TULSA, Okla. – For Iowa State, when the clock struck midnight, er, noon on Friday and the 2013-14 season had come to a close at the NCAA Division I Women’s Golf Championships, the tournament’s leaders were just walking off the first tee at Tulsa Country Club.
As is the case whenever a curtain falls, there were hugs, and some tears, as the Cyclones bade goodbye to seniors Sasikarn On-iam and Prima Thammaraks. They staged one last team talk, then broke the huddle quietly. This wasn’t about an ending, but a beginning, a starting point of sorts for a program that seems to have a lot of open road ahead of it.
Of the 24 schools that earned the right to be in Tulsa this week, Iowa State was the only one that never had been to the Big Dance before. As in, ever. So though they don’t hand out trophies to those who finish 23rd, there was the sense that this could be a precursor to better days ahead.
“It was really exciting for all of our effort to pay off in getting here,” said Iowa State coach Christie Martens, who completed her 10th season leading the Cyclones. “We would have liked to have played a little bit better . . . but it was exciting to be here, and hopefully in subsequent years we’ll have a little more experience.”
Certainly the brightest spot for Iowa State was the play of junior Chonlada Chayanun of Thailand. She came into the week with only one sub-70 round all season, then delivered scores in the 60s on consecutive days (69-69) in the middle of nationals at a very demanding 1920s A.W. Tillinghast track (which received a makeover by Rees Jones a few years ago). She began Friday morning tied for third, with a shot at an NCAA individual title, but struggled a little with her driver and, at the end of what had been a great putting week, missed a couple of short putts. Still, a closing 72 will inject a healthy boost of confidence into her senior season.
Martens has turned the corner in Ames through several factors, among them good old hard work, a new, state-of-the art practice facility (the Cyclone Golf Performance Center, lauded as one of the finest anywhere) and a passport that has become dogeared through so much recruiting use. She has traveled to Thailand and scoured Europe. The Cyclones roster features one player from Jewell, Iowa (Katie Gustafson) and the rest could be a lineup that might one day lead the United Nations: players from Thailand (including three at nationals), Spain and Sweden.
Martens, due with her third child in mid-July, knows a little something about family dynamics. She said she learned from her days at Purdue as an assistant coach under Devon Brouse that the key in assembling an international college squad is making sure to get the team culture right.
“You want to try to get all the right pieces into place, (but) no matter where the players are from, it’s about building the right culture and building the program,” she said. “It’s not about one individual; it’s about the program as a whole. So how do you find the right fit? For me, we really have a team that gets along great, a team that I do well with.”
That’s not to say there aren’t growing pains at times for a player or two to travel halfway around the world and wake up amid the cornfields and open spaces of Iowa.
“It was pretty tough for me to be there,” said Chayanun, who is nicknamed Koy (pronounced “Goy”). “I could not speak English basically when I got here. Everybody was helping me out – my coaches, my teammates. But it was pretty tough at first . . .”
She has grown immensely (“She doesn’t give herself near enough credit,” Martens said), along with her program, which had been to regionals each year since 2010 but had failed to advance any farther. This time, this team, was different, getting through on the final day of the NCAA West Regional at Tumble Creek in Cle Elum, Wash. It was a year of several firsts for the Cyclones. On-iam was the team’s first medalist (Hurricane Invitational in Miami) since 2008, and will leave Iowa State with the school’s best stroke average (75.03 heading into nationals). In addition, the men’s team qualified for this week’s NCAAs in Kansas for the first time in 61 years. So there is something in the water these days in Ames.
When the Cyclones women finished second in closely contended events in back-to-back starts in Florida, it wasn’t viewed as heartache, as it might have been, but progress.
And so here they were Friday at the NCAAs, the biggest show in the land, and though the Cyclones would be next-to-last after four days, there was nothing but positives to take away. A beginning. One of Martens’ driving philosophies is that players cannot get caught up too long in bad holes, or bad rounds. It’s always about leaning forward, and looking ahead.
“I think we’ll get that confidence we need, and they’ll see it’s not about one hole; there’s a lot of holes out there,” Martens said. “This is a marathon, not a sprint. We’ve really been working on improving every single day.”
In score, the Cyclones accomplished that in Tulsa, carding 306-298-292-290. A little better each day. But to hear her speak, Martens was talking about something more significant than numbers.