shot routine. At the NCAA Championship, viewers witnessed college coaches performing their jobs under a microscope, and on the biggest stage – which also happens to be a little unfamiliar to college players. From that perspective, who can blame them for using every tool in the bag to claim a title?

Julie Williams is a former college golfer and Golfweek writer who teaches eighth-grade English and coaches a high school girls golf team in Cocoa Beach, Fla. Email: hello@beyondthesundaydriver.com; Twitter: @BTSD_Jules


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