Frozen at No. 1, a gutted Pepperdine men's golf team is left to wonder 'What if?'
It was drizzling that Thursday afternoon, just after 1 p.m. at North Ranch Country Club in Westlake Village, Calif., as the Pepperdine men’s golf team prepared for a rare practice in rain gear. Umbrellas in hand, head coach Michael Beard and the players were getting organized, when all at once, their phones started to flood with messages.
They looked once. Looked twice. They stared at what they were reading, in utter disbelief.
“What?!?” seemed to be the collective response.
Not long before on March 12, NCAA President Mark Emmert and the Board of Governors announced they had canceled the NCAA men’s and women’s basketball tournaments, as well as the remaining winter and spring NCAA championships. Their reason: to avoid contributing to the spread of the COVID-19 pandemic that was just beginning to take hold in America.
Around the country, thousands of athletes got the same message at the same time, no doubt devastated by losing opportunities to play out seasons, contend for titles and relish their time with teammates.
In that, the Pepperdine men’s golf team was no different. In other ways, it could have not been more uniquely gutted.
In February, on the strength of three impressive tournament wins in the first six events played in the 2019-’20 season, the Waves earned their first Golfstat No. 1 ranking in school history. They were a team remarkably deep in talent, bookended by redshirt senior Sahith Theegala, who had two season wins and was No. 3 in the World Amateur Golf Ranking, and freshman William Mouw, who already had claimed a college victory and was No. 17 in the WAGR. The roster was so good—and so competitive—Beard hadn’t fielded the same lineup in a single event.
“We were stacked this year,” Beard said.
Pepperdine believed, with good reason, that it had a legitimate chance to bring the school’s second Division I national golf title back to a campus that sits regally on the cliffs above the Pacific Ocean in Malibu.
Then, in a few pings on everyone’s phone, it was over. Before the end of the weekend, the team had disbanded.
“Not being able to fulfill that goal for myself or my team, that hurts,” Theegala, 22, said when reached this week at his home in Chino Hills, Calif. “It still hurts now. It’s pretty deep.”
At North Ranch, when the news came in the rain, Beard pulled his team inside to sit around a table in the grill. The mood was solemn, as dark as the skies.
“We were just devastated,” Beard said. “It seemed like no one could find anything to say. I think we sat there for 20 to 30 minutes before anybody said anything. If it was going to be anybody to say anything, it was going to be me.
“Finally, I spoke, and I shared how disappointed I was for all of them, and how this wasn’t the way it was supposed to end. I said, ‘You know what, the year’s over and we’re No. 1 in the end. And our goal was to be No. 1, so you guys can take a lot of pride in that. We had the best season this year.’ ”
Beard admits now that as he spoke it was difficult even for him to take those words to heart.
“I was shocked, angry, sad, disappointed—all of those feelings,” he said. “It was about us not having a chance. That is an absolute killer. That hurts worse than us going [to nationals] and failing. At least you can accept that.”
Beard was quick to add, “I don’t want to make this sound like ‘poor Pepperdine.’ That’s not what this is about. There are some other schools who had very nice teams. We just felt really good about our team’s chances.”
A private university of about 3,700 undergraduates that plays out of the West Coast Conference, Pepperdine is rarely mentioned in the same breath with the country’s D-I powerhouse programs. It was 23 years ago that the Waves, led by senior Jason Gore and then-coach John Geiberger (son of “Mr. 59” Al Geiberger), captured their lone national title. At Conway Farms outside Chicago in 1997, the accomplishment was considered something of a fluke, Pepperdine having finished ninth at NCAA regionals to grab the second-to-last spot at nationals. Since then, the Waves have reached nationals seven times, their best finish being and eighth-place showing in 2002.
When the 2019-’20 team’s senior class were freshman, Pepperdine was closer to being ranked 100th in the country than to No. 1.
“Winning conference was a big deal. That was kind of the ceiling,” said senior Josh McCarthy, who took a chance on the Waves, coming out of De La Salle High School in Northern California, when others encouraged him to aim higher with his choice. “There is a certain validation to what we’ve done.”
Beard, 40, a Pepperdine alum, arrived in 2012 and set out to give the program a new identity. He landed a big signing early, getting the commitment of Theegala, a Southern California native whose youth resume included three Junior World championships, nine Toyota Tour wins and three U.S. Junior Am appearances. Theegala fit the profile Beard sought: talented, competitive, humble.
“I could talk about this kid for an hour and love every minute of it,” Beard said. “He and Mouw have that ‘it’ factor.”
