Taking over men's Division I golf program comes naturally to former LPGA player

Western Illinois

Taking over men's Division I golf program comes naturally to former LPGA player

College

Taking over men's Division I golf program comes naturally to former LPGA player

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Lia Biehl Lukkarinen doesn’t have much time to sit down and think about what it means to be a female coaching in a man’s world. The newly appointed head men’s golf coach at Western Illinois is too busy also leading the women’s program as well as running golf operations at the university’s course and teaching a sports management class one night a week.

Lukkarinen ought to give lessons in time management while she’s at it.

“She’s the hardest worker I know,” said senior Joe Burke, who plays on the men’s team at Western and works for Lukkarinen in the golf shop. “She makes sure everything is done and done correctly.”

There aren’t many women coaching men in Division I college golf or at any level for that matter. Last summer Ohio State named Therese Hession to its newly-created director of golf position for both the men’s and women’s programs. Hession, a longtime women’s coach at OSU and former LPGA player, was the first female to hold such a position at a Power Five Conference school.

Patty Post does the same at Delaware. Betty Kaufmann coached the men’s team at DePaul before retiring in 2017.

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“We’re just in this crazy world right now of just shaking the foundation of how all of us grew up,” said Lukkarinen, a mother of two whose husband works as a professor at Western Illinois.

This marks Lukkarinen’s 15th season over the women’s program. She played collegiate golf at Illinois and won on the Symetra Tour before playing a full season on the LPGA, competing in the 1994 U.S. Women’s Open.

Last season Lukkarinen was named interim coach of the men’s program and coached both teams without an assistant coach. When tournaments overlapped in the fall, an administrator went with one of the teams. This year Lukkarinen has a graduate assistant, Brodie Dakin, to help out.

Because Lukkarinen already served as swing instructor for so many players on the men’s team when she was named interim coach, it was an easy transition.

Burke said the men didn’t think much about having a woman coaching their team until they showed up to their first event and had players from other schools ask if it was weird to have a woman as their coach.

It was the question that seemed out of place to Burke.

“What I really enjoy about her teaching is that she’s very straightforward,” said Burke. “She’s going to tell you exactly what you need to do, and if you’re not doing it, she’s going to tell you you’re not doing it.”

Lukkarinen keeps the practice results for both teams on the same Google doc in the hope that it promotes healthy competition. Both teams can learn from each other, she said.

The women, for example, take better notes during practice rounds and are better prepared, whereas the men mostly view it as another round of golf. She’d like to see the women relax a little bit more and not overthink things, and the men adopt more of a plan of action.

A self-described “swing junkie,” Lukkarinen is working in between qualifying rounds to get everyone’s swing on film and their numbers in place so that they can get to work on making improvements over the winter.

The people that have to be the most flexible during season are the ones that she lives with.

“My kids understand that I kind of work time and a half for six months a year,” she said. It’s not easy raising a family while wearing so many hats, but Lukkarinen carries a deep love for what she does.

In fact, her father, Ed Biehl, was a PGA teaching pro and her mother’s parents owned a golf course.

“I never thought about being a woman teacher,” she said. “I’m just kind of a bulldozer.”

Biehl, who turned 75 this week and shot 74, will travel with the team several times this season as a volunteer assistant with his daughter.

Lukkarinen also passed along a love of teaching to her students.

Burke, whose younger brother Eddie is also on the team this year, started taking lessons from Lukkarinen a decade ago and has helped run some of the same camps he participated in as a kid. The experience fueled his desire to become a teaching pro after graduation.

“Honestly, putting smiles on kids’ faces,” said Burke, “seeing them do something they didn’t think they were able to do, it just makes me super happy.”

Lukkarinen knows the feeling all too well.

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