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Nine for '19, No. 9: What the summer says about college golf
30 Aug 2019
by Julie Williams of AmateurGolf.com

see also: Gabriela Ruffels Rankings

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Sahith Theegala and Gabi Ruffels (USGA photos)
Sahith Theegala and Gabi Ruffels (USGA photos)

With a new college golf season approaching, we present our “Nine for ‘19” series. In the countdown to the first major weekend of college competition, we take a look at the nine best storylines for the fall. Consider this your primer for one of our favorite parts of the game.

Hardly a week went by this past summer when a Pepperdine player wasn’t racking up a tournament title – or at least putting himself in the conversation for one. In fact, the Waves did a rare California sweep: Pepperdine players claimed the SCGA Amateur (Sahith Theegala), NCGA Amateur (Josh McCarthy) and the California Amateur (William Mouw).

Pepperdine head coach Michael Beard isn’t even sure if that’s been done by any team before, much less his team. Past the state amateur victories, there was also the Sahalee Players title that sophomore Joe Highsmith won by defeating redshirt senior Theegala. R.J. Manke medaled at the PNGA Amateur and won the Mexican International Amateur by nine shots. In addition to his California Am title, Mouw also co-medaled at the U.S. Junior and won the AJGA’s Thunderbird International Junior.

To top it off, Pepperdine sent six players to the U.S. Amateur this month. Only Arizona State could match that.

“I think if it were Texas or Oklahoma state or another bigger-name school, people would say, ‘Oh, that’s pretty cool,’” Beard said. “Because it’s Pepperdine, it may seem a little more surprising or shocking.”

The shock isn’t going to last very long. When Golfweek magazine released its annual preseason college rankings this month, Pepperdine checked in at No. 2. That can be a blessing and a curse, though Beard doesn’t expect it to be much of a distraction.

“They’ve all won big tournaments, they know it’s not the best thing to get sucked into that,” he said. “I don’t get the sense that we’re going to fall in love with ourselves, I really don’t.”

Beard has a roster of 11 players. Among those men, four are newcomers – freshmen Tristan Gretzky (son of The Great One), Mouw and Dylan Menante, plus Nevada transfer Joey Vrzich, who won twice for the Rebels in the spring season. Mouw “is just a beast,” as Beard says, but Menante is the oft-overlooked "sneaky good" player from Carlsbad, Calif.

In reality, Beard didn’t really intend to have this many in the huddle. If not for a wrist injury that forced Theegala to redshirt last season, he would have graduated last spring. Vrzich’s arrival was a bonus as well. But everything happens for a reason, in Beard’s mind, and being without Theegala last season forced some of the younger players to step up. They gained tournament starts, exposure and experience, and that makes Pepperdine a different team this fall.

“We hung in there without (Theegala) pretty well,” Beard said.

Regardless of the kind of numbers Theegala is going to be able to contribute after a 10-month competitive break – though the summer would suggest that those numbers are going to be pretty good – Beard contends that it’s simply Theegala’s presence that makes everyone around him better.

“He’s not a rah-rah type leader, he’s kind of a gentle-spirited person but very well-respected among our team,” Beard said. “…When he’s there, he just brings a presence, whether it’s when we’re out to dinner, at the hotel room or whatever it is, he just has a presence about him that seems to lead that way.”

As one might imagine, being away from his team the past year ate at Theegala.

“I’ve watched more golf than I ever have,” he joked at the Sunnehanna Amateur this summer.

The Sunnehanna was his first competitive start since the 2018 U.S. Amateur last August. He won the SCGA Amateur in his fourth start back.

If Theegala is the best comeback story, then Highsmith is the most improved. Highsmith played in the final group on the final day of the Sunnehanna, ultimately finished eighth, then came back three weeks later to defeat Theegala for the Sahalee Players title. He was medalist in his U.S. Amateur qualifier two weeks after that.

