Those who have been there will tell you with certainty that Pepperdine University is among the most stunning college campuses in the United States. Placed on 830 acres of the Santa Monica Mountains, overlooking the inky blue Pacific below, this slice of Malibu paradise is home to a small private Christian school that has fewer than 4,000 undergraduates.
There is no football team, or at least there hasn’t been since 1961. The men’s basketball team hasn’t made the NCAA Tournament in 20 years. Coming into last year, the Waves hadn’t won a team or individual NCAA Championship in any sport in 15 years, with most of the university’s athletic success coming a few decades ago when the men’s volleyball team won four national championships in 14 years.
This doesn’t scream “golf school,” especially in the modern age of blueblood programs seemingly becoming more powerful through the transfer portal, NIL and larger recruiting budgets. Pepperdine’s golf history is, as you might guess, modest in comparison to the Power Five schools so often referenced. Near the top of the alumni list is Jason Gore, a well-respected journeyman who led Pepperdine to a national championship in 1997 before splitting time between the PGA Tour and what is now called the Korn Ferry Tour. Brent Geiberger, brothers Michael and Andrew Putnam, Jeff Gove and Byron Smith fill out the rest of the list — all were or are nice players, but it’s not exactly out of the ordinary.
Ordinary is the best description for what Pepperdine was before Michael Beard accepted the head coaching job. Beard came on board in December of 2012, tasked with turning around a program that ranked outside the top 150 in the country. Construction of a top-tier golf program figured to be as tedious and arduous as building La Sagrada Familia, but Beard stunned the college golf world by slowly creating a juggernaut. The Waves were the No. 1 team in the country when COVID-19 canceled the remainder of the 2019-20 season, but they found redemption with an NCAA title last year – and that was without the recently departed Sahith Theegala, who has found success early in his PGA Tour career. Pepperdine is once again a top-10 team and has another great shot to win a national title.
This era of Pepperdine golf is the culmination of a complete overhaul, one that will be remembered as one of the most dynamic coaching jobs in college golf history. From humble beginnings, Beard had to learn how to carve his own path.
“It was my first day as coach and I remember sitting in our office and I asked Carl Smith, my assistant at the time, ‘Hey, Carl, where do we rank?’ ” Beard told Global Golf Post. “He said, ‘Hold on, let me look it up … we’re 155th.’ I said, ‘OK, we got some work to do.’ And we just started chipping away at it.
“We had won the national championship in 1997, and that had kind of run its course. It was hard to sell that anymore. So we just started to get out there and be visible. They weren’t used to seeing Pepperdine out there recruiting, and I’ll tell you, Carl and I, we didn’t miss many tournaments. I mean, we really blew it out there those first few years. We missed on a lot of guys early and kind of learned our lesson, and it showed kind of who we really needed, who fit with us and our university and our program. So we kind of found our little system there.”
Before we get to the story of Pepperdine’s rise through the rankings, we have to start with the story of Beard himself.
He grew up in the Palm Springs, California, area, the son of Frank Beard, an 11-time PGA Tour victor from 1963 to 1971, and Patty Beard, an LPGA Tour player. The two had met while doing TV work for CBS later in their playing careers. When Beard was ages 9-15, his father was playing on the PGA Tour Champions, and he got to hang out in the locker room with Nicklaus, Trevino, Player, Palmer and many others.
“I looked up to my dad and kind of wanted to be like him,” Beard said. “I just kind of got hooked early on. It was something when I was young, it was just a huge part of our lives and was all I really knew… It became normal. The dream of me being a pro seemed a whole lot more attainable than maybe someone else at my age, just because they hadn’t been exposed to it.”
Beard badly wanted to be a tour pro, and he saw college as a mere steppingstone to his goal. He strongly considered USC but ultimately chose Pepperdine for a variety of reasons, one of them being that Michael Walton, who attended Palm Desert High School before Beard did, had just helped the Waves to the national title in 1997.
“To me, it wasn’t that big of a deal picking Pepperdine over USC,” Beard said. “Power Five conference and mid-major schools, it wasn’t like that back then where there was a gap between them. So in my mind, Pepperdine and USC were on the same level.”
The program dipped after winning the national championship, but Beard and his close friend Jason Allred brought them back to being a top team in the country. The Waves finished eighth in the 2002 NCAA Championship during Beard’s senior year, and he left school as the program’s all-time leader in stroke average for both a career and a single season.
“I was more of the consistent player where on a bad day, I could still shoot, you know, 73 or 74,” Beard said. “And my good days were 67 or 68. I wasn’t going to stop until I made it on the tour. And I just never considered anything else. This was what I was going to do, and nothing was going to get in my way.”
“It wasn’t even three months in and I realized this was exactly what I was supposed to be doing. And sure enough, my game got better, but I enjoyed really helping these other guys even more than trying to figure out my own stuff.” — Michael Beard
Beard was hellbent on carving out a place for himself in professional golf, but it didn’t go that way. After graduating in 2002, he played the Gateway Tour (2003), what is now the Korn Ferry Tour (2004) and the Canadian Tour (2005) with middling success. He did qualify for two PGA Tour events – the 2004 Bob Hope Classic and 2005 Buick Open – but that was as far as he got.
