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As is so often the case with these things, it was a moment of magical serendipity that set Anne Walker on her way from Strathaven to Stanford.
It was the summer of 1997 and Walker, one of Scotland’s top amateur golfers, was finalising plans to study at the University of Edinburgh later that year. A chance encounter with Belle Robertson – by common consent, the greatest female amateur the country has ever produced – gave her pause to reconsider.
Robertson had recently been contacted by Barbara Bentley, a member of the San Francisco Golf Club. The pair had kept in touch since meeting at the 1974 Curtis Cup, staged at Bentley’s home club and where Robertson had captained the Great Britain & Ireland team.
According to Bentley, the University of California in Berkeley was starting to make some headway with its golf program and was interested in recruiting its first international player. During a junior event in the summer of ’97, Robertson gathered a group of girls together and asked if any of them would be interested. Walker raised her hand straight away.
After impressing the university’s coach Nancy McDaniel during a trial round, Walker was offered a place. In January 1998, she flew to the States and has never looked back,
A quarter of a century later, Walker is one of the most successful and sought-after golf coaches in the United States, a reputation she underscored earlier this year when her Stanford University girls’ team won the NCAA Championship for the second time.
“It’s really hard to believe,” she tells bunkered. “When you’re in the moment, you never really stop to take It all in. You’re more taking care of the process, which sounds cheesy, I know, but that’s really what it is. You’re just getting on with the job. It’s only when you do stop to think about or somebody like you phones me up that you go, ‘Oh yeah, it has been pretty cool, hasn’t it?’
“I think my timing has just been really good. I’ve been lucky enough to bump into some incredible people along the way and get some amazing opportunities. Like that meeting with Belle, for example. That changed the direction of my life completely. And it’s funny, Barbara Bentley – she’s 93 now – has become like part of my extended American family. Yeah, I’ve been really fortunate.”
Fortunate is one word. Talented would be another. During her time as a player at Cal, Walker captained the ‘Golden Bears’ three times and won individual medalist honours twice. She was also the 2002 Pac-10 medal winner, was a three-time All-Pac-10 selection, and was named a WGCA All-American Scholar three times.
Towards the end of her studies, she was forced to confront the question that most top amateurs ponder at some point: do I want to turn pro?
“I won the Welsh Amateur in 2001 and, until then, I hadn’t really thought about it,” she says. “It was only when I looked at the names on the trophy – Laura Davies, Patricia Meunier and so on – that I thought, ‘If my name is engraved there too, then maybe I’m good enough.’”
In the end, she decided against it. “I think that wanting to play professionally is something you either have in you or you don’t and, on reflection, I didn’t.”
At the exact same time, another opportunity presented itself. At her graduation, Walker’s golf coach took her aside. A position had opened up for an assistant coach to join the team and the job was Walker’s if she wanted it.
“Maybe it was the Scot in me but I figured I could either play professional golf and lose money or coach and start making money,” she laughs. “That was on the Saturday and I started on the Monday.”
Walker stayed with her alma mater for six years, four as an assistant coach and two as associate head coach.
In 2008, she accepted the head coaching job at UC Davis – a ‘mid-major’ school – where she had four hugely successful years. She took over the program during its transition from Division II to Division I and, with Walker at the helm, the ‘Aggies’ won three Big West Conference titles and posted its first-ever top 20 national ranking.
Then came the big move: Stanford.
Officially ‘Leland Stanford Junior University’, the Palo Alto institution’s reputation is well established. Its current “community of scholars” includes 35 Nobel prize winners, four Pulitzer prize winners, five Fields medalists, one US president, 17 astronauts and 74 living billionaires.
Indeed, according to Forbes, Stanford has produced the second-highest number of billionaires of all universities worldwide, with its graduates having founded companies including Google, Instagram, Snapchat, LinkedIn and Yahoo! According to a recent report, companies established by Stanford alumni generate more than $2.7trillion in annual revenue and have created over five million jobs since the 1930s. Combined, these companies would form one of the ten largest economies in the world.
Stanford’s athletic reputation is no less impressive. To date, students and alumni of ‘The Cardinal’ – so called because of the vivid red colour adopted by the university’s teams – have won 296 Olympic medals, including 150 gold and 79 silver. If Stanford was a country, it would have finished third on the medal table at the 2016 Games in Rio.
As of May, the university has won 130 NCAA team championships – more than any other school – and at least one NCAA team championship each academic year for 46 consecutive years. The second-longest streak of this kind was 19 years, achieved by USC from 1959-60 to 1977-78.
Stanford athletes have also won over 530 NCAA individual championships. No other Division I school is within 100 of that total. To cap it all off, between 1994-95 and 2018-19, the school won 25 consecutive NACDA Directors’ Cups, awarded annually to the most successful overall college sports program in the nation.
And that’s without mentioning that Tiger Woods went there.
“It’s an incredible school,” says Walker. “You never have to go looking for inspiration. I started on July 20, 2012, and it’s been the most amazing ride.
“The interview process took around six weeks in total. There were multiple phone calls and an all-day, in-person event. It’s funny looking back but, whilst all that was going on, I was in the middle of getting my green card and putting the finishing touches to my wedding, so it was a bit of a crazy time but it was so worth it.”
