TULSA, Okla. – Dale McNamara hasn’t slept well lately. It’s NCAA Championship week in Tulsa and the legendary Hurricane coach is hyped up with daughter Melissa Luellen in town vying for a second national title. The Arizona State coach needs four championship rings to catch up to mom.
Here’s the scenario: The Sun Devils trail Duke by 15 shots heading into the final round, but Luellen doesn’t need her mother to tell her that in team golf, big swings are standard. McNamara, who coached her daughter at Tulsa in the 1980’s, might remind Melissa of the time they trailed by 21 strokes at the turn and won by four.
Or how ’bout the time Luellen’s Sun Devils trailed Duke by 13 shots with five holes to play at Stanford’s tournament and won by four.
“It’s team golf and crazy things can happen,” said Luellen. “We didn’t make any putts today. Maybe we will fill up the buckets tomorrow.”
Arizona State sits tied for sixth with N.C. State and Arizona after 54 holes. Powerhouse programs like UCLA and Southern Cal are ahead of the trio along with a seasoned Sooner squad and a fresh-faced Mississippi State.
McNamara first played Tulsa Country Club in 1950 at the Oklahoma Junior. She has cruised around the old Tillinghast design these last couple days shaking hands and peering through a monocular. Luellen grew up 10 miles from the course.
While Tulsa didn’t qualify for this week’s championship, the school set the standard for women’s college golf. McNamara started the program in 1974 as a volunteer and recruited “instant tradition” when she signed Nancy Lopez. Two nights ago, McNamara hosted a reunion party at her home for 10 retired coaches. Former New Mexico State coach Paul Brilliant brought a scrapbook from the 1988 NCAA Championship in Las Cruces, N.M. Tulsa won the championship by seven strokes, Melissa captured the individual title and Dale was named coach of the year.
“It was an absolute dream week,” Dale said.
The old war stories McNamara tells are priceless. When she first started the program, tournaments didn’t have pin sheets so McNamara would be out on the course at 5 a.m. charting hole locations. In the New Mexico desert, she’d run into rattlesnakes and jumbo jack rabbits on her early jaunts. She’d do anything to give her teams an edge.
McNamara, 78, is an old-school straight-shooter with a sharp sense of humor. She’s also tough. The uglier the weather in Tulsa, the longer they’d practice.
“You didn’t pick an indoor sport,” she’d say.
McNamara would occasionally have her teams spend the entire day playing out of the rough. On odd holes they’d purposefully hit into the right rough, on even holes they’d aim left. The goal was to make nothing higher than a bogey. She learned the drill from her old Scottish pro.
McNamara retired in 2000 and never had an assistant coach or one of those “cute trainers.” At one point she even coached Tulsa’s men’s and women’s teams at the same time solo. Hank Haney was one of her players.
“It was a riot,” she said of the juggling act.
Back in those days coaches couldn’t even talk to players during a round. Luellen laughs about it now, saying she can’t imagine what would happen if her mom had been able to talk to her after a big number.
McNamara admits she was too tough on her daughter, especially during freshman year.
“I was so afraid of anyone even sniffing that I had a preference,” she said.
The biggest injustice came when Luellen won a tournament while playing as an individual and was not given an exemption into the next event as her mother had done with another freshman. Luellen was so infuriated she failed to qualify.
“It was unfair,” said Luellen, who admits to making equally poor decisions herself as a head coach.
While McNamara never benefitted from the help of an assistant, Luellen has had one of the best in the business in Missy Farr-Kaye since 2002. Both ASU coaches have been a part of national championship teams as both players and coaches. Farr-Kaye, 46, helped the Sun Devils win the 1990 NCAA Championship under the leadership of Linda Vollstedt, who guided ASU to six national titles. Together Luellen and Farr-Kaye led ASU to victory in 2009.
“Linda always told us ‘All you can ask for is to give yourself an opportunity to make something special happen,’ ” Farr-Kaye said.
If the Sun Devils can survive Tillinghast’s opening gauntlet on Friday, there are birdie chances on the closing stretch that could spin a few heads.
The last time Tulsa Country Club hosted NCAAs, a massive storm canceled the final round. McNamara called it the scariest storm she’d ever been through and said officials had the course cleared of players and spectators in 15 minutes. Hail covered the ground like snow and the lightning ran low along the ground.
“My fillings were jingling,” she said.
Duke won that championship in 1999 and Arizona State tied for second.
Tomorrow’s forecast calls for a 30 percent chance of rain with a strong chance of fireworks.
McNamara probably won’t sleep a wink.