ATLANTA, GEORGIA | She’s no stranger to this event or this position. Anne Walker of the Stanford Cardinal is the only coach to have gotten teams into all four editions of the East Lake Cup. Quite a feat when you consider the criteria. This three-day event at East Lake Golf Club is limited to the final four teams from the previous year’s men’s and women’s NCAA Championships.
To get here, you’ve made it to the semifinals of the biggest college tournament out there. So you’ve done something special. To get here every year makes people whisper words like “dynasty.”
Throw in the fact that this year and last Stanford women won individual title at the East Lake Cup (Albane Valenzuela with a dramatic eagle at the final hole on Monday and Andrea Lee a year ago in a playoff with teammate Casey Danielson) and that Stanford has been the No. 1 seeded team after stroke play three out of four years and the first question seems obvious: How does Walker do it?
USC and UCLA, two women’s programs with storied histories, haven’t made the NCAA semis for four consecutive years. Illinois, as good as Mike Small’s men’s program has been, didn’t make the field this year. Oklahoma State, which prides itself on the hashtag #GolfSchool, is making its first visit to East Lake along with all the other men’s teams in this year’s field.
Walker is like the grand dame of this event, the one constant every fall. So, how does she do it?
“We try to recruit kids who are good people first and foremost,” Walker said. “When you recruit people of good character, who share common values, and you have them working toward a common goal, it makes things a lot easier.”
Walker would rather recruit a kid who averages 75 and is a good and kind person than a prima donna who averages 68. “The golf part you can coach,” she said.
As for this team, even though the names and faces have changed, the team chemistry with Valenzuela, Lee, Ziyi Wang, Aline Krauter and Mika Liu is no different than Walker’s first year when she had Mariah Stackhouse, Danielson, Shannon Aubert, Lauren Kim and Quirine Eijkenboom.
“My players have a lot of common values,” Walker said. “They are very hard working; very ambitious; they are definitely perfectionists and they always strive for the best. I think that helps them feel fortunate to be around one another. There’s so much respect. So, it’s them, not me, I just get to drive the van.”
She does a great deal more than that. After Valenzuela’s 68 and Lee, in the anchor group, posting five birdies on the back and finishing 1-under on Monday, Walker pulled the team to an area behind the East Lake clubhouse and talking about something positive each player had done.
“The things I see from Albane and Andrea this year,” she said. “Shannon Aubert was such a huge part of this program. Everyone loved to talk to Shannon. She was well known. Having that personality gone, having that energy gone, to see Albane and Andrea look each other in the eye and say, ‘Let’s do this. This is our team, now,’ that’s been fantastic. Seeing them come together to step up and fill that role, they are loving it.”
That’s the same thing Walker told me about Stackhouse, and then Danielson and, last year, about Aubert. Different year, different players, same message. Same great results. All from a coach who accepts all criticism and deflects all praise.
“She’s the best there is,” one parent told me on Monday. “She recruits well but then she brings them together.”
That’s obvious. Far more than a van driver, Anne Walker is arguably the best coach in the college game.