In Highsmith, a freshman last season, Beard saw a player with raw talent who needed to get his mind right. Beard made the decision that if Pepperdine was going to contend, Highsmith had to be a contributor. He ended his freshman season third in scoring.

“He has confidence now but it’s the right way,” Beard said.

The foundation is there. It’s there for the whole program.

• • •

The USC women’s golf roster looks nearly identical to last season. Head coach Justin Silverstein doesn’t bring in any new freshmen this year. The only new blood in Los Angeles belongs to new assistant coach Katie Mitchell.

Silverstein is a numbers guy. As a first-year head coach last year (after six seasons spent as an assistant for both the men’s and women’s teams), he approached his players this way: All day, every day, it’s my job to figure out how to make you better.

USC brings back a first-team All-American in Jennifer Chang. Junior classmate Gabriela Ruffels is the reigning U.S. Women’s Amateur champion. You’d be hard-pressed to find a player with a better summer head-to-head record than Ruffels, who won the North & South Women’s Amateur a month before the Women’s Amateur. That’s an 11-0 match-play record.

Silverstein has seen this coming for a long time. Ruffels is the child of professional tennis players and focused on tennis until her early teen years. She had a lot to learn among a supporting cast of players who have only ever known golf.

“When you talk golf with people like that, you feel like you’re talking to a seasoned tour veteran,” Silverstein said of the other players on his team.

He pumped Ruffels full of golf knowledge – from yardages to shot-making to hitting off certain lies to mental game. Ruffels picked up a full shot per round on the greens over the past year, and Silverstein said she’s as accurate as any player on the team with her irons. Ruffels benefits from a strong balance of athletic genes and a deeply rooted desire to get better.

“We just included last year Malia Nam as a sixth person, and five people travel, so there was a lot of competition between us at school,” Ruffels said of the impetus behind her recent improvement. “… And having that pressure to make the team, especially with all these great players around, I think has pushed me to a new level and has made me try and work harder and harder.”

USC very nearly returned the Ladies British Amateur champion to the roster, too. New Zealander Amelia Garvey just came up one match short in Northern Ireland in June but it was a valuable run for self-confidence.

If anyone walks by the USC women on the range, Silverstein said, Garvey’s powerful swing is the one that makes them stop and stare. Garvey played her way into USC’s NCAA lineup last spring and secured a team-best seventh-place finish.

Garvey was the rare player who Silverstein had to pull aside and tell her how good she was. She struggled to believe it.

“I think that British Am week was big,” Silverstein said. “For her just to kind of take a breath, look in the mirror and be like, ‘I do belong, this is the player I am.’”

• • •

MORE SUMMER MOJO WORTH MENTIONING:

Baylor men: There’s a silver lining in the realization that you’re playing a teammate in the first round of the U.S. Amateur. That was a reality for Baylor players Cooper Dossey and Travis McInroe.

“Either way, there is a Bear going into the Round of 32,” Dossey reasoned, and it was Dossey who came out ahead (even though he fell in the next round to Blake Hathcoat).

Still, it was an impressive summer for Baylor when you look at Dossey’s North & South victory six weeks earlier at Pinehurst No. 2 plus Ryan Grider’s Texas Amateur win. Recent graduate Garrett May won the Northeastern Amateur.

Stanford women: Two of the four U.S. Women’s Amateur semifinalists were Stanford players: Andrea Lee and Albane Valenzuela. Both women also competed in the U.S. Women’s Open, and Lee made the cut.

As for newcomers, the Cardinal will welcome U.S. Girls’ Junior champion Angelina Ye into the fold this year as a freshman.

Georgia Tech men: In the Yellow Jacket column, one players stands out over all the others: U.S. Amateur champion Andy Ogletree. Winning the Monroe Invitational in June was like a tune-up for Pinehurst.

While Ogletree was winning the Monroe, teammate Noah Norton was across the country at Pebble Beach competing in the U.S. Open.



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