When former LPGA standout Patti Rizzo took over as the University of Miami’s women’s golf coach in April 2010, she wanted to immediately vault her team to the top of the NCAA rankings.
She said she had commitments from five “amazing” players, but when one backed out, it all fell apart.
So, instead of a rapid ascent, Rizzo and assistant coach John Koskinen have had to settle for steady progress.
Earlier this week, though, came the most prominent signs yet that the program is on the upswing. Powered by three newcomers — freshmen Daniela Darquea and Delfina Acosta and sophomore Kailey Walsh — the Hurricanes took the first-round lead at the Betsy Rawls Longhorn Invitational in Austin.
Darquea fired a 67 — the second-best score in Canes history — to lead the event. As a team, the Canes shot a program-best 276 to take a five-stroke lead over UCLA, ranked No. 1 in the nation by GolfWeek.
The Canes couldn’t keep up that pace and finished third in the 18-team event, 17 shots behind UCLA and 11 behind No. 9 Arizona State. But Miami still shot 2-under-par for the event, three better than No. 13 Iowa State.
Individually, Darquea, Acosta and Walsh finished tied for 16th place at even par. Juniors Rika Par of Japan (1-over, 23rd place) and Leticia Ras-Anderica of Spain (6-over, 39th place) also played solid golf.
It was the Canes’ last event until the spring season starts with the Florida Challenge on Jan. 27. But it bodes well for the future.
“It took 3 1/2 years to build this team,” Rizzo said. “I inherited some great girls but not a great team. We were ranked No. 158 at the time. Now we’re ranked 39th.”
Rizzo, a former All-American in the early 1980s at Miami, remembers fondly when the Canes’ golf program was a powerhouse, winning five national titles from 1970 to ’84.
The program hasn’t been the same since, however, and Rizzo got some local high school coaches angry when she bypassed their players for international recruits.
“They have some decent players,” Rizzo said of the local high schools. “But I want great players.”
The problem is that those great players who live in the United States want to go to programs ranked in the top 10, and, right now, that isn’t UM.
So Rizzo signed international players such as Darquea, the top-ranked youth player in Ecuador, and Acosta, the No. 1 junior in Argentina.
Walsh, whose brother Blair made the Pro Bowl last year by setting an NFL record with 10 field goals of 50-plus yards, transferred in from the University of Georgia.
“She is the glue to our team,” Rizzo said of Walsh. “Before Kailey arrived, we didn’t have a leader, someone who pulls everyone together. But by the second week she was here, I knew Kailey would be that person.”
Recruiting Darquea and Acosta was just as easy a decision for Rizzo as bringing in Walsh. Rizzo had followed the freshmen on the junior circuit for two years and knew she had star talent.
But getting them here and getting them through the admissions process and the NCAA clearinghouse wasn’t easy.
They didn’t arrive on campus until just three days remained before the start of school. And because they had to work so hard to get admitted, the two freshmen had not practiced in six weeks, which accounted for a slow start.
But now that they are all here, the Canes’ golf program is finally rolling again. Rizzo said she is close to signing a Class of 2015 recruit who is one of the world’s top juniors, a player she thinks could put the Canes over the top.
In the meantime, she will enjoy this team and these players.
“In 10 years of coaching, this is the most talented team I’ve had,” Rizzo said. “I think all five [of her top players] will play pro golf. And if they continue to improve — I don’t want to jinx it — but we could finish in the top five at the NCAA tournament.”