Rizzo puts Miami women's golf back on the map

Miami head coach Patti Rizzo and junior Kailey Walsh

Women's Rankings »

RankNameSchoolRating
1Alison LeeUCLA  69.96 
2Stephanie MeadowAlabama  70.17 
3Gaby LopezArkansas  70.29 
4Noemi JimenezArizona St  70.31 
5Celine BoutierDuke  70.40 

Women's Team Rankings »

RankNameRatingEvents
1Southern California 70.64  13 
2UCLA 70.83  12 
3Duke 70.89  11 
4Stanford 71.74  13 
5Arizona State 71.75  12 

From 1970 to 1984, the University of Miami women’s golf team won five national championships. The players on Patti Rizzo’s current squad weren’t even born when the Hurricanes experienced their heyday. Miami’s last NCAA Championship appearance: 1992.

For Rizzo, 53, to get players to buy into the rebuilding process, she had to sell herself. With a ranking that had plummeted out of the top 100 and the program having no recent reputation of winning, Rizzo pulled out her LPGA card and went to work.

“I know what it feels like to stand over a putt and have to make it to win a tournament and $250,000 if it goes in,” said Rizzo, a four-time winner on the LPGA and the 1982 Rookie of the Year.

Now in her fourth year at the helm in Coral Gables, Rizzo has her alma mater ranked 39th in the country, a substantial improvement over recent years. Miami’s low points came in the 2009-10 and 2010-11 seasons, when the Hurricanes finished 117th and 116th, respectively, in the Golfweek/Sagarin College Rankings.

“It’s kind of like they let golf fall off the map,” Rizzo said.

While at Miami, Rizzo was a standout amateur, winning the World Amateur, Trans National, Eastern Am and Mexican Am titles in 1980. She earned victories at the North & South Amateur, South Atlantic Amateur and Harder Hall in ’81. She also nearly captured the LPGA’s Florida Lady Citrus in Orlando as an amateur, losing in a five-person playoff.

Rizzo played a 40-tournament schedule in her prime, competing on the LPGA as well as in Europe and Japan. In 1989, she was ranked ninth in the world.

A victory in Japan led to a one-year exemption to play the JLPGA full time. Rizzo got an apartment in Tokyo and became the tour’s “Unofficial Money Queen,” leading the circuit in earnings, although the money title wasn’t officially recognized because she hadn’t gone through JLPGA Q-School.

When Rizzo, a mother of two, decided it was time to put away her clubs, she realized the first order of business was to finish her degree in psychology.

While hosting a charity event, Rizzo happened to run into the athletics director at Barry University in nearby Miami Shores, and he asked, “How ’bout coaching?”

“Coaching!” Rizzo replied. “I don’t know anything about coaching.”

Rizzo conceded she wasn’t the ideal student-athlete during her time in Coral Gables. She had cared only about golf and was uninterested in rules, discipline or structure.

“I was a real individualist,” she said.

But Barry’s AD insisted, offering free night classes in order for her to finish her degree.

Rizzo jumped on the offer and served as head coach for five seasons.

When Lela Cannon stepped down as Miami’s coach after 27 seasons, Rizzo took a step closer to what had become a big dream.

While interviewing for the Miami job, Rizzo was asked by then-athletic director Kirby Hocutt why she thought she could make the program better.

“Why couldn’t I?” Rizzo replied.

Sunshine all year. Great courses nearby. Small classes. The city’s rich culture.

It’s really a wonder the program hadn’t flourished all these years.

“Greatness can change very quickly,” Arizona State coach Melissa Luellen said. “A program can go downhill for many different reasons, and it takes a long time to rebuild it.”

Perennial national powers Arizona State and UCLA played alongside Miami at last week’s Betsy Rawls Longhorn Invitational in Austin, Texas, where both Pac-12 coaches were impressed by what they saw. The Hurricanes led the field after an opening 12-under 276, shattering by five strokes the school record set in 1987.

Miami finished the tournament in third, and Rizzo was able to pinpoint the Hurricanes’ new focus.

“Playing with UCLA and Arizona State, we learned our only weakness is our putting,” she said. “Our players are young. They think they have to slam dunk every putt in the hole.”

Rizzo insists that the Hurricanes’ 12-under performance was no fluke and sees no reason why her team can’t put up even better numbers this spring.

Rika Park of Japan and Leticia Ras-Anderica of Spain were Rizzo’s first recruits. She asked them to be patient as she built a team around them. Rizzo took advantage of the Doral and Orange Bowl junior holiday tournaments in her backyard. She worked Miami’s natural pipeline to South America and landed two promising freshmen in Delfina Acosta of Argentina and Daniela Darquea of Ecuador.

In an unexpected bonus, Kailey Walsh phoned over the summer and asked if she could transfer from Georgia. Walsh, a native of Boca Raton, Fla., had Miami on her short list during the recruiting process but ultimately followed her big brother (former Bulldogs placekicker Blair Walsh, now with the Minnesota Vikings) to Athens, Ga.

“I was looking for a smaller school with more of a focus in my area,” said Walsh, an economics major, on why she transferred.

Rizzo praised Walsh’s role as a leader and couldn’t be happier with her team’s chemistry. Acosta, Darquea and Walsh all tied for 16th place at the Betsy Rawls, and Park finished 23rd. At the Onion Creek Challenge two weeks before, Ras-Anderica finished fifth and Acosta (T-7), Darquea (T-11) and Walsh (T-13) also posted top-15 finishes.

While her players possess the ballstriking capabilities to grow the Miami program in substantial ways, that’s not all Rizzo looks for when she recruits.

“I can feel an aura of players,” Rizzo said. “If they’re winners, more or less. Pressure golfers.”

Rizzo said she and assistant coach John Koskinen “are in heaven” right now, soaking up the early success of a program that has turned a corner. Excited by her team’s play in Texas, Rizzo has upped the Hurricanes’ goal of breaking into the top 20 of the rankings to the top 10.

“It’s just a matter of them maturing, having better course management and controlling their putts a little more,” she said.

“I hope I’m right.”

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