March 22, 2006
By BETH ANN BALDRY
Managing Editor, golfweek.com
It turns out life after Michael Putnam isn't all that bad at Pepperdine. Less than a year after the most decorated player in Waves' history moved out of Malibu, the program is enjoying a sound, steady season.
Coach John Geiberger offers a simple explanation: "Part of the problem last year is that most of our kids were either freshmen or inexperienced sophomores so they kind of looked up to Michael. He went out and shot 3 or 4 under and they would throw in 75s and we weren't that strong. But everyone is a year older and more experienced."
While Putnam finished runner-up as an individual at the NCAA Championship last June, the rest of his team didn't make the trip to Caves Valley. The Waves lost in a playoff to Southern California at the West Regional and, after missing their flight home, endured a tough evening in Stanford.
Only two players remain from last year's starting five. Senior Alex Coe says the "fresh blood" has invigorated the Waves, who are 21st in the Golfweek/Sagarin College Rankings, an improvement from 2005's season-ending No. 26 showing.
"Last year it was kind of us supporting Mike," said Coe. "Now I think we're more of a well-rounded team, where everyone is putting in effort and contributing."
No one has stepped up more than Coe. The well-spoken Californian has been a model of consistency, notching six top-10 finishes and a 71.71 scoring average. Last season Coe posted a 74.0 average and only one top 10.
"I was telling people this summer that when King Kong leaves, somebody's got to jump in the hole and fill it up," said Geiberger. "I don't think anyone expected (Coe) to take it this far."
Coe won the General Jim Hackler Invitational for the second time in three years March 13 with rounds of 70-71-69. He credits his success to Geiberger, the 10-year coaching veteran who completely overhauled Coe's course management techniques.
"In junior golf you step up to the tee and hit it down the middle," said Coe. "Now I'm thinking, where's the pin? Where do I want to hit it in the fairway? Where's the short side? Where's the slope? It's just the little things that have added up."
Coe, who played hockey in Alaska before moving to Guam and taking up golf at age 7, decided to be a tad more meticulous about managing his diet this semester as well. Under the guidance of his roommates, players on the Pepperdine baseball team, Coe traded Diet Cokes for spinach shakes and water. And he tries to eat not one, but two apples per day. His diet, along with a five-day-a-week gym regimen, caused Coe to drop 20 pounds from his 6-foot-3 frame in the past four months.
Geiberger describes Coe as a coach's dream: a guy who plays with a lot of heart and soaks up every word of advice.
Of course it's not hard to take the word of a man named Geiberger seriously. John's father, Al, collected 11 PGA Tour titles and 10 trophies on the senior circuit. His brother, Brent, is a two-time winner on the PGA Tour. John Geiberger spent six seasons (1991-96) as a full-time caddie for his father, but his favorite memory came in 1987. Nineteen-year-old John was on the bag when dad reeled off five birdies to start the final round at the Las Vegas Senior Classic and went on to shoot 62 and win by four strokes.
"I had the best seat in the house with some of the best players of all-time," said John Geiberger. "Whether it's Jack Nicklaus or Lee Trevino or my dad, I was able to see how greatness was accomplished through a lot of different ways of playing this game."
It was an education the Pepperdine alum took back with him to Malibu in July 1996 when he took over coaching duties from former Waves' teammate Todd Andrews. Geiberger found immediate success in his new gig, leading Pepperdine to the 1997 West Coast Conference title and a trip to the NCAA Championship.
On the flight to Chicago, Geiberger felt like he was coming down with a bad case of the flu. He went to the doctor two days later and was diagnosed with chicken pox. Quarantined to his hotel room for the entire week, Geiberger never made it to Conway Farms Golf Club. An athletic director relayed scores via phone and players poked their heads in the door at night to check on him. Team meetings were out of the question.
Fortunately for Geiberger, the final round was broadcast live on ESPN that year. Watching senior Jason Gore help lead the Waves to their first NCAA title helped relieve Geiberger's itching for a few hours.
"It was a very unique week with us capturing the title and me never getting out of the hotel room," said Geiberger. "I realized maybe I should've retired after the first year."
Geiberger's rookie season was undoubtedly hard to top. Yet the Waves have won eight WCC Championships under his tutelage and made eight NCAA regional appearances. Geiberger also has coached nine All-Americans.
But while the Putnams and Gores of the world get people talking, players like J.J. Wood - who make giant leaps and quiet contributions - also give Geiberger reason to smile.
Wood, a redshirt junior from Yuma, Ariz., played only 15 rounds in his first three years at Pepperdine with a 77.42 average. This season, Wood jumped into the No. 2 spot in the lineup, posting a 73.62 average over 24 rounds with a pair of top-10 finishes.
"They look around and they don't see Michael (Putnam)," said Geiberger. "They don't see a 68 so they know they're going to have to go after it and get it done. I think sometimes that makes for a better team."
Even without King Kong.
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Beth Ann Baldry is managing editor of golfweek.com. To reach her e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.