(Sun) Devil Of A Good Start

Feb. 27, 2006

By Ryan Herrington
Golf Digest

Depending on your vantage point, it took either seven days or four years to revive a fallen college golf dynasty. With back-to-back victories at the Northrop Grumman Regional Challenge Feb. 15 and the Arizona Wildcat Invitational Feb. 21, Melissa Luellen's Arizona State squad has sprung from a solid up-and-comer to legitimate NCAA championship contender, defeating No. 1 Duke, No. 2 UCLA (twice), No. 4 Auburn, No. 5 Pepperdine (twice), No. 6 Georgia and No. 8 USC (twice). No doubt the results are welcome news for the Sun Devil faithful who, after watching the team win a record six national championships in nine years during the 1990s, have had to stomach finishing no better than a T-8 at NCAAs since 2000.

Ask Luellen just what got into her team, ranked seventh in the final Golf World coaches' poll last fall, and she'll tell you the answer is pretty simple and likely obvious: they got fed up with losing.'We had our team meeting the beginning of this semester and they were not very happy they didn't win a tournament in the fall,' Luellen said. 'We had some opportunities and just never really put it all together.' Particularly bitter were a one-shot defeat to Pepperdine at October's Edean Ihlanfeldt Invitational and a loss to Purdue in the final of November's Hooters Collegiate Match Play.

Like so many of the nation's top teams, freshmen are leading the way for ASU on the course. After earning medalist honors at the Edean Ihlanfeldt and posting two other top-20 performances in the fall, Jennifer Osborn has broken par in three of her six rounds the past two weeks, taking second place at Palos Verdes CC and T-3 in Tucson. Meanwhile, fellow rookie Azahara Munoz matched Osborn's showing at the Arizona Wildcat, her fourth top-10 in 2005-06 to go with a team best 72.87 stroke average.While Munoz came all the way from Malaga, Spain, Luellen contends it was Osborn, an 18-year-old from Huntington Beach, Calif., who had the more difficult time with the transition to college life during the fall semester.

'Being an only child, adjusting to dorm life, adjusting to the schedule. There were just a lot of different things [to get used to],' Luellen said. 'All those things everybody goes through. The golf course then was her haven and I think that's why she was able to play so well because it was like all this other crap doesn't affect me when I'm here on the green grass. But and now I think she's very comfortable. She's in good position to earn All-American honors and win another win, I think she's a lock for first team.'

Yet more than just talented rookies, the Sun Devils have a pair of upperclassmen in senior Alissa Kuczka (74.28 average; four top-20 finishes) and junior Tiffany Tavee (75.0; four top-20s) who have brought focus and a passion to the team concept, each having experienced some of the lean times. (And to think what might be happening if last year's national player of the year, Louise Stahle, didn't turn pro this summer and earn an LPGA Tour card after her freshman year in 2004-05).

No doubt the atmosphere in Tempe had become fractured and distressed, perhaps an unavoidable byproduct of having coaching legend Linda Vollstedt step down after an historic 22-year career and one not helped at all by an awkward one-year stint by Mickey Yokoi in 2001. Yet expectations never changed and were painfully obvious when Luellen took over the program in the fall of 2002.

'My first day at ASU, we had an all athletic-staff meeting,' she recalled. 'And they flashed up on a Power Point [presentation] what was expected, what the administrative goals were for each sport. And it was men's and women's golf, you have the facilities, you have everything to be consistently ranked in the top five and winning national championships. There it was, put up in lights. Thankfully it's what I expect too.'

Luellen admits it's not just her squad that's moving into new territory but also her as a coach. In her three years in the top spot at Tulsa prior to coming to ASU, her squads won three WAC titles and went to nationals three times but finished no better than 10th. 'You just kind of go with you gut what you think is right at the right time,' she said. Even if it involves a team-building exercise out on Tempe Town Lake, where the ASU crew team coach gave them the golfers a crash course in rowing at the start of the semester. 'Let's just say we all have a new found respect for rowing. It was really hard.'

The good news for Arizona State is that Luellen, a former NCAA champion as a player and an 11-year veteran of the LPGA Tour, isn't intimidated by the task at hand, having already had to replace a coaching icon when taking over the Golden Hurricane from her mother, Dale McNamara.

Of course, the key now is to capitalize on the early season success and use it to build confidence. The good news about two victories in February is they set the right tone for the rest of the spring. The bad news is that they also create expectations. Aside from the Sun Devils disappointing record at nationals, they haven't won a Pac-10 title since 1996.

The NCAA Championship at Ohio State's Scarlet Course is still 88 days away. Keeping a team from peaking too early is the toughest task a coach must face. It's now time to see if Arizona State is prepared to finish what it's begun.