Hungry, worldly Washington could stage NCAA upset
TULSA, Okla. – When you’ve been doing this as long as Mary Lou Mulflur, the stories are just better.
Beside the putting green Monday at Tulsa Country Club, Mulflur seemed right at home reminiscing on faraway places. To get to this point – standing in the shade of an overhang, petting the resident country club dog, greeting every coach and official who walked by – Mulflur first had to navigate China, skirt an earthquake in Tokyo, bond with strangers in Singapore, gingerly exchange emails with a South Korean family in British Columbia and recognize the potential in a Washington local who was unbeatable in 1A high-school golf.
Mulflur, 31 years deep as Washington’s head coach, and assistant coach Andrea VanderLende collected this team by putting a heavy emphasis on gut feeling and instinct. Culturally, it’s an unlikely bunch that has meshed well.
PHOTOS: Women's NCAA Golf Championships (preview)
View images of some of the teams at Tulsa Country Club during Monday's practice round of the Women's NCAA Championships.
“Not having family close by, you can help each other through that, sort of grow as a result of it,” sophomore Charlotte Thomas said.
Thomas was perhaps Mulflur’s biggest leap of faith. Washington was Thomas’ first stop on a marathon college-scouting process Thomas had planned around the 2010 Callaway Junior World Championships. Thomas, born in England, moved to Singapore when she was 13 to finish high school. During the campus visit, Mulflur was immediately taken with Thomas’ personality, even though her game wasn’t stunning. She flew to Singapore to visit the player in her element. Thirty minutes before a scheduled layover in Tokyo, an earthquake struck and travel panic ensued. After a night spent in the airport, Mulflur finally arrived at the Thomas’ home, and consolidated her three legal days of recruiting into one swoop. It’s when she made her offer – three days backed up Mulflur’s instinct.
Thomas has since grown into a top-25 player in the country, and earlier this month received a captain’s pick for the Great Britain and Ireland Curtis Cup squad. Two of her three brothers have moved to Melbourne, Australia, and Thomas calls that her home base. She is taking the team to visit in September.
“It’s a completely different style of golf so I’m excited for them to have the experience of playing over there,” Thomas said.
Sophomore Thomas joined the team with Ying Luo, who Mulflur scouted in Shenzhen, China at a tournament. A player on the men’s team knew Luo and had begun emailing her, eventually connecting her with Mulflur. After one look at Luo’s swing in China, Mulflur wanted her. By last spring, the two were at the NCAA Championship, where Luo was playing as an individual.
Juniors SooBin Kim and Jennifer Yang both came from South Korea by way of British Columbia. Kim, with three individual victories over the past three years, is a story of maturity and improvement.
“She is so talented and so motivated,” Mulflur said. “She wants to make a living playing golf and she has the skill set. It’s just that maturity of having an understanding of when you can take risks and when you can’t.”
Of the two, Yang actually committed to Washington first. Mulflur had extended her offer an in an email, and waited patiently for a response for two weeks. When one didn’t come, she followed up, assuming she hadn’t been able to snag this player. A response came back immediately from Yang’s brother Andy, who explained that in Korean culture, these decisions take time. Eventually, Yang made the right one.
The final piece is the one that fell into place before all of these. Nearly eight years ago, a friend told Mulflur about a freshman in nearby Chelan, Wash., who had potential. Mulflur patiently watched, and four state titles later, Kelli Bowers came to Seattle to play for Washington. She was a big fish in a small pond as a junior golfer, but came in under the radar and adjusted well.
“She’s a feel-good story,” Mulflur said of Bowers, who sat out the second part of last season with a back injury. Over the summer, Bowers qualified for the U.S. Women’s Open.
It all comes back to Tulsa, where Washington will play in the national championship for the first time since 2011. An NCAA Championship amounts to 72 holes on a difficult course with pressure to succeed. Each year, there’s a short (usually recurring) list of teams that can legitimately win this tournament. Tulsa Country Club, a 1920s A.W. Tillinghast design rehabbed three years ago by Rees Jones, reinforces the short-list theory. Big-picture aside, it’s also windy and it’s firm.
“You can’t say it’s just another tournament, because everybody knows it’s not,” Mulflur said. “You realize that this is the big stage.”
Washington shouldn’t have missed it the past two years. In May 2012, seeded No. 10 in the East Regional, a lackluster performance left Washington 17 shots back, in 13th.
The next fall, the Huskies came out of the gate with two victories and two runners-up to reach the top of theGolfweek/Sagarin College Rankings. That was a first in Mulflur’s coaching career. She delivered the news to the team one afternoon on the putting green, and a hungry young squad took it in stride. They took the top spot into the offseason, and at some point, confidence became uneasiness.
“We had this title, being No. 1,” Kim said. “We tried to do something different.”
Mulflur looks back and realizes that she didn’t communicate to her team loudly enough that a ranking won’t get you to the NCAA finals. The Huskies had the No. 4 seed in last year’s Central Regional, but missed by two shots.
“You still have to go out and execute,” Mulflur said. “It wasn’t lack of effort, I just didn’t do a very good job of gauging how they were handling that ranking, and I think they put a lot more pressure on themselves than they needed to.”
Washington, with four players inside Golfweek’s top 55, qualified for these NCAAs with a runner-up finish at the NCAA West Regional, which it hosted at home at Tumble Creek Club in Cle Elum, Wash. It was the eighth tournament in Washington’s past 10 starts in which it lined up against top-ranked USC, also the defending champion in Tulsa. Washington beat the Trojans at the Silverado Showdown on April 15. That’s something only two other teams (UCLA and Stanford) did all season in 54-hole events.
Now that the Huskies are here, they are on the short list, even though a Washington win would be considered an upset. Mulflur’s team has to score for four rounds, and not think about it.
In terms of preparedness, Washington is there. These players came from all corners of the world to traverse the West Coast with Mulflur. They began the season in Japan at the Topy Cup, and won by 50 shots. Every player also knows what it’s like to miss qualifying for the postseason as a team.
“Every time, you have to hit the bottom to go to the top,” Kim said.
Mulflur equates success in Tulsa with having more fun than any other team, which can also mean staying the most relaxed. She calls herself a grandma and VanderLende a sister to her players. Washington also brought volunteer assistant David Elaimy, who will alternate with VanderLende as one of the two designated coaches each team is allowed in competition.
The wind sweeping Tulsa’s traditional-style fairways on Monday was comparable to that sweeping Tumble Creek 10 days ago at regionals, and Washington can play in it.
“I think it matches up with us really well,” Mulflur said of the course. “It’s long, and most of our players hit it long. The ones that don’t just manage their game better than anybody.”
Given their passports, it’s tough to imagine there’s anything to which Mulflur’s players couldn’t adjust.