It can be easy to get lost in the fruits of college golf, especially if you live it first-hand. There are meals, trips, rounds at great golf courses and no shortage of gear. To balance all that out, there are also history lessons.
Melissa Luellen’s background is a history lesson. Now in her third year as the head women’s golf coach at Auburn after a long stint at Arizona State, Luellen has succeeded in bringing back Auburn’s home tournament, a former staple on the competition calendar. The Evans Derby Experience honors two former Auburn coaches – Kim Evans and Virginia Derby Grimes – who were pioneers in their field, and in the game.
This matters to Luellen because she grew up learning from her own personal pioneer – her mother, Dale MacNamara, head coach at the University of Tulsa for 26 years. McNamara carried the Hurricanes into national prominence, coaching four national-championship winning teams in her career. It’s the kind of hard-work success story that can’t be forgotten.
“It’s really up to other people to make sure that a different generation understands what they did,” said Luellen, “Me being a coach’s daughter, I really appreciate coaches.”
The college-golf competition calendar, in fact, is scattered with names of past players, coaches and influencers like McNamara (for whom Tulsa’s home tournament is named). On a week that the LPGA has consciously (and effectively) branded as being about the founding females of that tour, let it not go unnoticed that college golf also pays tribute to its roots, and to the individuals to whom today’s collegians owe so much.
Luellen remembers a pre-Title IX era that was much shorter on funding for college golf, and for women’s sports in general. Players stayed in one hotel room and rewore uniforms, if they had them at all. The landscape is vastly different now, but it’s important to Luellen that today’s players know how things got so good.
“The players need to understand that a lot of people worked really hard for them to be in the situation they’re in now,” she said.
The trailblazers are often happy to oblige. Evans, who coached Auburn’s women from 1994 to 2015, worked painstakingly in the weeks leading up to the Experience to help rules officials navigate an Auburn University Golf Club course she knows like the back of her hand. Grimes’ presence is particularly interesting as she continues to scout members of the U.S. Curtis Cup team she’ll captain in June. She’ll have her own work to do throughout the tournament.
To add another level, Luellen secured family friend Nancy Lopez, an LPGA great, to give the keynote speech at the tournament dinner on Monday evening, the night before the final round. Lopez is flying in from the LPGA Founders Cup to do it.
In many cases, a college tournament is a way for the game’s greats to live on after their death. Julie Garner, head women’s golf coach at Rollins, has dedicated considerable energy to making sure that her mentor Peggy Kirk Bell is not forgotten. One of the ways she honors Bell is by continuing the tournament in Bell’s name that has been played since 1977, and now is one of the longest standing tournaments in womens’ college golf history.
“When you name a tournament after somebody like that, at least you know [the players] understand the story,” said Garner, who has coached the Rollins women since 1984.
When the U.S. Women’s Open returns to Pine Needles Golf Resort in Southern Pines, N.C., in 2022 – for a historic fourth time -- Garner hopes some of the players she has influenced will take notice. Bell owned the resort until her death in 2016 and was a driving force behind the first three Women’s Opens played there. It’s a small thing, but a meaningful thing to Garner that players recognize the significance.
Garner’s Rollins players always had a relationship with Bell when she was alive. Bell made no bones about rooting for her Tars during her event, and made it a point to watch players’ swings and comment on their games during tournament week. Once she even made the Rollins College president, who had requested a lunch date with Bell, meet her at the course and ride around on her golf cart for the afternoon.
“The girls always felt like she was their biggest cheerleader,” Garner said. “They got nervous when she would come watch. Arguably the best teacher in the history of the game is watching you, wants you to do well. You could tell that they adored her, loved her sense of humor and loved that she gave me a hard time.”
Bell was never granted a place in the World Golf Hall of Fame, and it’s one of Garner’s true regrets given all she gave to the game through teaching and through hosting events at Pine Needles. What stories Bell could have told at that induction.
“She felt like golf gave her the life she had, but she gave back more,” Garner said. “Her life was a testament to her love for the game and her love for her family.”
Garner continues to make a case for Bell (even though she acknowledges that Bell was never about the accolades, and often shunned praise and press out of embarrassment). It makes Garner proud when former players use their influence to speak up for Bell’s place in the Hall, too.
“Her reach was so long and has gotten so many people involved in the game,” Garner said.
And Garner has helped extend it.