Oct. 26, 2011
By Amy Hughes
What happens if a golfer's scores and rankings aren't the most important thing in shaping a team?
In the case of head coach Carrie Forsyth's UCLA women's golf program, you bring home an NCAA Championship anyway.
With just nine student-athletes, Forsyth has, by far, the smallest roster among any of UCLA's 24 varsity sports. The men's golf team currently boasts 13 players, while the UCLA men's and women's tennis programs have 15 and 12 student-athletes, respectively.
"I would say that, at the beginning, I was really going after what was always the No. 1 recruit in the country," said Forsyth, now in her 13th season as the head women's golf coach. "Sometimes I overlooked the personality a little bit or the fit of the team chemistry. Now, I've shifted."
Forsyth continued, "Obviously, level of play is still very important, but I've become much more focused on finding a type of player that really fits the UCLA model, a great student in high school and somebody who brings something in terms of who they are as a person in terms of substance and quality to the program. It's not as much about just the numbers anymore. There are a lot of kids who are great players but just don't really fit the model on one level or another, whether it be academically or socially or personally."
Forsyth and assistant coach Alicia Um-Holmes talk to team members about new recruits and gather their input.
"I think it's really important," said junior All-American Tiffany Lua of the intangibles given equal weight to scores during the recruiting process. "Usually, we know a little bit about them from junior golf and can give our input. If the player is hard to get along with or isn't exactly the hardest worker or isn't positive all the time, then coach will take that into consideration. All we want from the team is positive vibes, positive attitude and a good work ethic."
Cultivating that perfect team atmosphere has encouraged Forsyth's small hand-chosen roster to thrive. As the defending NCAA Champions, the Bruins opened the 2011-12 season with tournament titles at the Fall Preview in Franklin, Tenn. and the Stanford/Pepsi Invitational in Palo Alto, Calif. The team played both tournaments without its top two players, three-time All-American Stephanie Kono and fellow senior, Brianna Do, who captured the 2011 U.S. Women's Amateur Publinks title at Bandon Dunes during the summer.
Forsyth runs her program as an open book. The team plays an intra-squad qualifying tournament to select the travel roster for each regular season tournament. That travel squad generally includes five players with the four best scores counting towards the team total. Participating players can earn an exemption for the next tournament based on their performance from the previous tournament.
"It's not easy to not qualify, but at the end of the day it's really up to the player," said Forsyth. "They know that I'm not going to intervene. I tell the girls all the time that we make the rules, we have to live by them. Even if it means we don't travel our `best team' to every tournament, so be it. When we get to the end of the season, then I make decisions about who travels and who doesn't. But throughout the whole season, we leave it up to the girls as much as possible."
With this selection process, tournament lineups do not come as a surprise to any of the team members, and there are no hard feelings among the golfers.
"Whoever plays is whoever earned it," said Lua. "We all know that we're all such great players and all we can do is work hard and push each other to do our best. I think that overall it just creates a really good environment."
That team atmosphere and camaraderie is present off the course as well.
"It's not easy with school," said Lua. "We all encourage each other. Everyone has bad days, especially with classes or midterms or finals going on. Not a lot of us have the same classes or majors but we all encourage each other when someone is having a rough day. We persevere through it. We're just there for each other."
Both Forsyth and Um-Holmes have a very open-door policy with the team's student-athletes, and roles are clearly defined. Because team chemistry is considered early on in the recruiting process, team members can generally self-police any issues that may arise.
"I think that has to do with the relationships that Alicia and I have been able to cultivate with our players," said Forsyth. "It's again, very open. As a coach, I've evolved a long way to where now I am who I am. Alicia is in a position where she is able to be good friends with the girls on a lot of levels - a good mentor in that sense. We both played for UCLA, we both were part of the team and graduated from here, so we know exactly what it takes to be successful, and I think we've really been able to communicate that to the girls and that's the most important thing."
That tight-knit group of nine women has found its path to success on a national level in collegiate golf.
"I feel like our team is really good at motivating each other without actually verbally or physically having to do it," said Lua. "It's this unspoken vibe. We all feed off of each other. We don't always tell each other where we're practicing or what we're doing to contribute to the team but we can all see it with how we play and how we practice. We all have this trust. We all know that everyone has worked hard and it's really good to look around your whole team and just say `hey, she's worked hard, she's worked her butt off the last couple of months,' and I think that's really important. It's huge compared to a lot of the teams in the country and I just feel fortunate to be a part of that."