Considering its history of success, it was something of a sore point – for Walker, at least – that the women’s golf program was the only one of the university’s 36 sports without a national title. The men’s team had won the NCAA Championship nine times dating back to 1938, and been runner-up a further three times, but the best the women had to show for themselves was finishing second to Arizona in 2000.
That changed in 2015 when, under Walker’s guidance, the team defeated Baylor 3-2 at The Concession Golf Club in Florida. Washington denied them back-to-back titles in the final the following year before a 3-2 win over Oregon at Grayhawk Golf Club in Scottsdale in May this year delivered title number two and cemented Walker’s legacy.
“I guess I’m most proud of not screwing it up,” she laughs. “I really am so fortunate to get to do this job. The way I see it, I’m just the custodian of this team and the program and it’s up to me to leave it better than I found it.”
It helps when you have some of the game’s most exciting young talent at your disposal, too. As a Division 1 school, Stanford attracts and plays against the best. “You’ll probably find that a considerable number of future LPGA players are in the fields for the events we play,” says Walker.
Take Rose Zhang, for example. The current No.1 on the Women’s World Amateur Golf Ranking, the 19-year-old won the US Women’s Amateur in 2020, is a two-time Curtis Cup winner, has played in the Junior Solheim Cup and Junior Ryder Cup, is a two-time recipient of the Mark H. McCormack Medal and tied for 11th at the ANA Inspiration, also in 2020. As Stanford was winning the NCAA team title this year, she was closing out the individual honours. She is, most observers agree, golf’s “next big thing”.
“She’s a phenomenon,” says Walker. “I first met her when she was around 12 or 13 and she was exactly like she is now. She’s scary-good. I sometimes wonder if she came out of the womb playing like that. She has incredible maturity, too, on the course as well as off it. She has the whole package.”
That rings true for most of Stanford’s ‘Class of 2022’. In addition to Zhang, Walker has been able to call upon a ‘generational’ roster that also includes Rachel Heck, Aline Krauter, Sadie Englemann and Brooke Seay. Seven of the current top 100 female amateurs on the WAGR featured on Stanford’s 2022 women’s team. “I’d put that side up against any country in the world, never mind any school,” adds Walker.
Such depth brings its own unique set of challenges. For example, Walker’s job is less swing coach, more performance coach.
“Going back to UC Davis, we had players who had tons of talent but were very raw,” she says. “They were a bit like deer in the headights some of them. Whereas, at Stanford, by the time the players come to us, they’ve already got a swing teacher, and most will have a fitness coach, a mental coach, a physio, an advisor, parents. In some cases now, players even have agents and sponsors. [Note: Zhang signed a so-called NIL – ‘Name, Image, Likeness’ – deal with Adidas just weeks after her NCAA victory.]
“So, I see my role now as more of a facilitator. I kind of deal with the intermediate stuff. I work with the players to help them feel empowered enough to think for themselves and make their own decisions.
“It’s about making them realise that they are CEOs of their own businesses. Their team is the Board of Directors but, ultimately, the buck stops with the player. There are an awful lot of voices in their ears. I try not to be another. Instead, I try to help them make sense of what everybody is telling them.
She adds: “Besides anything else, this is college. Yes, it’s about setting you up for life but it’s also about having fun, learning more about who you are, what you want. Fostering a sense of camaraderie and togetherness amongst our players is critical for us, not just so that the program does well but so that, when our players go out onto the LPGA, they have people to travel with, socialise with, celebrate with, commiserate with. That’s so important.”
Another key part of Walker’s job is recruitment. When we connect, she has just returned from a scouting mission to Tennessee.
“It’s extremely competitive,” she says. “Again, because we’re a Division 1 school, we’re usually up against three or four other schools for one player and that can involve placing calls to those players on a weekly basis, meeting them up to three times, welcoming them to the campus, teaching them about the program and so on. And at the end of all that, there’s no guarantee they’ll commit. It’s incredibly cut-throat.”
Even when you do succeed in getting players to join your program, there’s no guarantee they’ll stick it out for the full duration of their studies. Some might be one-semester wonders. Others will turn pro mid-way through their studies. Change is omni-present.
“These are young adults you’re dealing with,” add Walker. “Their minds can change. In 2020, for example, we had a couple of players turn pro earlier than we’d expected. I learned a lot from that. It turned out to be the right thing at the right time for those players if it wasn’t necessarily the right time for us. You’ve just got to see the long-term picture and constantly try to ask the right questions.”
Speaking of the long-term, where does Walker see her own career taking her? Back to Scotland perhaps?
“We’ve had an exceptional ten-year run so if the next ten looks somewhat similar, I’ll be delighted,” she smiles. “Beyond that, would I ever return to Scotland? Never say never but we’re really settled here. We’ve got two young girls and we love the lifestyle we’ve got. I do miss the people, though. And the tea. And the steak pie. I’m really proud of my Scottish roots. I wouldn’t be where I am without them. But right now, I’m ‘Cardinal’ through and through.”
This feature first appeared in issue 195 of bunkered (July 2022). For more content like this, click here. Alternatively, click here to subscribe to bunkered. International subscriptions also available.
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