Thursday, June 17, 2021

We Are Not Forgotten: Remembering Mike

Golf has the ability to connect young and old, male and female, living and those who are no longer with us. I was reminded of this truth—once again—by participating in the WGANC two-day Stroke Championship. With my summer vacation now underway, I was particularly excited do play in this tourney because I had not played at Claremont—the home course of a friend—Mike Donovan. Mike died on April 30, 2018 but his spirit and his legacy live on. Golf has a special way of doing that. Here's the story.

I met Mike many years ago through one of his closest and dearest friends, Peggy. A devout Catholic and golfer, Mike was no stranger to adversity—having lost his home in the Oakland fire and in battling cancer for 23 years. As written in his obituary, "In response to his own inability to swallow because of his cancer treatments, Mike co-founded the National Foundation of Swallowing Disorders to help others with the same dysphagia. While living in Oakland, he volunteered as a Basketball Coach for Seventh and Eighth Grade boys in Oakland's inner city. He truly was a man for others, even as he faced his continued cancer treatments." In fact, his ability to speak was compromised due to those chemotherapy treatments, but Peggy always understood what he said. Theirs was a special friendship to witness and share. 

Mike still communicated volumes by his gentle and warm presence. He had the Arnold Palmer syndrome—making you feel like you were the only person in the room. He smiled and laughed through his Irish eyes and witty retorts; he let his clubs do most of the talking. I never got to play with Mike at Claremont, but Peggy sure did. Mike was unofficially the mayor of CGCC, not to mention the club champion (3x). This title means that club members take notice when you come to play. The first tee, near the 19th hole, puts added pressure on that moment. When Peggy came to play with Mike, he swung easy. Peggy rose to the occasion. We love that memory. When Mike died, Claremont flew the flag at half mast in his honor.

Shotgun start at Claremont Country Club

In February 2016 Peggy, Mike, another friend and me spent the weekend in Carmel and attended the AT&T Pebble Beach Pro-Am, two days in a row. Upon the conclusion of a weekend of great golf, outstanding weather, and wonderful companionship, I said that I didn't think I could go back. I wasn't convinced that anything could top the experience I had. Less than a year later, Mike got sick again. We had high hopes we would be able reconvene but it was not to be. I have returned to the Pro-Am several times and it's different. Still, I cherish those memories and how special our time together was.

On my drive to Claremont, I prayed for those who were touched by Mike's life and for those who still grieve.I recalled the stories that were shared in the eulogy following the mass of Christian burial at Saint Theresa's. I would like his family and friends to know, I share his story with my students even today.

Walking up to the club house, I thought of the celebration of his life that took place in that beautiful space and the sight of his close friends huddled on that patio overlooking the first and eighteenth holes. During my round, I thought many times of how he might have played certain holes and what advice he might have given to me (he was super encouraging). Though I had a bit of a heavy heart, I played great. I think Mike made sure I would.

At the conclusion of the day, I approached the General Manager and head pro who were standing together, near the putting green. I said "thank you for a great day. A friend Mike Donovan was a member here and loved this place." "Mike Donovan!" said the GM. "What a wonderful man. That one still hurts." I replied "the only time I have been here prior to today was after his funeral. I wanted to play in this tournament because I never got to play here with him and I knew it was very special." He responded "thank you for remembering Mike. Thank you for telling us that."

Although it wasn't Claremont, I did get to play golf with Mike at his other club, on the Ocean course at Monterey Peninsula GC. Mike went out of his way to make sure I got a hat as a memento from the round. Anytime I wear it and someone asks about the old logo—I get to share a little bit about Mike.

Someone recently said to me, "For someone that doesn’t get paid to play golf you care way too much about it!" His words are both inconsiderate and obtuse. I'm glad I care about golf—it has a way of connecting us to people and to places that emerge from the ordinary to extraordinary. It reminds us that we are not forgotten. We can participate and play in honor of those we love and with those we care about. I should say I look forward to talking about my round on Monday with Mike...but I already did. I believe in the communion of saints. Mike is just one more example of my conviction.

Photo Credits

Monday, June 14, 2021

Coaching Will Ruin Your Life: Why We Do It Anyway

Ask me why I still coach after twenty-plus years of working in high school athletics and my dear friend Haley comes to mind as one answer. Haley is a former colleague; she is a huge sports fan, wife, mom, teacher and true soul sister. Like me, she runs a varsity program. Unlike me, she manages a team of 30 young women on a team sport. Golf is different. It is an individual sport that high schools and colleges offer as a team experience. I carry nine girls on varsity and eighteen in the program. In spite of our differences, Haley and I meet in the middle. We unpack the challenges of coaching the female high school athlete. We discuss the fight that we face to give female sports the recognition they deserve. Together we have come to determine at some point, somewhere we want to offer a talk....or write an article...entitled "Coaching will ruin your life: Why we do it anyway." And, finishing the 2020-2021 school year's golf season might just add a new twist. 

