Pepperdine conquers variables to defend at Red Sky
WOLCOTT, Colo. – Laurie Gibbs has become somewhat famous for the amount of ink she expends on her players’ yardage books. But Gibbs, after 20 years at the helm of Pepperdine women’s golf team, knows golf is a game of variables. It’s why the Waves seemed to be playing a different course than the rest of 18-team field at the Golfweek Conference Challenge. Aside from experience, Pepperdine knew the numbers.
All five players returned from last year’s winning team, and Pepperdine defended its title at Red Sky Golf Club with a 36-shot victory over UC Davis. Pepperdine led by 22 shots after 36 holes, but a final-round 4-under 284 (eight shots better than the next best team score on Wednesday) left the Waves far ahead of the field.
Pepperdine has now won the Conference Challenge three of the five times the team has teed it up in the event. Red Sky puts a premium on placement, and staying on the correct side of the hole was especially important during a windy final round. Gusts came close to 40 mph as the afternoon wore on.
“All the things that we worked on, we knew we were going to have to put in play today,” Gibbs said. “Wind and landing and low ball flight and trying to stay patient and keep the ball in play.”
In each players’ yardage book, a handful of variables are identified to help in making educated, quick decisions. Categories include actual yardage, landing area, elevation, slope, lie and wind direction. All players have to do is the math.
“If it says land it below the hole, we land it below the hole,” said senior Grace Na, who won the individual title with a 6-under 210 total (71-71-68).
Gibbs’ analytical, numbers-oriented system of coaching is nothing new.
“I have put these in play since Katherine Hull (Kirk) was on the team,” said Gibbs, referencing the Pepperdine Hall of Famer, who graduated in 2003. “I have built these books becuase college golf is so unique. You get that one practice round, you have to take quick notes. ... Over the years, you have to remember this and that and sometimes you’re trying to play fast. With range finders, it’s just a whole different element.”
Hull Kirk is among a handful of Waves who have gone on to play professionally. Gibbs also noted that those players bound for the LPGA tour get an early look at what their future caddies’ roles might be.
Still, it’s not just numbers. Junior Alina Ching, who tied for 14th at 227, explained that the team talked extensively about managing the course and playing at a high altitude. Ching, who hits a higher ball than some of her teammates, had to pay special attention. The Honolulu native hadn’t played golf in such a focused way before arriving at Pepperdine. It’s been good for her game.
“You know that you’ve factored in all the variables,” Ching said. “When you step up to the ball you can just say, ‘I got it. I can hit this shot.’”
Ching and Na often emerge as leaders on the golf course, and Na became a little nostalgic throughout the week. As 54 holes wore on at Red Sky, Na counted down her “lasts” as a senior – last first tee shot, last first round, last final round, last team championship. Na has been a part of two Conference Championship-winning teams, and has tied for second individually each of the past two years.
The lasting image of the Pepperdine senior is from the 18th fairway, 209 yards from the green. As soon as Na hit her shot, she dropped to the ground. By that point on a sunny Colorado afternoon, wind gusts were nearly strong enough to blow over the petite player, but she was merely expressing her relief at the end of a hard-fought day. Na took out her yardage book and determined she would need a 175-yard shot to reach the green. A 23-degree hybrid left her just short of the greenside bunker at the par 5. She made birdie to close a final-round 68.
Na plans to attend LPGA Q-School next fall as she completes a final semester at Pepperdine. Na graduated high school a semester early to join the Waves.
Despite being a source of leadership for Pepperdine, Na says she learns something new every day. She’s taking advantage of of limited time with the team.
Pepperdine entered the season in the 15th spot in Golfweek’s preseason rankings, but with two victories in its first two starts – the Waves also won the Branch Law Firm/Dick McGuire Invitational before arriving at Red Sky – Pepperdine could climb in the rankings.
While Gibbs’ players were thinking about yardage numbers, they did an admirable job of forgetting about margin of victory. Needless to say, the Waves aren’t thinking about rankings or winning streaks, either.
As Na said, “I’m trying to embrace every moment.”