A story of depth: Arizona leads ANNIKA
By Julie Williams
Arizona’s team score was far into the red by the time Laura Ianello added color. Thoughtfully, and with a maternal tone, Ianello chose an anecdote Sunday afternoon to describe each piece of her lineup. She brought a seasoned Wildcat squad to life.
That story began with Wanasa Zhou, the player who lost her range finder at the beginning of the day, only to borrow one from the pro shop and post a 4-under 68. It was an uncharacteristic scatter-brained moment for a player who Ianello defines by her attention to detail.
A year ago, Ianello called Zhou a “diamond in the rough” because of her unmatched work ethic. It’s fitting that Zhou, the unexpected piece of this roster, led the Wildcats to 8-under 280 Sunday in the opening round of the ANNIKA Intercollegiate. Arizona leads South Carolina by two shots at Reunion Resort’s Watson course.
View images from the Waston course at Reunion Resort during the first round of the Annika Intercollegiate featuring 12 teams.
Zhou, who didn’t take up the game until after her 13th birthday, came to Arizona as a walk-on, but that has changed. Hers was the fifth-best scoring average on a team that finished seventh at the NCAA Championship in the spring. Zhou’s story is what has made Arizona so top-to-bottom talented for the past two years – as Ianello suggests, she came out of nowhere and she made up ground based on an inner desire to close the gap of experience.
“I knew if I was going to travel I had to work harder, put more time into golf and study too,” Zhou said.
Ianello and assistant coach Derek Radley focused on making Zhou more self-sufficient on the course. She came to Tucson, Ariz., unsure what was causing certain misses. With more understanding of the golf swing, Zhou began to cure herself on the course.
Zhou also began paying more attention to her statistics. She’s trying to steady her tee shot and hit more fairways. Zhou understands she just needs to leave herself in good positions, and she did that Sunday.
Most of Zhou’s summer was devoted to game improvement. But for a brief trip to Australia to visit her grandparents – Zhou’s parents, who were born in China but raised their daughter Down Under, have since moved back to their roots – Zhou spent the offseason in Beaumont, Calif., working with instructor Henry Liaw.
Zhou is now a polished sophomore who started the ANNIKA in Arizona’s No. 2 spot. She also carried over a perfect GPA from her freshman year. Ianello expresses her place on the roster this way: “If I had 10 Wanasas, I’d have a national-championship team.”
Instead, Ianello has an internationally diverse lineup with the talent to win it anyway – especially as the national championship changes to match play in the spring.
The biggest holdover from Arizona’s success in recent years is senior Manon Gidali, who posted 3-under 69 on Sunday from the No. 1 spot in the lineup. Gidali, who won two tournaments out of the gate in the spring of 2012 after joining the Wildcats at the halfway point of the season, saw her game go to the abyss and back during the past year.
Gidali didn’t make it through a team qualifier in the fall, and suddenly it was in her head. Gidali played only eight of Arizona’s 12 events before posting rounds of 73-67-74-68 at the NCAA Championship to tie for seventh, and earn redemption.
“I was just burned out by golf,” Gidali said. “… It was good to have a little time apart. I practiced hard to come back.”
Six birdies on Sunday signaled a cure for the Frenchwoman, who now works with Susie Meyers, an instructor who has tapped into Gidali’s mental game.
“I realized I am so lucky to do what I do and I really love it,” Gidali said.
Given Gidali’s bounce-back, Ianello calls Meyers’ coaching a “magic pill.”
“She’s a huge asset to us,” Ianello said of Meyers, a former Arizona player.
Meyers also works with senior Kendall Prince, a steady player who Ianello always counts on for a score. Prince posted 1-under 71 at Reunion.
Arizona’s No. 4 score, even-par 72, came from junior Lindsey Weaver, Golfweek’s preseason No. 15 player. She led Arizona in scoring a year ago, and was the only Wildcat to make every start.
Consider that Arizona left sophomore Jessica Vasilic, who played 11 of 12 events with Arizona as a freshman, and Andrea Vilarasau, who was top-10 at the 2013 NCAA Championship, at home. Rarely does a squad feature such knowledge and experience and such little complacency.
“There’s one thing I can tell you when I’m home at practice,” Ianello said. “The girls don’t feel safe.”
Despite this depth, Arizona won just once last year, at the Florida Gator Invitational, but there were five other top fives. With a schedule that features mostly inner-Pac-12 competition, Ianello’s squad has to play well to win. It’s the only area in which Arizona’s knowledge base is lacking. An early-fall victory would go a long way in shaping the season.
“When you win, it gives you that confidence, it gives you that reassurance,” Ianello said.
For Arizona, it would be a fitting chapter in the story.