Winning Begins With a Laugh
Stanford golf coach Wally Goodwin values imagination more than perfection in his players
PALO ALTO, CALIF. — THE view from the elevated first tee of the Stanford Golf Club is spectacular - rolling, suede-colored hills with clumps of oaks; the campus, with its tile roofs and imposing Hoover tower, off in the distance.
The golf Stanford University's men's team has played here recently is equally spectacular. They are the reigning National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) champions and favored to repeat at the 1995 nationals this June in Columbus, Ohio - especially since Tiger Woods has been added to the five-man squad. Woods won the United States amateur title this summer.
Presiding over Stanford's brightening fortunes is Wally Goodwin, a genial veteran who has coached football and other sports as well as golf. He recounts some of the school's past geniuses of the fairways: Lawson Little, an exceptional college and pro player in the 1930s; Bob Rosberg, a former standout on the pro tour and now a golf commentator on TV; and Stanford's best ever, Tom Watson.
But until three years ago, when Goodwin's crew finished ninth in the NCAA championships, Stanford had been nearly invisible on the college golfing scene for some time, says the coach. How do you rise so quickly to the top? ``Just hard work,'' Goodwin says.
Hard work and a few golf scholarships to work with - four and a half scholarships, to be precise. As he plans how to use those scholarships, the coach keeps a keen eye on junior golf in the US, and abroad. He opens a file drawer that has dozens of folders, partitioned according to grade in school, nine through 12. They hold the names of young players who have already risen to some prominence in the game.
Goodwin first contacted Tiger Woods after reading about him in Sport Illustrated's ``Faces in the Crowd'' column five years ago. Tiger was a 13-year-old seventh- grader. Goodwin congratulated him, encouraged him to work hard, and to consider a place like Stanford down the line.
The ``remarkable letter'' Goodwin promptly received back is his Exhibit A on Tiger Woods's character. ``In my judgment,'' the coach says, ``he's a better kid than he is a golfer.'' The letter is clear and intelligent, hinting at the sense of humor and perspective that Goodwin says can be a golfer's greatest asset.
Under NCAA recruiting rules, Goodwin could not contact Tiger again until the young man was in high school. But the idea of an athletic and academic career at Stanford had been planted. Tiger considered some other schools - the University of Arizona and the University of Nevada, Las Vegas - but he chose Stanford.
How do you coach a talent like Tiger Woods? Goodwin sees his job as a team builder, booster of morale, and sometimes adviser on strategy and technique. ``If I see something in a guy's strategy, I'll tell him right away,'' he says. An example might be a tendency to swing away rather than carefully aim shots, or a lack of appreciation for the placement of sand traps and other hazards.
Tempo is critical, Goodwin says. He concentrates on tempo in all aspects of the game, but particularly in putting. Goodwin pulls out of a closet a gadget called the ``swing plane board.'' Placing the head of a putter next to the board, he shows how it gives players a feel for the perfect, pendulum-like stroke, same distance back and forth and quickest through the impact area.
The coach snorts that even an accomplished young player can be a ``basically lousy putter,'' which he defines as ``the guy who thinks he'll sink everything but never does.''
As for the golf swing itself, Goodwin prefers to leave that alone. On rare occasions, he views videotapes of his players, but ``I don't like to try to teach golf at this level with a lot of analysis.'' The nicest thing he can hear from a player, Goodwin says, is ``I was unconscious today.'' They shouldn't be thinking about their swings, he says.
The college golf season runs for 144 days, part in the fall, part in the spring. What conditioning the team does, perhaps some light weight training, is done from late November until February. Strength is important in golf, says Goodwin, because it makes the game easier. Practice sessions may include drills on pitching-wedge shots or chipping onto the green. But Goodwin is no taskmaster in these areas. ``I'm fairly lenient,'' he says. ``They know what to practice.''
More crucial than golf skills, from his standpoint, is mental toughness. ``Are they relentless and persevering, or are they just playing?'' Goodwin asks. ``You've got to be that kind of person to come to Stanford, because the academics here are huge.''
And when it comes to academic disciplines, the coach says, he'd much rather have economics or psychology majors on the team than engineering or science students. The latter often can't deal with the ``imperfections'' in golf, he says. ``In this game, nothing is ever perfect; there are no formulas.'' Furthermore, he says, imagination is a must.
He also puts a premium ``on a kid who can really laugh when it's time to laugh.'' That ability to maintain a sense of humor even as you concentrate, and to ``hang in there'' through the game's often wild turns of fortune, can be the margin of victory over someone with equally sharp basic skills, in Goodwin's view.
You have to have players you can trust, he says, since, unlike other sports, you can't pull a player once the contest begins. Five guys go out on the course, and you count the four best scores, Goodwin says. If more than one player has a bad day, the team won't do well. Team unity is critical. ``You've got to be able to get along and keep jealousy down to a minimum,'' he says.
Goodwin's team this year has an ``electricity,'' he says. It is also a study in diversity. In addition to Woods, who is black, it has a full-blooded Navajo, Notah Begay, and a Japanese-American, William Yanagisawa. The latter two, plus teammates Casey Martin and Steve Burdick, are returnees from last season's championship team
Everyone on the team hopes to make golf a career. That's a mark of their seriousness, and Goodwin wouldn't have it otherwise. But only one-half of 1 percent of college golfers make it on the professional tour, he notes.
Goodwin names a few teams that may give Stanford tough competition - the University of Texas, University of Florida, Oklahoma State University - but his confidence in his ``guys'' is obvious. They have the requisite skills and toughness, he says.
For his part, he'll be out there on the courses following play as best he can, seeing how they're doing and, when prudent, offering some words of encouragement - and perhaps a well-timed joke or two.