Coaching high school sports will ruin your life. During the season, you can kiss your weekends goodbye. You never quite know if you are doing enough. Should I have scheduled a few more scrimmages? Why not organize a Catholic school tournament? Did we practice this part of the game enough? Why can't they do x? How can we get better at y? And when will z stick? There is always some administrative task that has yet to be done. Though you may have the transportation needs and dismissal times published, you forgot to get the uniform orders in as early as you had hoped. Your weekdays are long, your game days longer. It is never safe to assume anything. For example, as soon as I started to think how well my team was getting along, one girl confessed to mean girl syndrome on the team. This floored me. Just the other day, I shared with another golfer some of the drills my team practices. She said "wow, you really plan stuff." Yes I do. If I don't, my life is doubly ruined!

But this post is not the story of the ruination of my life since athletics reopened in the state of California due to COVID. When the CIF announced that girls' and boys' golf would begin on February 8, we were ready and excited. When I saw that the league championships would take place in May and the sectional championship would happen in June, I thought "ok." So much of life this past year was TBD. I figured the story of this season was to be determined. And so it was.

Coaching did anything but ruin my life this year. In fact, it was one of the most enjoyable parts of it. I wouldn't be a teacher or a coach if I didn't enjoy spending time with young people and this season allowed me to do something I once took for granted. I got to spend time, in person, with the same girls, participating in a game we love. With the restrictions of COVID came new found freedoms. We met at the golf course, and girls came when they could. If they couldn't make practice or a match we worked around it. This wasn't seamless or without hassle or mistakes, but it worked.

We welcomed to our team two seniors—one who quit the year before due to academic demands. The other was a young woman who had talked about playing golf—a lot—but played volleyball in the past. I heard about this as her classroom teacher and invited her to try out. Too many seniors take a step away from participation in high school sports. We are so grateful she didn't! 

Their kindness, positive attitudes and talent galvanized into a team chemistry that shaped our team for the better. Whereas teammates are naturally competitive with one another, the affect of these seniors buoyed the camaraderie and playfulness of the crew. For example, after one round, one player was noting how terrible she played because of her three-putt. One of my seniors said "well would you rather three putt or three chip to get on the green." That's a good teammate.

We finished second in the league and played at the Central Coast section championship, Wednesday June 9—nearly two weeks after classes resumed. We were told by the league commissioners that players would need to leave right after their round and there would not be an awards ceremony. No one questioned these protocols; girls' golf in the Spring season is already an anomaly.

What materialized could not be scripted. Because we qualified as a team, my players were in the final six groupings. Upon finishing, girls sat on the grass—the 18th green at Laguna Seca Golf Ranch has a natural amphitheater around it— and waited as their teammates came through. As each girl came in, their teammates wanted to know how they did. This is always a tense moment because their is the inner-pressure to best everyone in the field is coupled with a true desire to support your teammate! With school out and the season over, we felt no pressure to go anywhere or be anything other than who we were at the moment.

One player was fighting back tears. Another girl saw this and said "it's ok, I cried earlier." Another admitted that she cries all the time. One added that she wears waterproof mascara because she knows she will cry. When one girl finished, her dad gave her a big hug and told her how proud he was of his daughter. The girl sitting next to me said "I wish my Dad was like that." Her tears began. We continued to watch and share stories of the round. At one point I told a girl that I cried when I realized what time I needed to leave my home to get to the course on time. She smiled saying "see Coach, you cry too." I gathered the team together for one final meeting. I congratulated them, I thanked them, and told them I loved them. This moment however was shortened by a player's parent telling us to hurry up. They were giving away awards.

This impromptu, informal gathering was unexpected. One of my players earned a medal for finishing fourth overall. An outstanding teammate, we were overjoyed for her award. Moments later, our team was awarded with the third place trophy. We ran up for our hardware, embraced and celebrated the moment. Team pictures, selfies, high fives and hugs are what we will remember—tears and all.

In a non-pandemic season, I would drive the team to the match and most of their parents would pick them up and we would depart separately. The team van would be empty and I would begin the haul back to campus. This year, I left as I came—alone in my Jeep—but full of gratitude for the season that almost wasn't.

I turned on the radio, and I started to cry. Overcome with emotion, exhaustion, those feelings of self doubt and uncertainty, coupled by the others of thankfulness and knowing I gave my very best. So many tears.

I reached out to Haley to share all that I was feeling. She simply said, "Tears in or after a season only make it official. So happy for you!!" 

Once again, coaching ruined my life....and I'm so grateful.

NB: and to women in particular. If you are thinking of coaching high school sports, please talk to me and to Haley. We have a lot to share.

