SUGAR GROVE, Ill. – Tucked in the back of Missy Farr-Kaye’s yardage book, right behind the collage of her team, is a laminated card with the Arizona State logo and the team motto.
All-in Until May 24.
That was today, when the finals of the NCAA Women’s Championship were held at Rich Harvest Farms.
Outside of Tempe, perhaps, there was little reason to believe the Sun Devils could extend their season this long, but all spring they believed it and they talked about it and they even acted like it. A month ago, after a blowout victory at their home tournament, they gathered in a teammate’s apartment and stroked 3-foot putts into a cardboard hole. With each make, they pumped their fist and pretended that they’d won the national title, even using faux announcer voices.
“And so we had it in our minds,” senior Monica Vaughn said, “that we had won the national championship five times.”
Make that six, after Arizona State cruised to a 3-1-1 victory over Northwestern to capture their NCAA-best eighth national title.
These were no late-night shenanigans. The Sun Devils sang Queen’s “We are the Champions” as they took a cart ride back to the clubhouse. They bounced around in a group circle and chanted their fight song. They threw on gray championship T-shirts and hugged their parents and, yes, snapped a few selfies on Snapchat.
“It’s incredible to me how many people say, ‘It’s unbelievable! I can’t believe it!’” Vaughn said. “But I can believe it. I can totally believe it. I’ve believed it since Day 1. We have worked so far for this and dreamed about this and worked for this every single day. And look us now – national champions.”
Two days ago, after Vaughn won the rain-shortened individual title, Farr-Kaye told the team that they were not done celebrating. That there was still more to accomplish. That they were All-In Until May 24th, remember, not the 22nd.
It’s a mantra that began in January, during the first team meeting with new assistant coach Michelle Estill. Farr-Kaye asked her players to write in their notebooks who they wanted to be. Resilient, mentally tough, positive, committed, fearless – they’re among the 30 phrases that now appear on the locker-room door.
“We didn’t ever lose sight of that,” Vaughn said.
The Sun Devils pulled closer to that goal when they dismantled Florida during the morning quarterfinals on Tuesday, but their magical run appeared over when play was suspended that night because of darkness.
The outlook was grim: Stanford was one point from advancing, and Vaughn had made the curious decision not to warm up after a two-hour weather delay, which caused her to surrender a 2-up lead with six holes to play. One down in the 18th fairway, she decided that she wanted to return on Wednesday morning.
This time, she didn’t make the same mistake.
Vaughn warmed up with only 3-woods and hybrids, then headed to the short-game area for 30-yard pitches (the distance she would have on 18, a shot she nearly holed) and uphill 15-footers (which she would have on the first extra hole). She won both holes to stun Stanford and win the match, then watched as teammate Linnea Strom’s par on the 19th hole was enough to push the team into the finals.
“We’ve been saying all year that this is our chance right now,” Vaughn said. “This is one of the greatest teams to ever come through ASU, and I truly believe that.”
A bold statement, of course, since the Sun Devils are the most decorated program in women’s college golf history.
No one knows that better than Farr-Kaye, who was a part of the school’s first national title, in 1990.
Ever since, it seems, she has overcome adversity. Her older sister, Heather, one of the most well-known players on the LPGA, died after a four-year battle with breast cancer. She was only 28. Four years later, Missy, a mother of three boys, had her own cancer scare, and then beat it, only for the disease to return in 2008. The Sun Devils won the NCAA title the following year.
Her backstory is now both inspirational and instructive to her team.
On more than one occasion, she has told her players: “There are things to cry about in this world, because I can share with you a few things, but golf is never something to cry about. There are days of joy and sadness, but it’s golf. You have to keep your perspective.
“Part of my purpose is to help teach them so they can say, ‘I can fight this head-on, because Coach showed me I can pick myself up and hang in there and handle different things.’”
Born and raised in Phoenix, Missy grew up about 10 minutes from campus and still lives close by. Her three boys, who range from age 13 to 23, have attended Sun Devils football and basketball games since they were babies. “They’ve been brainwashed properly,” she said.
Farr-Kaye spent 13 years as an ASU assistant coach, content to teach in the shadows, until she finally earned the promotion (and her dream job) when Melissa Luellen left in ’15. The honeymoon didn’t last long, as the Sun Devils failed to qualify for nationals each of the past two years – unthinkable for such a glittering program.
“I took it really hard,” she said. “I didn’t sleep for three weeks.”
But Arizona State returned to prominence this season behind first-team All-Americans Vaughn and Strom, as well as standout freshman Olivia Mehaffey. They captured four team titles and rolled into NCAAs after a dominant performance at regionals.
“I knew the team was ready,” Liti said.
In match play, Farr-Kaye asked each of her players to write down both where they wanted to play in the lineup and where they didn’t. She wanted them comfortable, and she didn’t change that order during any of the three matches.
The Sun Devils looked at ease as they jumped all over local favorite Northwestern in the championship match. All week the Wildcats, competing only 60 miles from campus, enjoyed an advantage with the home crowds and conditions. The temperature never rose above 70 degrees, and most of the time it hovered in the mid-50s, accompanied by either a steady breeze or sideways rain. All of the Midwest nastiness seemed to work in their favor … at least until they ran into the hottest team in the country.
“I think we needed another 10 mph more wind to have a go at ASU,” said Northwestern coach Emily Fletcher.
Mehaffey, a former Curtis Cupper, improved to 3-0 this week with a tone-setting 4-and-3 victory in the opening match. The Sun Devils poured it on from there, with Liti scoring a 5-and-4 victory and Vaughn overcoming a back-nine deficit to take Northwestern’s best player, Hannah Kim, to the 18th hole.
Back on 15, Strom, who asked to be in the anchor match, who wanted the pressure and the spotlight, earned the clinching point with a 5-foot birdie.
Spread out over Rich Harvest Farms, it took a few minutes before all five team members finally celebrated as a group.
They put their right hands together, they looked each other in the eye, and they shouted a line they had rehearsed for the past five months.
“One, two, three … all-in!”