The Geiberger family reunion last week in Chicago sure didn't
turn out the way anyone expected. Al Geiberger, long a respected
touring pro, played as planned in the Ameritech Senior Open at
Kemper Lakes, finishing 57th. His daughter Lee Ann also made the
trip. But Geiberger's son John, coach of the Pepperdine golf
team, came down with chicken pox the Tuesday before the NCAA
Division I Men's Championships at nearby Conway Farms and was
quarantined in his hotel room a few miles from the course for
the entire week. "When Coach got sick," says senior Jason Gore,
the team's best player, "we all looked at each other and said,
'Well, that clinches it. There's no doubt we're going to win
this thing now.'"
Doggone if they didn't. After surviving two rounds played in
unseasonably raw weather--hardly the kind of stuff encountered
at Pepperdine's campus in Malibu, Calif.--the Wave wrested the
lead from host Northwestern in the third round, gaining a
two-shot advantage. In last Saturday's final round Pepperdine,
led by senior Michael Walton's 68, held steady while its
pursuers failed to mount a serious challenge.
Poor Northwestern, with a legacy of athletic frustration--the
school's only national championship was in fencing, in
1941--came unglued and dropped into a tie for seventh, much to
the disappointment of the purple-clad fans all over the course.
Only Wake Forest made any kind of a run at 20th-ranked
Pepperdine, going five under par on the final day in the
play-five, count-four format, but the Demon Deacons had too much
ground to make up. They finished second, three shots behind the
Wave, who rolled in with a four-day score of 1,148, nine over par.
About the only bummer for Pepperdine, other than Geiberger's
chicken pox, came when Gore double-bogeyed the 72nd hole. His
closing seven had no bearing on the team results--the Wave had
already locked up its first championship--but it knocked Gore
out of a first-place tie with Charles Warren of Clemson and Brad
Elder of Texas for the individual title. Warren went on to win
on the first hole of a playoff. "It didn't bother me," said
Gore, who transferred to Pepperdine after playing his first two
years for perennial power Arizona. "The team won, and that's
what this tournament is all about. I took a big chance, leaving
a top-10 program to go to a relatively small school, but I love
these guys, and it all worked out."
As a junior player Gore frequently played against Tiger Woods,
last year's NCAA champ, who reportedly is having a modicum of
success on the PGA Tour. Without Woods, who drew record crowds
while breezing to a four-shot win in 1996 at the Honors Course
near Chattanooga, the NCAAs were back to normal, meaning that
the tournament was wide open and sparsely attended. To be fair,
the event was going head-to-head against the hometown Bulls' run
through the NBA playoffs, and the Ameritech, but it was
fortunate that Northwestern was in the hunt, because the
Wildcats provided some much-needed texture and local color.
As long as Northwestern stayed in contention, former coach Jeff
Mory, who left the program in February to take the head pro's
job at Conway Farms, had the chance to become Big Ten golf's
equivalent to Bill Frieder, the Michigan basketball coach who
resigned at the end of the 1988-89 regular season and then
watched assistant Steve Fisher guide the Wolverines to the NCAA
title. When Mory took the Conway Farms job, he knew he was
leaving a talented, veteran team that was hell-bent on earning a
place in the NCAAs. The team took off under 27-year-old Patrick
Goss, who looks as young as his players. "Sometimes we'll go out
to a restaurant and play 'Who's the coach?' with the waitress,"
says senior Scott Rowe.
The 23rd-ranked Wildcats finished second to Ohio State in the
Big Ten tournament and went on to qualify, barely, for the NCAA
finals by tying Drake for the ninth, and last, spot in the
Central Regional. "This week we showed the college golf world
that Northwestern has made a serious commitment to being a
contender at the national level," said Goss.
Pepperdine made the same sort of commitment about 10 years ago.
Geiberger, 29, played for the Wave from 1989 to '91, helping
Pepperdine win two West Coast Conference titles, and a year ago
he took over the coach's job from former teammate Todd Andrews,
who quit to become a sales rep for Callaway. Although the Wave
won only one tournament during the regular season and also
barely qualified for the NCAAs, finishing ninth in the West
Regional, it came to Conway Farms thinking it had a shot. "The
people around here kept calling us dark horses," said senior
Mark Madson, "but the teams that play against us out West know
we have some really good players."
More than any of his teammates, Walton was a man on a mission.
On May 17, after returning home from the West Regional, he
discovered that Brian Pierce, one of his best friends from their
high school days in Palm Desert, Calif., had drowned. In tribute
to his friend, Walton stenciled the initials btp on the side of
the baseball hat he wore during the tournament. On Saturday,
after the putt that assured Pepperdine's victory had fallen,
Walton dropped to his knees next to the 18th green, put his face
in his hands and sobbed uncontrollably. "Last week, the week
after the regional, was one of the hardest weeks of my life," he
said. "Losing someone so close to you makes you realize how
precious life is. But I moved from the worst week to the best
week. I just kept thinking of Brian. The biggest thing is it
made me understand this is just a game. When things wouldn't go
my way, I'd look at the sky and everything would be all right."
After the trophy presentation, while Gore was talking with
reporters, Walton stood off to the side talking to Geiberger on
a cellular phone. At least the coach had gotten to see the final
round on ESPN. He was delighted that his players had printed his
initials and 245, his hotel room number, on the backs of their
caps. Asked if the championship had made him feel any better,
Geiberger joked, "No. Now I have heart disease."
The Pepperdine players all laughed when they heard that. The
Geiberger family reunion was a bust, but, otherwise, the kids
from Surf City, U.S.A., had a fine time in the Windy City.