TEMPE, Ariz. – Melissa Luellen remembers clearly the day she decided to step away from competitive golf. She was dragging her clubs and her suitcase to the Glendale, Calif., airport to Monday-qualify for one of the LPGA’s first events of the year and thought: What am I doing?
The one-time tour winner was struggling with her game, her back hurt and her feet were bunioned. She was at the start of her 11th season on tour.
“I was really out of balance, thinking I had to give so much to practice and discipline, that I lost sight of everything else,” said Luellen, who now coaches at Arizona State. “I became my golf; I became my scores. All those cliches, but it’s a bad place to be.”
Luellen (nee McNamara) knows what it’s like to succeed on the LPGA and what it’s like to miss cuts. She also knows not to “play the LPGA card” with her Arizona State team.
“When we say something about golf, they listen,” said Luellen, speaking of herself and assistant Missy Farr-Kaye. “We don’t have to put it in their faces. They’ve done their homework, too.”
These days, it shouldn’t take much to persuade players to come to Tempe. The Sun Devils are the defending national champions and spent most of this season ranked No. 1. If not for the unknown illness that knocked ASU out of the Pac-10 Championship, the Sun Devils very likely would have entered NCAA regionals as the overall top seed. Instead, Golfweek’s No. 2-ranked team was shipped to the Central Regional in Columbus, Ind., where ASU finished second behind conference foe USC.
Luellen’s college “homework” began as a child in Tulsa, Okla., when Nancy Lopez and other future touring pros came over for dinner. Luellen’s mother, Dale McNamara, is a National Golf Coaches Association Hall of Famer who won four national titles at Tulsa. When Luellen quit competitive golf, it never dawned on her to follow in her mother’s footsteps – that is, until Dale mentioned it.
Luellen took her mother’s place in August 2000, finishing her last tournament on the LPGA the day before in St. Louis. Luellen spent two seasons at Tulsa before landing the job at Arizona State.
When asked why she decided to leave her alma mater so early, Luellen said, “The program that my mom built . . . I guess I just didn’t want to screw it up.”
ASU’s two coaches have known each other since Melissa was 10 and Missy was 9 at the Arizona Silver Belle.
Farr-Kaye said Luellen resembles her legendary mother in the way she treats the team like a second family.
“I think that’s one of the strong suits Dale had,” Farr-Kaye said. “She wasn’t just coaching players; she was coaching people that became part of her family. That’s certainly the culture that Melissa sets up here.”
McNamara, reflecting on similarities between her Tulsa teams and her daughter’s ASU squads, says the foundation is set early.
“You’ve got to recruit players that you know have the same core values,” McNamara said. “They don’t have to be best friends, but they have to respect each other.”
Luellen said only 1 percent of her job is instruction. She uses her knowledge as a former player to teach concepts such as emotion management, time management, how to be a team player and the importance of short-game practice.
When the Sun Devils are clicking, it’s because they’re composed. Of course, that rule applies as much to the coaches as it does the players.
Jaclyn Sweeney, who was new to the team last January, remembers watching the two seniors – Azahara Munoz and Jennifer Osborn – approach the coaches before the final round of last year’s NCAA Championship. They asked that the coaches not pace back and forth or show too many emotions. And please, put the BlackBerry away.
“I made a pact with myself,” Luellen said. “I would have messages I would send: breathe, smile, enjoy. Every hour I had something buzz on my BlackBerry, and it was a happy message. I tried not to look at the scores.”
Sweeney calls last year’s NCAAs the most stressful back nine she has been through – but also the most educational.
Carlota Ciganda, whom Luellen calls “a gamer,” won the Pac-10 Championship in a playoff last month. Ciganda struggled in the fall, which she and her coaches chalk up to summer fatigue.
At the last team meeting of the fall semester, Luellen printed out individual stats. Farr-Kaye slipped a sheet over to Ciganda and said, “Where are you? Where do you want to be?”
“Uno,” replied Ciganda, a Spaniard.
Luellen needs the team’s most talented player to come up big in the postseason. But the Sun Devils hardly are a one-woman operation.
“We have more than five good players on our team,” Luellen said. “Our deal was we always had four good players but not a fifth. It’s kind of a new challenge.”
ASU has three players ranked inside Golfweek’s top 10: Juliana Murcia (No. 6), Jennifer Johnson (No. 8) and Ciganda (No. 9). Sweeney is No. 21.
Luellen said Ciganda’s confident, positive outlook has a calming effect on everybody. The sophomore doesn’t say much, but when she does, it’s simple.
Ciganda remembers looking at a back-nine scoreboard at NCAAs last May and thinking, “No, we have to win.”
“Especially because all of us were great friends,” she said. “Like a small family.”
Luellen’s mother must be proud.
– Mike Balducci contributed