WOLCOTT, Colo. – Standing in the clubhouse Tuesday evening after battling a chilly mountain rain, Laurie Gibbs wasn’t thinking numbers. She was thinking strategy, and ultimately, about the big picture.
Gibbs brought a young Pepperdine team to Red Sky Golf Club’s Fazio Course this week, a high-altitude playground unlike anything her team practices on at home in Malibu, Calif. It’s the ultimate test of imaginative golf, and after last year’s close call, Pepperdine got it right. The Wave won the inaugural Golfweek Program Challenge in 2009 at Primm Valley Golf Club in Primm, Nev. Pepperdine became the first team in the event’s history to claim a second title on Wednesday, but those two victories are hardly comparable.
Gibbs had the secret to this course pegged early in the week, as her team was tied for the lead with Oklahoma after the first round.
“A course like this,” she had said, “you have so many variables.”
Gibbs is a fan of what she likes to call “classroom golf.” She makes her players think about a round and think about their shots. That Pepperdine was able to break away from the rest of the field with UC Davis after two rounds speaks volumes for this team’s imagination. Breaking away from UC Davis over the final nine holes to finish with a five-shot victory wasn’t easy as big numbers plagued many a scorecard down the final stretch.
“It’s not that they need a ton of help; they just need a little bit of direction here and there,” Gibbs said of how her players fared on a course where slick, undulating greens and high altitude call for strategy adjustments. “They take it and they trust it, and it’s great.”
As her team made the turn during the final round, Gibbs already was looking ahead. Nos. 10 and 14 were the toughest holes during Round 3, so Gibbs and assistant coach Leanne Craig positioned themselves there to guide their players through without disaster.
Still close to UC Davis as the scores came in, Pepperdine players were cautious in their celebrating by the time they all reached the 18th hole. The grins didn’t break out until the trophy made its way to Gibbs’ arms.
Pepperdine, a perennial West Coast Conference champion, is finding leadership in junior Grace Na this season, even if Na says she doesn’t quite feel like an upperclassman. The Alameda, Calif., native joined the Wave roster a semester early and has been a solid contributor. Na finished T-2 at Red Sky for the second consecutive year.
“She’s phenomenal, and she’s only going to get better,” Gibbs said. “She’s so due to win, but she’s been really patient.”
Perhaps it burned a little to come so close again, but Na knows everything eventually will “fall into place.”
“It feels really good,” she said of the team title. “We are overcoming a bad tournament from New Mexico, so it feels really good being back and I’m proud of all of my girls; they played awesome today. I think we’re very good at motivating each other this year.”
Gibbs references New Mexico, too. Pepperdine placed ninth at the Branch Law Firm/Dick McGuire Invitational to start the season, which caught Gibbs by surprise.
“I know what kind of team we have,” she said. “We’ve worked hard even in our little bit of preseason. We’ve worked hard in conditioning and practice, and even though we haven’t started school that long ago, I felt like we were really ready to go last week.”
Without much downtime between events, Pepperdine regrouped and placed three players in the top 5 at Red Sky. With Na at T-2, Alina Ching added a solo fourth and Somin Lee was T-5.
UC Davis may have finished five shots short, which makes a second consecutive runner-up finish for the Aggies at the Conference Challenge, but senior Demi Runas left with the individual title. Her 7-under 209 total left her three shots ahead of Na and Texas-San Antonio’s Fabiola Arriaga, and included a second-round 5-under 67. That round set a tournament record, which Campbell’s Kaylin Yost tied in the final round.
The Golfweek Conference Challenge was Runas’ third career title. It also was her third and final time playing Red Sky. She leaves with a good feeling.
“Obviously we didn’t come out with a win, but it just kind of shows we’re here,” she said. “We’re kind of a force to be reckoned with, so just know that we’re here.”