Sunday, June 6, 2021

Lessons from The Good Life and the 2021 US Women's Open

In her philosophy class, What Makes a Life Good?, Dr. Meghan Sullivan contends "there are some things in life that we just can’t outsource to other people." In other words, only you should offer an apology to someone you have hurt, you must be the one to go on the awkward first date with someone you are interested in dating. and, the only person to speak to a therapist about their own you. Sullivan offers these examples because she also believes that determining what makes a life good—the essential question of the course— is something you have to do for yourself. I asked my students what they thought. When I found little to no disagreement, I then asked "What else ought you do for yourself?" Someone replied "write a thank you note." "Interesting," I said. "And is a thank you note essential for living a good life?" My student responded, "maybe not the note itself, but expressing gratitude in an intentional or formal way is." I agree.

The champion, Yuka Saso tees off on the iconic 18th hole of the Lake Course
I recall this snapshot of my Moral Issues class because I find myself in need of expressing gratitude. And, I don't know to whom I should address my note—but I am thankful to have been a part of the 76th United States Women's Open that took place from June 3-6, 2021 on the Lake Course at the Olympic Club. It was the sixth time the club has hosted a US Open Championship and the first time it has welcomed the women's tourney. I will carry memories from this entire week with me for a lifetime.

When asked to work as the co-chair for junior volunteers in September 2019, the plan was to target young people, especially female golfers—to work "inside the ropes" next to the best women in the world. Like so much of life since March 2020, the USGA worked overtime to pivot and find a way to keep young people involved. I'm glad they did--both for my sake and for those young members who were able to contribute to the success of the event! 

Thank you to my co-chair Marissa and to the crew of young Olympians who showed up Monday through Sunday. They sorted through thousands of range balls, separating between Titlelist Pro VI, Titlelist Pro VX and Callaway and bagged them into a highly coveted* US Open 2021 red bags. They placed the sign placards behind each player on the range so the crowd would know who was warming up, shagged balls on the 18th green practice area and made it all work. 

There were so many highlights from the week, but one in particular was having my team—Saint Francis girls' golf in attendance on Thursday, Day 1 of the Open. These young women really know the game as both players and as fans. They were in awe of seeing the players up close and personal. They analyzed their swings, their putting, their bags and their outfits ;-) At one point, the commentary between two of my players was so good, I suggested that they get into the announcer's booth. Should I warn Kay Cockerill or Morgan Pressell now? My team was  slightly star struck, when they realized we were sitting next to several members of the Stanford women's golf team. They thanked Cal Coach, Nancy McDaniel for her Confidence Drill and they were able to take photos with several players. Go Lancers!

Two of my players with Emma Talley

My team wasn't the only enthusiastic bunch on the property. It was great to see so many fans of all ages—both men and women, teens and kids excited about the women's game. The tourney offered several great story lines with the return of past champions: the Pink Panther—Paula Creamer and new mom, Michelle Wie-West. One of the amateurs—Megha Ganne who has yet to complete her junior year of high school (and is already committed to Stanford) made her way into the final pairing. She is poised and gracious, spirited and spunky. I love that she beckoned the crowd to roar for more (after making a putt for bogey....awesome) and that she conceded that although she was a crowd favorite, her caddy--a long time member might be the bigger draw. Unfortunately, Lexi Thompson—who was once the youngest golfer to play in the USWO at the age of 12—lost the lead and finished in third. The Lake Course has long been known as the "graveyard of champions." Thompson proved it to be no misnomer. Though part of the story of the 2021 USWO, none of that should take away the accomplishment or the congratulations due to Yuka Saso of Manila, Philippines. Saso captured the championship in a sudden death play off and defeated Nasa Hataoka of Japan.

I kept thinking of the word "hospitality" all week long. To host an event takes incredible preparation, time, energy and sacrifice. Due to COVID, it was unclear whether or not fans would even be allowed in attendance and the volunteer pool was limited to just members. Fortunately, the tourney welcomed limited fans and it all worked because folks worked long shifts many of which required either setting and alarm clock and/or going to bed past one's bed time. We all bared the summer in San Francisco (brutal!) and walked away with fog burn, wind burn, new friends and a deepened appreciation for the club and the game of golf.

As I was talking to two of my players, I realized the man standing near us was none other than Mike Wahn, the longtime commissioner of the LPGA and soon to be CEO of the USGA. I smiled at him, introduced myself and said "I teach about you in my class." I told him about the power of the thank you note—how much I appreciated that he encouraged the LPGA players to write them to sponsors and in turn how this helped to grow the game. He was holding a folder and said "I have a few of them in here." "Caught in the act," I said. That is also something only you can do for yourself. 

What makes a life good? The 2021 USWO reminds me of the answers: friends, service, hard work, inspiration, athletics—golf, teamwork and....gratitude.

Photo Credits
@USWomen'sOpen Olympic Club Instagram