LAKE ELMO, Minn. – When Andrea Gaston decided to leave USC last June to become head women’s golf coach at Texas A&M, she phoned each of her players individually to break the tough news.
“To say it was shocking was really an understatement,” said Trojans sophomore Alyaa Abdulghany.
Gaston’s sudden departure after 22 years in Los Angeles continued an emotional roller coaster for the USC players – one that began with Gaston announcing she was battling uterine cancer at the 2017 NCAA Championship (she has since beaten it) and continued with star players Muni He and Robynn Ree bolting for the LPGA last winter. The latter forced USC to enroll three freshmen early in the spring to avoid competing with just four players.
The loss of their longtime leader had left the Trojans in flux. But nearly three months later, USC has re-stabilized thanks to the addition of a pair of fresh faces – a new head coach and a talented freshman.
Lynn Swann, the Trojans’ athletic director, promoted men’s assistant Justin Silverstein to be Gaston’s replacement, a move that coupled with the retaining of assistant Stewart Burke ensured a nearly seamless transition. Silverstein spent four seasons as Gaston’s assistant, including the Trojans’ NCAA title-winning season in 2012-13, before moving to the men’s team.
Of the 10 players on USC’s roster this season, Silverstein recruited four of them – Abdulghany, junior Allisen Corpuz, sophomore Jennifer Chang and Malia Nam, a freshman from Kailua, Hawaii, who has made an immediate impact.
“Hiring Justin was a really good decision,” Abdulghany said. “He is the one who recruited me, and him being head coach is really a great step forward. He’s very unique and knows what we need to work on as a team to have success.”
Silverstein immediately changed the culture to resemble what worked with the men’s squad. He adjusted the team’s weekly practice schedule, switching to morning rounds at nearby courses three times a week and getting the most out of the team’s on-campus resources, which include two simulators and a short-game area. He added more point-based drills and created a more competitive environment in qualifying.
Most importantly, he gave this team structure in its preparation.
“This group bought in right away,” Silverstein said. “And they’re starting to see some growth in the areas where they had some shortcomings.”
For example, when Nam arrived on campus she was struggling with her putting. Her setup was poor, but she also couldn’t control her speed. So Silverstein had her practice a drill where she adds together the distance that her lag putts finish from the hole. Through this number, Nam is then able to see improvement and how she stacks up with her peers.
There are similar drills that the Trojans do for all facets of the game.
“It was all new to me,” Nam said. “I had never done drills like that before.”
Nam admits she’d never been one to grind for hours on the range. In fact, she’d sometimes rather be catching waves on her surfboard or skateboarding. But her hard work in college has paid off so far. She finished second in the team’s eight-round qualifier for the ANNIKA Intercollegiate, where she opened with a 3-under 69 Monday at Royal Golf Club.
Nam, a 5-foot-7 ballstriker, is one of the longer hitters in the field this week at the ANNIKA. She reached the par-5 second hole in two shots and made eagle, and also grabbed one of her three birdies at the par-5 18th.
Silverstein, who started recruiting Nam when she was 13 years old, calls his newest addition a “flusher.” Because of that ballstriking talent, he likens Nam to former USC men’s All-American Rico Hoey.
“Whatever magic ballstriking thing he had, she might have it, too,” Silverstein said. “She’s also very relaxed, very chill and down to Earth; nothing really bothers her. That’s what Rico brought to our men’s team.”
Nam grew up in Kailua, a town on the east coast of Oahu. Beginning at 8 years old, she practiced and played out of Mid-Pacific Country Club, a private course with Bermuda grasses that required her to hit a variety of shots. Not only did Nam not compete on the AJGA circuit as a junior golfer, she only made around four trips a summer to the U.S. to play tournaments.
When she qualified for the 2014 U.S. Women’s Amateur, Nam could sense that most people had no clue who she was.
“Coming from Hawaii it’s really hard because you’re basically a nobody,” Nam said. “I didn’t play AJGA, so no one knew who I was.”
The next year, she made match play at the Women’s Am. But by that time she had already committed to the Trojans, picking them over cross-town rival UCLA. Now, she’s an integral part of USC’s close-knit group.
“She’s really fun to be around and she’s just so positive,” Abdughany said. “She’s been great for the team dynamic.”
As rain fell Monday afternoon during the first round of the ANNIKA, the Trojans, at 6 under and three shots off the lead, waited out the weather delay in the top level of Royal Golf Club’s two-story clubhouse. Just three of the five USC players had finished their opening rounds, so the team spent a good hour or so sitting around a table until an announcement could be made about the resumption of play.
Play was suspended until Tuesday morning, though the weather forecasts for Tuesday and Wednesday call for more rain. The Trojans will be ready for anything. They’ve gone through some trying times recently and have grown closer because of it.
New coach. Stud freshman. Tested returners.
“We’ve all just come together really well,” Abdulghany said.
And with a goal of bringing a national title back to USC, this group of Trojans isn’t planning on breaking up any time soon.