November 11, 2007

Sister Act

Inspired by a late LPGA pro and guided by one no-nonsense nun, Phoenix's Xavier Prep continues on its holy roll

Today as when she began coaching 33 years ago, Sister Lynn stresses team building.

Today as when she began coaching 33 years ago, Sister Lynn stresses team building.

The golf coach at Xavier College Preparatory in Phoenix occupies an office down a long hallway that pictorially pays homage to women of note, including Mother Teresa, Rosa Parks and Margaret Thatcher, none of whom could break 90. Isn't that the point, if not the objective, of this pantheon, a reminder that there is more to life than golf?

The office is cluttered with the accoutrements of success that seem to argue otherwise: plaques and framed certificates of commendation, yellowing newspaper clips, photos of championship teams, a cluster of trophies and a simple handwritten note, the team's motto this year, that says, "We're going to push it to the limit, cuz we're in it to win it! Oh, yeah."

It is here that you find Sister Lynn Winsor, and she is wearing a golf shirt. You were expecting a habit? Sister Lynn has a habit, of course, several probably. Her most noticeable one is winning Arizona state championships. Xavier Prep has won 25 of them in 27 years, including the last nine straight, most recently in 2006 by 82 strokes. In 1989 its margin of victory was 191 strokes.

The Gators (wrong reptile for an arid desert, but, hey, they own this playground; it's their call) are odds-on favorites to extend their streak in the state championship next week in Tucson. Their best player is the defending state champion, Cheyenne Woods, whose Uncle Tiger is a reign-maker on another level.

Xavier Prep is an all-girls Catholic school that, along with all-boys Brophy Prep, anchors an older, nondescript neighborhood a few blocks north of downtown Phoenix. In a desert valley ringed with upscale golf communities, it might be the least likely place in the greater Phoenix area to unearth a golf dynasty.

Central to its success is Sister Lynn, who at 64 is inclined to slow down (painfully, by some accounts) only when she's behind the wheel. "We always laughed about her driving," says Missy Farr-Kaye, a former Xavier Prep star and now an assistant golf coach at Arizona State. "She admitted once to dating a race-car driver in college. So it all made sense." That was B.C., as Sister Lynn likes to say. Before Convent.

B.C., she occasionally played golf. Then she took her vows, among them to give up the game, she says jokingly. "I don't know that I've ever seen a club in her hands," Farr-Kaye says. When Sister Lynn began coaching golf at Xavier Prep in 1974, she wisely left swing-plane minutiae to the gurus. Her own lesson tee operates on a higher plane, dictated, she says, by Christian values, and this is demonstrably the point: It's one thing that her players leave Xavier Prep as better golfers than when they arrived, but her mandate is that they leave as better people.

"Values, academics, activities and athletics all work to empower young women to become leaders and caring, successful people," Sister Lynn says in an e-mail message, reiterating a de facto mantra that is apparent 10 minutes into any conversation. Sit down to talk golf with her and life lessons come back at you, each of them further elucidating the game's rightful place. "If a kid says, 'All I want to do is play golf,' they're not a good fit here," Sister Lynn says. "If all you care about is golf, then you're not well-rounded."

As for winning state championships, well, it is not necessarily a mandate, though Sister Lynn's personality, however infectious, does not readily accommodate failure. "She hates to lose," Farr-Kaye says, which raises the obvious question: How would anyone know?

So Sister Lynn is no swinging nun. How was it, then -- sans a deep reservoir of golf knowledge, at a school without an athletic pedigree -- that she fashioned a dynasty that ranks among the most enduring in prep sports history? "It started when Heather Farr walked in my door," Sister Lynn says.

Farr-Kaye's older sister Heather was an eighth-grader and a precocious junior golfer in the Phoenix area, and her parents were shopping for a high school that offered an educational return on the private-school tuition they were willing to pay (Xavier Prep's tuition is now as much as $12,000 annually). Golf was a secondary consideration, but the family still wanted to meet the golf coach. When they encountered a woman in a jogging suit, they asked her where they could find Sister Lynn.

Xavier Prep Golf Team

"I'm Sister Lynn," the woman replied.

What to make of an exuberant nun in a jogging suit, who coaches a game she doesn't play? A perfect fit? "Heather fell in love with Xavier Prep," Missy says. Heather went on to win the state individual championship three years running (1979 through '81), while leading the Gators to the team title her final two years, setting the foundation on which the dynasty would be built, one sister at a time. After Heather graduated, Missy won the state individual championship and Xavier Prep a third straight team title. Three more sets of sisters -- Colleen and Laura Draeger, Paige and Heidi Gilbert, and Lisa and Tricia Carriell -- won the next six state individual titles, each of them contributing to a team championship.

