In its first season last year, the women’s golf team was made up of “anybody who could swing a golf club,” said head coach Ming Lao. A year later, the women’s team has improved so rapidly that it may outperform its male counterparts in competitions. Both teams finished second in their first tournament, have already had players set individual team records and have enough collective quality that there is a “friendly competition” between them.
“People didn’t know we had a (women’s) program last year,” Lao said. “It was tough last year, but we managed and we did OK. This year, it’s a whole different story. We’re competing right away.”
This week, senior women’s golf captain Emily Lewis – who was named to the All-SCIAC (Southern California Intercollegiate Athletic Conference) second team last year – put up the best 36-hole score in the short history of Chapman’s women’s golf, at the two-day California State Intercollegiate tournament. She led the women’s team on both days to shoot its best team round ever (18 over par) Sept. 18, before improving on that score the next day (16 over par).
“Last year was definitely a building year,” Lewis said. “This year, I would say there are a lot more girls, who – I don’t want to be mean – but who can play decent golf.”
Lewis finished tied for fourth in the tournament at three strokes over par, with sophomore Kristy Harada finishing three strokes behind her and tying for seventh place.
“I was really surprised,” Lewis said. “I knew we had a good team going into it, but I didn’t expect our scores to be as low as they were. I think all the other teams were shocked that both our men’s and women’s teams could post super low scores and place second in a tournament that had very competitive Division III teams.”
In the same tournament last year, the women’s team finished eighth, while the men’s team finished fourth. Junior men’s golf captain Griffin Tso said having a women’s team has changed the dynamic of the program.
“It’s been a little bit of a different experience in a good way, just because it’s nice to have a little bit of a lady’s touch now that we’re traveling out to Arizona this season, which is a far trek,” Tso said. “It’s nice to have a mix and it not just be a big group of sweaty guys.”
The men’s team started off the season well in its own right, with the team breaking its previous 36-hole record by 23 strokes. Chapman finished second at six strokes under par as a team, just one stroke behind tournament winners Ottawa University, Arizona, which shot nine strokes under par on the last day.
Lao said he was impressed by how well his team played from the lead, despite dropping from first to second place on the last day of the tournament.
“We played good while we were ahead, we just got jumped by a freak show,” Lao said. “(Ottawa) finished nine under (par), it’s sick. That’s a lot of birdies. We lost by one stroke because they went ham.”
Lao said the improvement in the men’s roster has been enormous.
“It’s incredible,” he said. “There has been a huge change in the depth of our roster. Last year, we had a couple good scores, but the bottom half were usually weak… Now we don’t have any bad scores, so we’re raking.”
Freshman Avery Keating also set the men’s team record for the lowest score in a 36-hole round. Portland, Oregon natives Keating and freshman Brody Hval (who Lao referred to as “studs” and who both have fathers who are PGA professionals, like Lao himself) knew each other before coming to Chapman.
“It was nice knowing (Hval) coming in,” Keating said. “It’s nice to have a face that you can go to. We’re pretty close, so that’s nice.”
Keating said that having his dad who is a professional golfer has given him a unique golfing perspective.
“Since he’s so experienced, he can talk to me about whatever I need to know and he can help me with my game,” Keating said. “He’s always traveling, so that’s another cool thing. He gets to go to a bunch of cool courses and show me where he’s been.”
Keating said he was unsurprised by how well he performed and said he has high expectations for the team.
“I think if we continue to practice and play well, we could try and make a run to go to nationals as a team,” Keating said. “If not, I’m definitely going to do my best to try and get there as an individual.”
Players can be selected for nationals – the Division III Golf Championships – by an NCAA selection committee, based on their overall performance during the season.
Chapman could make the NCAA Championships as a team in one of two ways. The team could win its conference and qualify via the SCIAC’s automatic qualifier – determined by the team with the lowest collective scores throughout all SCIAC matches at the end of the season – or, by getting an at-large bid, which is also determined by an NCAA selection committee.
Lao said if the season ended today, both teams would likely qualify for the championships.
“Without getting ahead of myself, the scoring average right now totally qualifies us for nationals,” Lao said. “What we shot and who we beat, that’s really an indication that, if we were to stop everything now, we would go to nationals, but it’s such a small sample.”
Tso said when he came in as a freshman, it was Lao’s second year as head coach and the team was still developing. He said the program has made a huge jump since then.
“From my freshman year to sophomore year, we grew a little bit, but in this last year, I’d say we really made a big jump in the program, both in the boys and girls teams,” Tso said. “Coach Lao has really been able to recruit some high-level players, this year especially, so his recruiting ability as well as his coaching ability has really grown both the boys and girls golf teams tremendously the last couple of years.”
Lao said he has “reserved optimism” about both teams being able to qualify for the NCAA Championships, but that for the women’s team in particular, “it’s uncharted waters.”
Chapman’s next match will be at home, Sept. 27 against Whittier College. Chapman plays its home matches at the Tustin Ranch Golf Club.
“It’s a nice place,” Lao said. “It’s high-end. It’s a good place to represent Chapman and Orange County in its own sort of ritzy, cute way.”