Klein brings enthusiasm to rebuilding UCF golf
It doesn't take long to notice something different as you watch Emilee Klein on the job at a college golf tournament. Take last weekend's Liz Murphey Collegiate Classic, where she could be spotted bouncing around the University of Georgia GC in Athens like she had just finished a third can of Red Bull. In her first full year as women's coach at the University of Central Florida, the 32-year-old has eschewed the golf carts her peers use to make their way around the course, choosing instead to walk -- and sometimes run -- to catch up with her five players, joining them each for a few holes during the round.
"At first I didn't do it, I sat on the par 3s and watched everyone go by," Klein says. "But I think now, maybe with my help they can benefit."
That's not to say the 1994 NCAA individual champion and three-time LPGA Tour winner is taking an unconventional approach to her new profession. It's just that when you're looking to build a program with almost no history of success at the national level -- UCF has been to the NCAA championship just once, in 1996 -- you try all sorts of ideas to shake things up.
So it is that Klein has the Golden Knights playing one of the toughest schedules in women's college golf. Six of her team's eight tournament starts have been in events with at least one top-five team in the field (a schedule made possible in part by her name recognition as a former tour pro). Not surprisingly, Central Florida has struggled, finishing better than 10th only once and 12th or worse five times.
"It's been tough, but we talk about it as a team," says Klein, whose young squad has three freshmen [Sara Hurwitch, Leigh Crosby and Victoria Tomko] and a sophomore [Stephanie Connelly] in the starting lineup, all with stroke averages from 77 to 79.3. "They just have to understand that this is the only way we get better. I have such talented players who just don't realize it. [The finishes] aren't due to a lack of talent. They're due to a lack of playing in tournaments like this because they're not comfortable in them. It's a matter of putting in the time and effort. They've never put in the time in the past."
An understanding of what it takes to achieve success might be the best skill set Klein can offer since retiring after a 11-year career on the LPGA Tour (top win: the 1996 Weetabix Women's British Open) in the fall of 2005 and starting at Central Florida in January 2006. Prior to playing professionally, she was a two-time All-American who helped Arizona State win two NCAA team titles as a freshman and sophomore (1993 and 1994) before making the early jump to the LPGA.
Upon arriving in Orlando, Klein has attempted to instill a refined work ethic with her charges, getting them to "practice smarter" so that they can maximize their time while juggling life as a student-athlete. In many respects, it's more than just creating a new attitude, but developing a whole new environment.
While breaking herself in as a coach, Klein has made a call or two to her former mentor, legendary ASU coach Linda Vollstedt, for guidance. The best bit of advice? "The one thing she's told me that I've found so true is that I'm going to learn more from them than they will from me," Klein says. "And it's so true. I sit back some times and think of certain things that happened and what you wanted to do differently, but I'm learning daily from them."
Klein, too, admits to learning quickly the need to treat players individually as they are motivated in different ways. "I was always so focused on my own game as a player I didn't really realize how people respond differently," Klein says.
Not far removed from her competitive collegiate days, Klein believes she can relate to what her players are thinking and feeling. However, this has come to extend beyond just the golf course. Klein is currently taking undergraduate classes to help finish up her liberal arts degree. At one point last year, she even had the same class as a couple of her players.
In taking on the challenging tournament schedule, Klein hopes it not only will improve the level of play among her current team, but attract top juniors to the program. "I just need to keep having girls take the leap of faith," Klein says. "If I can recruit hard, I believe that in the next few years we can be a very strong program."
Working in Klein's favor is the fact she isn't afraid of hard work, to the point where she needs to be careful of overdoing things. In preparation for hosting the inaugural UCF Invitational earlier this month, a tournament that had nine of the top 25 schools in the more recent Golf World/NGCA coaches' poll, she came away with walking pneumonia.
"I'm committed to getting things in order here, and when I'm committed, I'm going to do everything in my power to make it happen," Klein says. "Sometimes too much maybe."
In the short term, Klein eyes April's Conference USA Championship as a potential proving ground to see how far the team has actually come. A victory gets the Golden Knights an automatic bid to NCAA regionals, although Klein knows her team will be the underdogs to SMU and Memphis.
Long term, Klein believes the team can be a contender on the national level within five years, and a new team practice area is set to open next spring, which shows the commitment the school is making to her and her squad. "It's not going to be easy, I don't mean to make it sound like that," Klein says. "But I think we can accomplish a lot here. We've got no reason why we can't be successful."
No doubt Klein has the spirit and energy to do it. All she needs now is a good pair of running shoes.
The Fab Five
The top five teams right now in the country:
The Cardinal closed with an tournament-best 283 in the final round of the Oregon Duck Invitational on Tuesday, but it was too little too late to make it six wins on the season (team finish: fifth). Apparently everyone can have an off week.
Watching the Bulldogs practice last week back in Athens as the women's team was hosting the Liz Murphey Collegiate Classic, you see how confident the squad is.
The Crimson Tide have one more event to prove their mettle before the SEC Championship.
A six-shot victory at the Oregon Duck put the Trojans into the winner's circle at a perfect time of the year -- just as NCAAs approach.
The Bruins struggled in the final round in Eugene (300, the third-worst score on the day). O.D. Vincent's squad is a bit of an enigma, although it's tough to bet against them just yet.