The 6-foot-3 Theegala, always in possession of a deft short game, is talented enough to have qualified for the 2017 U.S. Open at Erin Hills, make the cut in the PGA Tour’s 2017 Genesis Open at Riviera, capture the 2019 SCGA Amateur. In February, on a whim, he flew Down Under, entered the all-ages Australian Master of the Amateurs at venerable Victoria Golf Club and prevailed by three shots.
Beard raves about Theegala’s ability to not get too high or low, and that trait was on display in the most dramatic way in his victory this year in the Southwestern Invitational. On Sunday, Jan. 26, as players gathered at North Ranch for a tournament practice round, the news broke that former NBA star Kobe Bryant, his daughter and seven other people died in a helicopter crash.
The site of the accident in the hills of Calabasas was about a mile from Theegala’s apartment. He had grown up a rabid fan of the Lakers and Bryant, and he pulled from his closet a black and gold number 8 Lakers jersey.
In the Southwestern’s third and final round on that Tuesday following the tragedy, with Theegala on his way to a 66 that secured the tournament title for both he and the team, he hit his second shot into the 18th green. He pulled the Bryant jersey from his bag and put it on.
Putting out, “I gave a little chest tap for Kobe there,” Theegala said. “I was happy it ended that way—that I could pay my respects like that. It’s something I won’t forget.”
In his time at Pepperdine, Theegala set the tone for the entire team. When his injured wrist required surgery in early in 2019 and he had to redshirt, he still insisted on attending the regionals and nationals, cheering the Waves to an 11th-place finish in the stroke-play portion of the NCAA Championships a year ago at The Blessings in Arkansas.
“He might have a bad round, and he’d come off the course and ask somebody how their day was,” Beard said. “It was never, ‘I sucked.’ It was never about him. That was really cool.”
Theegala’s magnanimous nature was tested this season with the arrival of Mouw, a two-time Rolex AJGA All-American who, at age 18, won the 2019 California State Amateur to become the youngest champion in the tournament’s 107-year history.
“They are two totally different players,” Beard said. “Mouw does whatever he can to intimidate you. Mentally, he wants to bury you on every single shot.”
The two battled to lead the team in scoring all season, with Theegala edging Mouw, 69.04 to 69.96. They pushed each other, with Theegala even suggesting that Beard put Mouw in the No. 1 spot for a tournament, just to fire him up.
“[Mouw] is insanely good,” Theegala said. “It was different having a young guy come in and kind of push us. But we made it clear to him from the start—we’re competitive; you’re not going to push us around. It pushed him, too. He was used to being ‘the man.’ ”
As the coach, Beard tried to stoke the competitiveness at every turn because he knew he had personalities on the team who would thrive in it. He encouraged football games on the beach in Hawaii, and when a couple of guys started talking trash about their 40-yard dash times, they had to settle it with a relay race.
At home, the players regularly got together to play basketball.
“It got chippy. Tempers would flare,” McCarthy said. “We had a lot of strong personalities on the team, but everyone realized it was us coming together for the sake of the program.”
In a testament to Pepperdine’s depth, nine different players competed in at least five tournaments. Five golfers posted at least three top-10 finishes.
Among the contributors: seniors Clay Feagler and Joe Highsmith combined for 12 appearances, with three top-10s; Joey Vrzich, a junior transfer from Nevada who became the team’s free-spirited entertainer while claiming three top-10s; and freshman Dylan Menante, Beard’s “under-the-radar” find from Carlsbad, Calif., who was stellar at times in the No. 5 spot. The youngster stormed to an eagle-birdie-eagle finish to shoot 65 in the final round of Pepperdine’s victory in the Amer Ari Invitational in Hawaii.
“We were the deepest team in college golf. I’m confident about that,” McCarthy said. “When someone shot well in a qualifier, it was never like, ‘Oh no, is he going to be a liability under pressure?’ Any one of the guys in the lineup could go out and contribute. From the way I saw it, everyone was performing at a level that was expected of them, or better.”
McCarthy, a 22-year-old senior who expects to finish his bachelor’s degree in Communications this spring, has some decisions to make. As a graduate, he was set to join Theegala in trying qualifying school for Canada’s Mackenzie Tour. That has been postponed indefinitely, and with no professional golf currently being played, there are few opportunities to experience a career breakthrough.
Now McCarthy is wondering if he might return to Malibu for a fifth year, as a graduate student, under guidelines set forth by the NCAA that would add eligibility for those who have missed seasons because of the coronavirus outbreak. There are still many personal and program permutations to be considered, but to even have that chance is something that is keeping McCarthy optimistic in otherwise difficult times.
“What a cool dynamic that would be,” said McCarthy, a bit of wonderment in his tone, “to recapture next year what we had this year.”
Recapture? Impossible. Reload? Maybe.
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