Pepperdine’s Path to #1

The Pepperdine University men’s golf program boasts a proud legacy, winning the 1997 NCAA championship and more West Coast Conference titles than any other school. But over the past nine seasons the Waves have seen a truly remarkable rise, shedding the mid-major label and establishing a foothold among the nation’s elite programs.

A new day began in December 2012 when Pepperdine alum Michael Beard returned to Malibu as head coach. An All-American in 2000 and 2002 and a former assistant coach, he inherited a team that would eventually finish outside the nation’s top 100. In the subsequent six years, the Waves’ end-of-season Golfweek/Sagarin ratings went #95 to #78 to #41 to #28 to #25 to #16. And then, during the 2019-20 season, Pepperdine reached the pinnacle, hitting #1 in both computer rankings.

Moving from outside the top 100 to #1 took some vision, some commitment and some luck. To reach the highest level, a school needs a combination of the right players and access to the most prestigious tournaments, neither of which Pepperdine had enough of in Beard’s early days.

He took the job knowing one crucial piece was in place. He would have the full support of Director of Athletics Dr. Steve Potts and the rest of the athletics department.

“We had to raise the money to do the things we wanted to do, but Steve let me do them,” Beard said. “He knew the significance of a strong schedule so if it made sense, he let us go. He also understood how important recruiting was going to be and I don’t remember a time he told me we couldn’t go somewhere. We didn’t have limitations that a program at our level at that time could or would have. I was so appreciative to hear that.”

With strength of schedule an important part in the rankings, Beard set out to improve the caliber of the Waves’ opponents. That was not easily achieved, as the best tournaments attract the best teams, and Pepperdine wasn’t there yet. Occasionally the Waves would get an invitation to a higher-tier event, either as a favor or based on Pepperdine’s name recognition. Then, as the Waves rose in the rankings, more opportunities came along, such as regular spots in the Southern Highlands Collegiate and U.S. Intercollegiate.

Early on, recruiting was also a challenge. The Waves have always had selling points—the 1997 national championship, its recognition as a top-50 academic institution, a beautiful campus overlooking the Pacific Ocean, year-round sunny skies to practice, and access to excellent courses in the area, including their long-time associations with North Ranch Country Club and The Saticoy Club, with Sherwood Country Club later added to the mix.

But, as Beard chased after the nation’s top recruits, he heard the same thing over and over. “We heard from a lot of recruits back then that they liked what we were doing, but they wanted to go play with the best players,” Beard said.

The Waves finally landed one when Sahith Theegala arrived in the fall of 2015. The native of Chino Hills, Calif. and graduate of Diamond Bar High School wasn’t considered to be quite on the level of the highest-rated recruits in his class, but Beard saw someone who could become a game-changer.

That was indeed the case as Theegala shattered most of Pepperdine’s records in his tenure with the Waves, earning three-time All-American honors and capping things off as the nation’s #1-rated player in 2020 along with a sweep of the Haskins, Hogan and Nicklaus National Player of the Year awards.

Theegala and fellow classmate Roy Cootes were the first two pieces. A year later, they were joined by Clay Feagler and Joshua McCarthy. That foursome contributed to a crucial point in the timeline, according to Beard. They were the driving force behind the Waves qualifying for the 2017 NCAA Championships at Rich Harvest Farms in Sugar Grove, Ill. It was Beard’s first trip to the finals as head coach and ended a five-year absence for the team. Pepperdine finished 13th—the program’s best finish since 2004. The Waves played well enough to make the first cut, but didn’t achieve their goal of making the final eight and match play.

“We finish 13th and we get in the car,” Beard said. “We’ve got two freshmen and two sophomores there. And Josh said, ‘Coach, we didn’t even play that well, we could have made match play.’ And that’s where the light bulb went off. We knew we had a good team, but from that moment on, we knew we belonged.

“When I first started, if we got a top-five finish, it felt like a victory. Then it got to a point where we could win, and finally to the point where we expect to win. 2017 set the tone for that expectation.”

With the Waves rolling and recruiting picking up, Pepperdine added one of the nation’s top freshmen in Joe Highsmith ahead of the 2018-19 season. Even with Theegala missing the entire year with a wrist injury, the Waves returned to the NCAA Championships and moved up to an 11th-place finish.

“Finishing 11th without Sahith was a great example of the guys meeting the standard we had set,” Beard said. “We weren’t always getting the A+ recruits. When you look at some of their junior resumes, there was no guarantee about what they would do in college. But the guys we brought in had personalities that meshed which brought out the best in them. They knew that they were building something big. Being part of this school, being around an environment where they could be themselves and where they could compete at a high level, they took ownership in it.”

That set up a highly anticipated 2019-20 season. Theegala was back for a fifth year, McCarthy and Feagler were seniors, Highsmith was a sophomore, and the Waves added their most highly touted recruit in program history, William Mouw. Qualifying rounds proved to be some of the most challenging events of the year, with 10 golfers capable of filling just five slots in the lineup.

“We’ve recruited extremely competitive guys that bring it every day,” associate head coach Blaine Woodruff said. “If they don’t, they’re going to get passed. Nobody wants to be the guy that doesn’t get to travel. They get better because they want to beat each other.”

The Waves won three of their eight tournaments, came in second twice and finished no worse than fifth. Theegala won a pair of events, Mouw earned his first college title and both received All-American first team honors. Pepperdine ascended to #1 in the computer rankings for the first time in program history.

A second national title was in Pepperdine’s sights—until everything came to an abrupt end in mid-March when the NCAA canceled all remaining championships due to the COVID-19 pandemic. A disappointed group of Waves went home, but, as consolation, they did so as the nation’s #1-ranked team according to the Bushnell Golfweek coaches poll and by Golfstat.

“The timing of Mouw being a top recruit, having Sahith back, plus eight other guys capable of being All-Americans, it all seemed like last year everything had fallen into place,” said Beard, who received the Dave Williams Award as the National Coach of the Year. “With 4 1/2 scholarships and recruiting the way that it is, it’s difficult to replicate a squad like that. It felt like it was going to be our year.”

Theegala turned professional, but the rest of the Waves came back for 2020-21. The program quickly gave notice that the previous year was not a fluke, and that the Waves were intent on retaining their spot as a top program. The prestigious East Lake Cup invited the top four teams in the previous year’s rankings to compete, and after a round of stroke play, the Waves defeated Texas Tech and Oklahoma in match play to claim the trophy.

“Ultimately, it’s about the players,” Beard said. “We’ll do our best to make them better. I’d like to think our recent success will make it easier for recruits to decide that Pepperdine should be one of their top schools to look at on the West Coast. Our goal is to be a top program every year.”

By Roger Horne

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