1. Arizona State
The Sun Devils' latest accuracy figures remain impressive: 83.3 percent fairways hit; 66.9 percent greens hit in regulation. Bonus points for the fact they lead the country with 31 percent GIR average inside 15 feet.
The Blue Devils have a chance to continue flexing their muscle as they compete against nearly every major competitor east of the Mississippi in the final regular-season tournament this weekend.
The Tigers carded an impressive win at last week's Liz Murphey Collegiate (after 13 tries in Athens, Ga.). Most importantly, they showed they can be victorious on a "championship" caliber course.
The Waves will try to anchor their position in the top five by facing a standout field in Tucson.
A disappointing eighth-place finish at the Bulldogs' home tournament creates a little doubt as to whether the squad will be ready come the postseason. Only a little, but that's a little more than a few months ago.
Players of the Week
John Streibich, Xavier
A final-round 63 at Pasatiempo GC, including a hole-in-one on the fifth, tied the Western Intercollegiate tournament record and gave the senior a one-shot win with an 11-under 199 (also a tourney record) in the event's 61st playing.
Leah Wigger, Virginia
The senior All-American bogeyed her last hole to force a playoff with Purdue's Maria Hernandez (two-over 215) at the Liz Murphey Collegiate, but she made a 6-foot birdie on the first sudden-death hole for her first college win after five runner-up finishes. "I felt like I was pretty close to getting everything together last week at LSU," Wigger said Sunday. "This week, I had the putter going. That was the difference. It's nice to finally get a win."
Stat of the Week
67.8Final-round stroke average for Florida State sophomore Caroline Westrup. When the native of Sweden shot a even-par 71 in the final round of last weekend's Liz Murphey Collegiate Classic, it marked the first time in six events that she failed to break 70 over the last 18.
What to Watch For
• It wasn't publicized much, but Georgia Tech and Georgia State used one of their days of competition last weekend to play a friendly match against each other. What was interesting/revealing, was the venue: Golden Horseshoe GC in Williamsburg, Va. For the uninitiated, that's the site of this year's NCAA championship. Coincidence? I think not. The Yellow Jackets used the "event" to culminate a three-day spring break trip there. The greens had been aerated, but still yielded a 68 for Tech's Roberto Castro and 69 for Kevin Larsen as Tech defeated State by seven shots. Give Bruce Heppler and Matt Clark credit for taking advantage of an opportunity on their schedules to get in a little homework for the NCAAs.
• It was fun to get to see Arkansas women's assistant coach Shauna Estes leading the Lady Razorbacks to a third-place finish at last weekend's Liz Murphey Collegiate Classic. For starters, she is a former All-American with the Bulldogs and had been medalist in the event back in her playing days, giving her plenty of incentive/motivation to do well in her return trip to Athens. More interesting, you saw someone very comfortable being in charge. This was the fourth tournament Estes has been the acting head coach this spring with head coach Kelley Hester on maternity leave (she had a baby girl two weeks ago; mom and daughter are doing well), and it was the best finish yet. She has a natural rapport with the players and is as competitive as ever. She'll continue to lead the team at next week's Susie Maxwell Berning event and probably the SEC Championship later in April (although Hester is expected to make an appearance at SECs). If I'm a school searching for a person to oversee my program in the next few years, one of the first calls I make is to Estes.
• As you may/may not have read, I tried a new strategy for picking my NCAA men's hoops bracket last week by using the records of the schools' golf teams as the criteria for who advanced and who went home. For the record, I did get two final four squads (Florida and UCLA), although my champion, Southern California, got knocked off early.
Tournaments to Watch
Men: Administaf Augusta State Invitational
When: March 30-April 1
Where: Champions Retreat GC, Evans, Ga.
Field: Auburn, Augusta State, Clemson, Coastal Carolina, East Tennessee State, Georgia Southern, Georgia State, Houston, Minnesota, North Carolina, NC State, North Florida, Notre Dame, South Carolina, Tennessee, USC-Aiken, Virginia, Virginia Tech
Defending champion: Coastal Carolina (10-under 854); Scott Brown, USC-Aiken, (nine-under 207)
Skinny: The tournament, started by the Augusta Golf Association in 1979, will be played for a second year at Champions Retreat. The event's timing -- held the weekend prior to the Masters -- allows teams to stick around and watch the Monday practice day at Augusta National. Two players in the 2007 Masters field have won the ASU event: Phil Mickelson (Arizona State, 1989), Tim Herron (New Mexico, 1993). One coach of a team in the event has also earned medalist honors twice: John Inman, North Carolina, 1982 and 1983. Inman is the only repeat winner of the tournament.
Women: Ping/ASU Invitational
When: March 30-April 1
Where: ASU Karsten Course, Tempe, Ariz. (Par 72, 6,230 yards)
Field: Arizona, Arizona State, California, Long Beach State, Missouri, New Mexico, Oregon State, Oklahoma State, Pepperdine, Stanford, Texas A&M, Tulsa, UCLA, UNLV, USC, Vanderbilt, Washington
Defending champion: UCLA (one-over 865); Adriana Zwanck, Arizona (six-under 210)
Skinny: The event, first started in 1965, has a standout field with 10 of the top 25 teams in the most recent Golf World/NGCA coaches' poll, including six of the top 10.
For more reporting on college golf from Golf World senior writer Ryan Herrington, visit his Campus Insider blog.