The familial structure on which Xavier Prep golf took form coincides neatly with Sister Lynn's notion of team as family. "It's about being a part of something," she says. "We work on having our kids love and respect each other. We want them to understand that friendships last longer than golf." She relentlessly promotes bonding until the vestiges of golf as an individual sport are erased and a team emerges.

For the first six weeks of the season, Sister Lynn does not allow iPods on the team van. When the girls are not electronically detached, camaraderie is unavoidable, evidence of which is the Xavier tradition of playing Big Booty, a silly rhythmic counting game guaranteed to evoke raucous laughter.

What's fascinating about this dynasty is that it largely has been constructed with players who weren't passing through en route to the LPGA. There are exceptions, Farr the first of them, until her career and ultimately her life were cut short by breast cancer. She died in 1993 at 28. Grace Park, who won the LPGA's 2004 Kraft Nabisco, attended Xavier for one year and won the state championship. Potentially its best player is Amanda Blumenherst, a Duke junior who was college golf's best player the past two years and twice the Arizona state prep champion.

Then there is Woods, who was introduced to the game in the same garage by the same man who introduced Tiger to golf, her grandfather Earl (her father is Earl Woods Jr., Earl's son from an earlier marriage). Cheyenne intends to play college golf at Wake Forest, after which she will pursue an LPGA career.

Otherwise, Xavier Prep hasn't produced the constellation that might be expected of a dynasty, but then golf isn't the measure of success there. One statistic trumps even the best golf scores -- it makes them irrelevant, in fact: 100 percent of last year's graduating class of 291 is attending a four-year college. "I didn't come here for golf," says Katie Allare, a senior headed for Notre Dame. "I came here because it offers the best education."

This is typically the lure that hooks golfers on Xavier Prep. The summer before starting high school, Blumenherst and her family moved from Indiana to Scottsdale. "We weren't sure of the school district there," she says. "Xavier Prep was prestigious academically. I wanted to go somewhere that would push me to another level academically."

The LPGA is Blumenherst's ultimate destination, though it would seem unlikely she would arrive without a Duke degree in tow. Even as it becomes increasingly apparent that Blumenherst's game is already sufficiently honed to take her there, Sister Lynn's insistence that her golfers finish college surely resonates across the years and miles that now separate the Blue Devil from Xavier Prep.

Sister Lynn is frequently insistent, incidentally. She has more rules than the USGA, some of them edible. The cost of playing golf at Xavier is four dozen homemade cookies (no packages of Oreos, please). The cookies are shared with opposing teams, as well as the staffs at the golf courses that provide playing and practicing privileges to Xavier Prep -- Camelback GC and Phoenix CC. Cookies are part of the values education that also requires each player to give a short thank-you speech to the board at Phoenix CC at the end of the year.

The players also are required to play 18 holes over the weekend and return to Sister Lynn the scorecard signed by their parents. They have to maintain a 2.0 grade-point average, with no failures and no incompletes. Their uniforms must be cleaned and pressed for every match.

The most stringent rule: Don't run afoul of Sister Lynn. One year, on the ride home, players were arguing with one another, to their eventual regret. Sister Lynn stopped the van and shut off the motor, and the air conditioning with it, for an hour. It was 110 degrees outside. "After that it was clear sailing," Sister Lynn says. "Sister Lynn doesn't let any negative talk go on," Farr-Kaye says. "She's strict. You have to act like young ladies, dress like young ladies. But she is a ball. She makes it fun."

Xavier Prep has experienced losses, incidentally. It lost Heather Farr to cancer and another Xavier Prep golfer, Emily Ell, who was killed in an automobile accident involving a drunk driver in 1999. It is a requirement that Xavier Prep girls come to know not only each other but Farr and Ell, each of whom is honored on that hallway wall at Xavier Prep. Every match begins with the same prayer: "Emily Ell and Heather Farr, help us. St. Francis Xavier, pray for us."

"It's good for kids to have role models," Sister Lynn says, "and these two are outstanding role models."

There is another role model, of course, one who has had an enduring influence on every golfer who has passed through Xavier Prep. "Sister Lynn is Xavier golf," Farr-Kaye says. "She's an amazing lady. She's one of a kind."

Her legacy ultimately won't be defined by the state championships, but by the lives she has touched. Touching lives: That's another apparent habit that Sister Lynn has.