By age 30, Beard was wandering around mini-tours while also trying to teach so he could make enough money to provide for his family. He and his wife, Susannah, recently welcomed their first child, Clark, when then-Pepperdine coach John Geiberger called asking Beard if he would be interested in being an assistant coach.
“I was in a tough spot with my career,” Beard said. “I wasn’t afraid to try things and see teachers and all that kind of stuff. And in that process, I kind of lost my way a little bit. At that level, you can’t afford to go backwards. Even with that, when he called me, my first reaction was like, ‘No way; I’m playing.’
“About three weeks later, my wife said, ‘You know, maybe we should call him back.’ ”
Geiberger offered to make it work so Beard could be an assistant coach while continuing to play mini-tours. That arrangement didn’t last long.
“It wasn’t even three months in and I realized this was exactly what I was supposed to be doing,” Beard said. “And sure enough, my game got better, but I enjoyed really helping these other guys even more than trying to figure out my own stuff.”
Beard’s first stint with Pepperdine didn’t last long, although he would be back in short order. Tim Mickelson, then the Arizona State head man, hired Beard in 2011 and kept him for one year before Pepperdine came calling to have Beard come back as the head coach.
That year at Arizona State ended up being incredibly valuable to Beard’s coaching prowess. He got to see a completely different environment, going from one of the smallest schools in the country to one of the largest.
“I wasn’t even three days in at Arizona State and I called one of my close friends at Pepperdine and said, ‘Man, I made a bad decision,’ ” Beard said. “I made a mistake. You know, this isn’t me. And it wasn’t anything about the golf; it was just something I wasn’t used to. It was big, and it wasn’t that intimate community kind of feeling.
“Arizona State wasn’t in a good spot. I think we were ranked 80th in the country, which was terrible for Arizona State at the time, and so we were like, ‘We gotta get this thing turned around fast.’ I had never done that before. I didn’t know what it meant to actually recruit. We had eight freshmen on the team at the time, and we had to make some tough decisions.”
“We wanted to prove that we could be a good golf school on the West Coast, even though we didn’t have football or big athletics.” –Michael Beard
Beard learned the business side of coaching: how to talk to recruits, how to handle the paperwork, how to manage scholarships. It was the opposite of Pepperdine, where he had been focusing solely on instruction and helping players get better on the course.
Coming into the Pepperdine head coaching job while facing a proverbial 500-yard par-4 with OB on both sides, Beard took pride in the small culture shifts that took place over time. As a player, he had experienced the cold shower of not meeting lofty expectations that almost seemed like a birthright. As a coach, he found himself far more methodical and patient.
And what was he selling them on? What was the elevator speech?
“We were a tight-knit community, and we wanted golf rats who wanted to be a part of that,” Beard said. “We wanted to prove that we could be a good golf school on the West Coast, even though we didn’t have football or big athletics. And some guys saw that not having all the football and stuff was actually a good thing because it wouldn’t be a distraction.”
The year-over-year ranking improved. They got down to 100th and then 80th and then 40th.
But when Theegala got to campus in 2015, everything took off. Within the first few days, Beard saw Theegala as the player who could return Pepperdine to its glory days. Within the span of four years, Pepperdine went from 155th in the country to finishing 13th in the NCAA Championship.
The players got in the car and weren’t happy, regardless of how far the program had come.
“Coach, we could have made match play,” one of the players said as they were driving home.
That belief all came down to the magnetic game and personality of Theegala.
“I felt like if we could really encourage and empower Sahith, because his potential was insane, to where he could become one of the top college players, these other guys would find a way to not be too far behind,” Beard said.
Theegala got better each year of his career, culminating in his senior year when he won the 2020 Hogan, Haskins and Nicklaus awards – just the fifth player in the past 30 years to sweep all three national player-of-the-year honors. He didn’t get to see the fruits of his labor, but there is no mistaking that a national championship wouldn’t have happened without him.
And there is also no mistaking Beard’s role. He has suggested multiple times that Pepperdine is not the type of school that can start each season automatically as a top-10 squad. Without some of the advantages of the top schools, Pepperdine is not on cruise control. It’s taken a Herculean effort to get to this elite level, and it will be even harder to stay there long-term.
“Pepperdine is always going to have kind of peaks and valleys where I can see us being really good for a few years, then dropping a little bit to around 25th, and then kind of building back up to where we can be very, very competitive,” Beard said.
That may be the case, but just getting back to the mountaintop is an incredible accomplishment.
Those who follow the college game will remember it for a long time.
Top: Michael Beard (Photo: Jeff Golden)
© 2022 Global Golf Post LLC
We are sorry that this post was not useful for you!
Tell us how we can improve this post?