March 21, 2013
STANFORD, Calif. - For the first time since 1975, the Stanford women's golf team is riding a three-tournament winning streak. Two Cardinal teams - in 1976 and 1980 - claimed four in a row, but let's not get ahead of ourselves.
The current squad, led by Anne Walker, the Margo and Mitch Milias Director of Women's Golf, has opened some eyes nationally. After victories at the Peg Barnard Invitational, Cal Classic and Juli Inkster Spartan Invitational, Stanford has climbed to fifth in the country in the Golfweek rankings.
"Back-to-back is hard to do at any level," said Walker. "To win three ... I'm feeling pretty good about that."
Walker, a three-time captain and All-Pac-10 player at Cal, spent the previous four years coaching at UC Davis, where she helped the Aggies acclimate to Division I competition. Walker proved herself quickly, winning three consecutive Coach of the Year awards after leading her team to three consecutive Big West Conference titles and qualifying twice for the NCAA Championships. She also lifted UC Davis to its first-ever Top 20 ranking.
Last fall, Stanford struggled, prompting the first-year coach to spend almost as much time talking to her team as watching them play. Here's what Walker concluded: "I was really surprised to get to know these players and just realize their belief in themselves didn't match their resumes," she said. "We talked about it a lot. You have to believe it to achieve it."
So Walker challenged them.
"I'll be the first to tell you I've pushed these girls probably harder than any team I've pushed because I felt like this particular group wanted to rise to the occasion," said Walker.
The turning point came in October in the Stanford Intercollegiate at Stanford Golf Course. Despite hosting a strong field, Walker noticed a lack of focus and commitment, and confronted her team.
"The first day we had some players running late and showing up sloppy, and I definitely let them know that was unacceptable," she said. "I said, `If we're going to be a championship team, those things don't happen.' I went out on a limb with them and told them that you can't be all talk; you've got to back it up and it starts with things you can control, like be on time and be ready to go."
Afterward, Walker and assistant coach Kathryn Imrie weren't sure how the team would respond.
"Because there were some tears, and this could go one of two ways," said Walker. "We play very poorly or they step up and play great. They played unbelievable."
The Cardinal finished third, 11 strokes behind winner and top-ranked USC. In addition, freshman Mariah Stackhouse tied for ninth individually, her second Top 10 showing of the season.
That event set the tone for spring. Suddenly, Walker's players bought in and realized they had the talent to play with the best.
"They show up ready to practice, they show up ready to compete, and I never have to ask them to bring a better attitude," she said. "They work hard and take it seriously. They're playing with intensity in practice rounds and that's carrying over for sure."
Stackhouse sparked the team to victory in the Peg Barnard Invitational, firing an NCAA-record 61 to win the individual crown. Sophomore Mariko Tumangan of San Jose carded a 4-under-par 68 and posted a career-best tie-for-second finish to pace Stanford at the Cal Classic at Ruby Hill Golf Club in Pleasanton. Then, Stackhouse won her second event of the year in the Juli Inkster Spartan Invitational at Almaden Golf and Country Club in San Jose, as the Cardinal cruised to an 11-stroke win over Washington.
In the latter, Stanford took a 10-stroke cushion into the final round and performed well under the pressure. The Cardinal won't be sneaking up on anybody the rest of the season.
"Certainly, we felt a little bit of pressure at the Inkster tournament," said Walker. "It's a totally different deal going out in front. But we need that experience. We learned a lot, and you can't protect. That's the hardest thing. You have to stick to your game plan."
While Stanford's ascent has been a total team effort, the 5-foot-2 Stackhouse from Riverdale, Ga., has quickly established herself as one of the rising collegiate talents in the country. This, from a player Walker wasn't sure could compete on the Division I level.
"When she showed up in the fall, I was really surprised that she wasn't a very long hitter," Walker said. "I specifically remember the first day I watched her in qualifying and I was like, `She is going to struggle in college golf.' She was hitting driver-5-wood, driver-hybrid and couldn't hold the greens. But then she also hadn't trained at a high level like these other kids."
That changed in November, when the team hit the weight room five days a week. Working with strength and conditioning coach Juan Pablo Reggiardo, Stackhouse transformed her game. With added strength and a new driver, she added more than 30 yards off the tee.
"She was pounding it out there with our long hitters like Mariko and Sally (Watson)," marveled Walker. "I mean, it was remarkable."
Which pretty much describes the team's turnaround. Players love their new-found success and are determined to keep pushing and improving. Walker has been particularly pleased by the play of junior Danielle Fraser and freshman Lauren Kim, and is waiting for Watson, a mainstay of the team the last three years, to hit her stride.
"They're over the moon about it," Walker said. "I think the thing I'm noticing is when we gather at the beginning of practice to talk, I'm seeing a lot of heads nodding. They're into it.
"The other thing that's been really fun, they came to practice and whispered, `Coach, people on campus know we won.' It's been fun for them because I don't think they'd had that experience."
Stanford will look to make it four straight wins next week at the Anuenue Spring Break Classic in Maui, Hawaii. The event has a stellar field, but the Cardinal has confidence and momentum on its side.
"It's unrealistic to think you can win every tournament, but you can certainly compete and clean up what's showing up in your stats as being a little messy," said Walker. "Winning covers up a lot of stuff. So we can't get caught in being like, `Aren't we great and keep doing what we're doing.' We have to peel back the layers and really figure out, `Well, we won, but how could we have won by more?' ''
Also ahead are the PING ASU Invitational, Pac-12 Championships and NCAA Regionals, the latter at Stanford Golf Course, May 9-11.
"These next three tournaments, the national champion is probably in the field," Walker said. "I think there's also a change of mentality that has to happen within a program, that not only are we ranked fifth, we belong in fifth. And that's okay. It takes time."
-- By Mark Soltau, Stanford Athletics
Palo Alto native Mark Soltau has spent his whole life and much of his career around Stanford sports. A sportswriter for 35 years, Soltau spent 16 (1981-97) at the San Francisco Examiner, where he covered not only the Cardinal, but all five 49ers Super Bowl-championship teams. Golf always has been his passion and Soltau served as the golf beat writer for the Examiner, as well as national golf writer for CBS Sportsline, and contributing editor to Golf Digest. He has been the editor of tigerwoods.com since 1997.