Palo Alto Weekly

Sports - February 22, 2013

Dreamy round of golf

Cardinal freshman sets NCAA women's record with 10-under 61

by Mark Soltau

Mariah Stackhouse was wearing a backpack and walking her bike up a steep road leading to Stanford Golf Course to meet with a writer. Four days earlier, she owned the place, shooting a course and NCAA women's record 10-under-par 61 in the Peg Barnard Invitational.

Up close, the 5-foot-2 freshman from Riverdale, Ga., looked like a normal college student. She's always listening to music, likes to hang out with friends, and loves 15-minute naps.

But last Sunday's performance was out of this world. What the 18-year-old Stackhouse accomplished was pure magic, something most players only dream about. She made two eagles on the front nine, one-putted every green, and shot a 9-under 26. The cup looked like a manhole cover.

"On the fourth hole, I had about a 15-foot birdie putt and I honestly did not hit it hard enough for it to get to the hole," said Stackhouse. "It just fell in. I was like, `Whoa, what is going on?' ''

On the par-5 seventh, she hooked her drive at a giant oak tree that guards the corner of the dogleg left. More times than not, the tree wins. Not on this day. The seeing-eye ball didn't touch a branch and rolled down the fairway, leaving 200 yards to the green. From there, Stackhouse flushed a 7-wood 30 feet from the hole and drained the eagle putt.

"I was just like, `Huh? Good things are happening today,' '' she said.

At the short but dangerous par-4 ninth, flanked by a creek on the right, Stackhouse striped her drive down the fairway. Adrenaline flowing, she flew her blind, uphill second shot 35 feet past the pin, leaving a slick, downhill birdie putt. With her mother Sharon and younger brother John looking on from the hillside gallery, Stackhouse poured in the putt.

"It was unreal," said Stackhouse. "I told myself, `This is going in the hole.' I still couldn't believe it. I heard everybody scream. I just looked at Coach (Anne Walker, the Margot and Mitch Milias Director of Women's Golf) and put my hand over my head and started laughing. I was just enjoying it."

Chan Reeves, Director of Instruction at the Atlanta Athletic Club and her teacher for almost 10 years, still can't believe her score.

"I've never heard of anyone shooting 26," he said. "It blows my mind."

Stackhouse, a highly-successful junior player and three-time Georgia 4A high school girls' champion, qualified for the 2011 U.S. Women's Open. Twice, she had shot 65 in competition, but 9-under through nine holes was rarified air.

Collecting herself on the 10th tee, Stackhouse thought, "Don't change anything and try to help it.''

One of her playing partners was exasperated and told her coach, "I can't keep up," she said. "She's birdieing every hole."

Replied her coach, "Don't try to beat her. Just enjoy watching history."

By then, Stackhouse had attracted a gallery of about 200, reminding some of the Tiger Woods days. Stackhouse parred 10 and 11, then birdied the 12th hole to go 10-under. But at the par-4 13th, Stackhouse three-putted for her first bogey of the day, missing from just inside four feet.

"I took a little more time than I needed and got out of my rhythm," she said. Stackhouse pulled her tee shot left of the green at the par-3 14th and failed to get up-and-down for a par. But she kept her composure and vowed to birdie two of the last four holes, her favorites on the course.

After a par at 15, Stackhouse hit a nice third shot to the par-5 16th and sunk a 10-foot birdie putt.

"It was like a moving roar," Walker said of the crowd.

At the tough par-3 17th, assistant coach Kathryn Imrie helped her with the yardage and Stackhouse opted for an easy 7-iron instead of a hard 8. The ball covered the flag, but wound up nine feet past, leaving a tricky downhill slider. Swish.

At the picturesque downhill par-4 18th, Stackhouse bombed the longest drive of her life and had only 80 yards to the pin. Her 56-degree sand wedge checked up 15 feet below the hole. Although she knew the putt was straight, Stackhouse convinced herself it broke and ran the birdie attempt two feet past the cup. She converted the dicey downhill putt to make history.

"Coach came out and hugged me and everybody was cheering," Stackhouse said. "I was thinking this might be one of the greatest rounds I'll ever play."

Not only did Stackhouse win individual honors, but Stanford won the team title. The irony is that Walker, in her first season on The Farm, gave Stackhouse a pep talk prior to the round.

"Right before I teed off, coach looks at me and says, "Mariko's record out here is 63. Let's break some records today,' '' recalled Stackhouse.

Mariko is teammate Mariko Tumangan, a sophomore from San Jose.

"I was really calm," said Stackhouse, who is not a morning person and only hit about 15 practice balls. "I just looked at her and said, `All right, I'll try.' I definitely didn't see it coming."

Stackhouse had qualified No. 1 for the tournament thanks to four straight sub-par rounds. But Walker never imagined she would shoot lights out.

"I knew she was really comfortable under par," she said. "It was more of a challenge."

Did thoughts of breaking 60 ever cross her mind?

"It didn't until I bogeyed 13,"said Stackhouse. "And I was like, `Mariah, what did you just do?!' That's kind of when it hit me."

Word of her NCAA record spread quickly.

"A lot of people on Twitter have reached out and congratulated me," Stackhouse said. Two in particular. Former Olympic track and field gold medalists Ralph Boston (long jump) and Edwin Moses (400-meter hurdles) are good friends. Boston has been a long-time mentor and frequent golf partner in the Atlanta area.

"He said, `Miss Mariah, I hear you're doing amazing things — that's great,' he said. There's kind of a joke he always tells me: `Saddest words in a golfer's day, hit again, you're still away. I guess you weren't saying much of that.' ''

Reeves said she has always been grounded.

"I remember when she qualified for the USGA Junior Championship when she was 12, which was pretty amazing," he said. "When she came home I asked her what the best part was and thought she would say, `Having a caddie bib with my name on it.' She said it was going into the locker room and getting as many ice creams bars as you like."

Reeves said Sunday's win will be "huge, confidence-wise" for Stackhouse, but won't change her a bit.

"She's going to walk around campus the same way she did last week," said Reeves. "She's never been all about golf. At 15, she was already talking about her education. She's smart and works hard."

Reeves said her biggest strengths as a player are her sound fundamentals, mental toughness and experience.

"She adjusts well and is able to laugh off bad shots," he said. "Very few have that mentality."

Walker still can't quite believe what she witnessed last Sunday.

"I certainly never thought I would coach a 62," said Walker. "I'm like Mariah; I'm still kind of pinching myself."

Stackhouse had a celebratory dinner with family and friends after the tournament. The reality of her NCAA record finally was starting to sink in.

"The next morning when I woke up —because I kept telling my mom, `This might be a dream and I'm going to be really sad if I wake up and this is not real' — I woke up and it was very real," said Stackhouse. "It was really too cool."

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