by Jeff Shelley
After 33 years at the helm of the University of Washington women’s golf team, head coach Mary Lou Mulflur finally reached the promised land when, in late May, her Husky squad won the NCAA championship. It was the first national victory for the program since its inception in 1974.
At the beginning of the season, the team was thought to have been in rebuild mode as, midway through 2015, two of its best players, SooBin Kim and Jing Yan, departed early for the LPGA Tour, and before 2016 lost seniors Jennifer Yang and Cyd Okino to graduation.
But, led by seniors Charlotte Thomas and Ying Luo, the otherwise youthful Huskies – including freshmen Julianne Alvarez, Wenyung Keh and Seattle native Sarah Rhee – made a remarkable run at Eugene (Ore.) Country Club, defeating defending champion Stanford 3-2 in a thrilling match-play final. Before vanquishing the Cardinal, the Huskies beat Virginia 3-1-1 and UCLA by the same margin.
The UW team showed considerable fortitude and surprising grace under pressure, with Luo holing out from 51 yards on the 18th to win her match and Alvarez chipping to “gimme” distance on the second playoff hole of her match.
Mulflur’s teams had made 11 previous NCAA Championship appearances.
The year was then capped with Mulflur sweeping many major coaching honors, including being named national coach of the year by the Women’s Golf Coaches Association, West Region Coach of the Year and Pac-12 Coach of the Year.
(The following week, the host Oregon Ducks completed a Northwest sweep by edging Texas in another exciting championship match, placing the two-week extravaganza at venerable Eugene Country Club near the top of the historic milestones in the annals of regional amateur golf.)
Shortly after, I enjoyed the following Q&A with Mary Lou, a Portland native who won the Oregon state high school golf championships in 1974 and 1975 and whose father, Bill, was the longtime executive sports editor of the Oregon Journal. I’ve known the two of them for years.
JS: Beyond having a group of talented, clutch golfers, what do you think were the keys to success for the 2016 squad?
MLM: Our ability to enjoy EVERYTHING, good or not so good.
JS: What’s been your favorite part of being the coach of a national championship team?
MLM: Seeing the level of play from all players on all teams. Clutch shot, after clutch shot, after clutch shot.
JS: What cool things have happened to you and the team since the victory in Eugene?
MLM: Getting to throw out the first pitch at the Mariners game, taking a ride on the Great Wheel and dinner at the Crab Pot.
JS: Do you think the win will enhance recruiting, and how is the 2017 team shaping up?
MLM: It should definitely enhance our recruiting moving forward. We will have a very young team this upcoming season, but we also just won a national championship with three freshmen. Every year is a different chapter waiting to be written and 2017 will be no different.
JS: Do you think the returning players have added confidence heading into the 2017 season?
MLM: They certainly should come in with a good feeling about where they are, having just won a national championship.
JS: What was the reaction of your Dad when the Huskies won in your home state?
MLM: Needless to say, he is a proud papa. I was so glad he was able to make it down for the semis on Tuesday. He loves his golf!
JS: What kind of response and level of support did you get from Oregon Duck fans during the NCAA Championship?
MLM: People could not have been nicer to us. In fact, I am pretty sure we did not hear one single negative comment the entire time we were there. Just lots of folk appreciating the quality of golf from all the players.
JS: When you go out to a restaurant or are walking in public, are you recognized more now that you’re a national champion?
MLM: Most definitely! The amount of recognition we have received from live TV and social media has been quite flattering.
JS: What comments did you hear from the national golf press and community about your team’s compelling performance in Eugene?
MLM: I can’t tell you how many times I have heard “I was riveted,” “Everyone at the club was watching and cheering you guys on,” “Most exciting golf I have ever seen.” The comments just go on and on.
JS: How important were the contributions of assistant coaches Andrea VanderLende* and David Elaimy?
MLM: Absolutely paramount! There is no way the week plays out the way it did without those two. Incredible coaches, more incredible human beings.”
*After seven seasons at the UW – and after this Q&A was conducted – VanderLende stepped down June 23 to pursue opportunities outside golf. “It has been an honor and a privilege to work at such a prestigious university for the past seven years,” VanderLende said in a statement through the UW Athletic Department. “I want to thank Mary Lou for giving me the opportunity and I am extremely grateful to have coached for one of the best programs in the country. It is bittersweet for me to leave, but I am looking forward to the next chapter of my life.”
Added Mulflur in a statement: “Andrea is as good as there is in the business and we have been so lucky to have had her on our staff. I certainly appreciate her desire to focus on the next challenge and, whatever that is, I know she’ll be successful. She has not only helped make me a better coach but has also helped the players that have been here during her tenure, grow both on and off the golf course.”
Seattle-based Jeff Shelley has been writing about golf for nearly 30 years.