FIRE PIT COLLECTIVE
Storied programs UCLA and USC squared off in a match that showed all that is good about women’s college golf
Editor's Note: This article first appeared in Fire Pit Collective, a Golf Digest content partner.
Over two bright and blustery days in early February, the UCLA and USC women’s golf teams squared off in a match-play duel to see which proud program would claim the inaugural Victory Bell trophy. The Battle for the Bell, as the match was coined, delivered high-caliber golf and a chance to get a deeper look at two of the historic powerhouses in women’s golf.
There is another Victory Bell, just so you know. Since 1929, the "other one" has been awarded to the winning football team in the crosstown rivalry between USC and UCLA. USC leads the series, 50-33-7.
This somewhat impromptu Battle for the Bell was orchestrated by the coaches at the two schools: UCLA’s Carrie Forsyth and USC’s Justin Silverstein. “Schools are allowed 24 competition days per season, and we both had two extra days so we put this together,” Forsyth said. The first day of the event was held at Sherwood Country Club, where the Bruins can be found playing practice rounds, and the second day was at Rolling Hills Country Club, home to the Trojans.
After six individual matches on the first day, the Bruins led 4½-1½, thanks to wins by Caroline Canales, Zoe Campos, Allesia Nobilio, Yuki Yoshihara and a gutsy half-point draw from Annabel Wilson against the No. 4 amateur in the world, USC’s Amari Avery. Catherine Park won the sole match for USC at Sherwood, a course that requires patience and some getting used to, to put it mildly.
USC came out of the gates hot on Day 2. “We need ’em all,” Silverstein told me as we watched Avery and teammate Mailia Nam jump to big leads early in the opening two matches. As it turns out, Avery and Nam would win the only points of the day for the Trojans, as UCLA swept the other four matches and claimed the Battle for the Bell with an 8½-3½ victory.
One of the great things about team match-play events is the access. With only three foursomes on the course, there was ample opportunity to talk to coaches, parents and former players. Over the course of the two days, I was able to ask the coaches for their insight on what makes each program click and the keys to their formidable success.
At the time of the matches, UCLA was ranked 23rd and USC was 15th, oddly low for these juggernauts of women’s golf. Some other important numbers to ponder: Both teams have won three national championships and have more players on the LPGA Tour than any other schools. All of this success has come without the typical trappings other top programs have, including golf courses and practice facilities a few minutes from campus. So how do these programs keep doing what they do?
Obviously, geography is a plus in Southern California, home to 25 million residents. As Silverstein said: “If you were to just recruit in Southern California, you’d have a pretty strong team.” Silverstein should know. A local of the golf scene, he was a standout at Torrey Pines High School before attending Pac-12 rival Arizona.
Among the Californians on the USC roster are Avery, a sophomore from Riverside who will compete at the 2023 Augusta National Women’s Amateur; Catherine Park, a freshman from Irvine; and Brianna Navarrosa, a San Diego junior who made it to the quarterfinals of the ’22 U.S. Women’s Amateur. Silverstein, an assistant coach when USC won its last national title in 2013, also has been successful in recruiting international players, along with Class of ’24 prospect Bailey Shoemaker from Dade City, Fla. She told Golf Channel’s Brentley Romine she looked forward to joining Avery and the Trojans and “hopefully get a natty.”
Forsyth and the Bruins know a thing or two about winning the national championship. A Southern California native, Forsyth played on UCLA’s 1991 title team before taking over the program in 1999. She has guided the Bruins to a pair of titles, in 2004 and ’11. While her roster has plenty of local talent, it is also stocked with many international players. “The diversity of Los Angeles is an advantage,” Forsyth said. “It was huge in recruiting Patty Tavatanakit, who came here from Thailand. Patty knew exactly where she could find her favorite Thai food, and there were other Thai students here at UCLA, which made her more comfortable here.”
Annabel Wilson, a senior from Northern Ireland, reached the semifinals of the ’22 U.S. Women’s Amateur. I asked her what life was like in the big city, some 5,000 miles from home. “When I got to L.A., I met so many people from different countries and I really enjoyed that,” Wilson said. “And UCLA has so many great LPGA players like Bronte [Law] and Alison Lee. There’s a lot of great history at UCLA. We talk a lot about John Wooden. I love it here.”
For all the success the two programs have enjoyed over the years, they have unique challenges. Both teams have on-campus training and practice facilities, but they have to get creative when it comes to playing golf. “Mondays are usually on-campus,” said USC assistant coach Tiffany Joh, a UCLA alum and two-time Futures (now Epson) Tour winner. “We are really heavy into testing, data and numbers so players know exactly where they’re at. Trackman, Foresight Quad, all that stuff. Tuesday through Friday we typically play at Rolling Hills and sometimes we go to Hillcrest Country Club.”
The Bruins have a similar, but slightly more vagabond existence. “Monday we work out in the morning,” Wilson said. “After that we go to our on-campus practice facility and practice. Tuesday we play at Brentwood Country Club, Wednesday we get to play Hillcrest, and Thursday we play at Bel-Air, which is great. Friday we work out and practice on-campus again.”
The rivalry between the programs is intense but respectful. At least in golf circles. A few quotes will stay with me for some time. From Navarrosa: “I fell in love with USC when Coach Justin came to watch me when I was 11 years old. Someone believed in me. Maybe I can get somewhere with golf, I thought. Later when I visited I knew it was home.” The other schools Navarrosa considered were UCLA, Wake Forest, Stanford and Arizona, where her father played tennis. I mentioned Coach Silverstein also went to Arizona. “Yeah,” Navarrosa said before pausing. “I think that’s why he feels like a second dad.”
USC's Brianna Navarrosa (Photo: John Figueroa)
My favorite quote came from Joh, a four-time All-American for the Bruins who won the U.S. Women's Amateur Public Links twice. I asked her why she coaches and what motivates her to work with these women? “When I started to think about what I wanted to do when I got done playing, I thought about who had the biggest influence on my life and it was Coach Carrie and [assistant] Coach Alicia [Um Holmes],” Joh said. “A lot of their former players are now coaches, and I think that’s a testament to how great they are.”
As the day came to a close, I looked to the practice green and noticed former USC players Alisen Corpuz, Alyaa Abdulghany and Amelia Garvey, who all last played for the Trojans during the ’21 season. They had been there all day supporting their team. I got the feeling that this sisterhood was a deep bond. And that this cycle of immensely talented golfers who find a home at USC or UCLA isn’t stopping anytime soon. These women are competitors of the highest level, and I cannot recommend enough watching them play.