Six years ago, ASU men’s golf coach Randy Lein took a trip to Europe.
He was there to sightsee. But he wasn’t gawking at the Eiffel Tower or exploring the ancient structures of the Vatican.
Instead, Lein was on a recruiting trip halfway around the world to look at the 120 best high-school aged golfers the continent had to offer at the European Boys Championship.
Six years later, the complexion of Lein’s team has changed because of his annual overseas pilgrimage.
The tournament, which features six-member, 18-years-old-and-younger lineups from the 20 best teams in Europe, has been a breeding ground for a large portion of the current ASU men’s roster.
Five members of this past season’s Sun Devil team —which made it to the quarterfinals of the NCAA Championships before falling to eventual champion Texas A&M — are from Europe, and of those, Lein discovered four of them at the tournament, which switches locations every year and will be in the Netherlands this summer.
For Lein, who just completed his 17th season as coach at ASU, making the trip to Europe every year is only part of the recruiting process.
“A lot of it is about developing relationships with [European] coaches,” he said. “Now they’ve all come — the Swedish, Norwegians, Germans and Dutch — and they’ve spent time here, so they know what Arizona State is all about. They try to get a good fit knowing how I coach so they can comfortably say [to their golfers], ‘[ASU] is a good place to go.’”
And the number of international golfers heeding the advice of their coaches and heading to the United States to play collegiate golf is growing, particularly at ASU.
Lein said he is one of a select few Division-I coaches who makes the trip to Europe every year.
“There are only a handful of American coaches that go over there,” he said. “If you look at the success of those that go, though, they’ve all had great success in recruiting European players.”
So why don’t more coaches travel to Europe to recruit some of the world’s best young golfers?
“For one thing, it’s quite an expense to get over there,” Lein said. “And I don’t play it up, obviously. I just say, ‘Well most of them don’t speak English, and the ones that you like who do are turning pro, so I don’t even know why I go over there.’”
Lein said one of the major reasons he recruits European players is because of their experience with traveling. Many of the golfers he recruits have been members of their countries’ amateur national teams, which travel across the continent and beyond to play in tournaments, he said.
Lein said the experience gained by the international golfers, as they navigate the pressure of being part of their countries’ national teams, makes them very prepared to compete at the collegiate level.
One of those players who had garnered numerous accolades overseas before coming to play on American fairways is Sweden native Jesper Kennegard, who finished ninth at last month’s NCAA Championships
Throughout his high-school career, from 2004-2007, Kennegard was the top-ranked golfer in his country, and in 2006 he was Sweden’s Junior Golfer of the Year.
His success at the international level quickly transferred to the American collegiate game.
Following his freshman year, Kennegard was named to the All-Pac-10 First Team, becoming only the fifth golfer in Sun Devil history to earn that honor. He also finished his first year with the fourth-lowest scoring average for a freshman in school history.
“The Swedes really encourage their players to come to this country,” Lein said. “They want them to go to college, get their degree, go through the maturation process and develop their game that way. Because of our background, the best Swedish players want to go [to ASU]. It’s kind of a tradition.”
While it may have been tradition for Sweden’s best golfers to leave their native land for Tempe, Kennegard said he had his own reasons for becoming a Sun Devil.
“The weather and the courses were big reasons,” Kennegard said. “School and [ASU’s Karsten Golf Course] are really close to where I live here, and that’s a huge benefit.”
The transition to the American golf game has been manageable for Kennegard and the other international players on ASU’s roster, and their performances in the classroom have shown they are well equipped for the entirety of the American college experience.
“To be honest, [academics] are a large part of why these kids are recruited,” ASU assistant athletic director Doug Tammaro said.
Lein added that the educational system in many parts of Europe is a year ahead of the United States, which makes the transition from high school overseas to college in America relatively easy.
The coach said that during their first year, when the athletes are still getting accustomed to the English language, they will write some of their assignments in their native language to help them understand what they are learning.
“It takes a while before it’s all English,” Lein said. “So the first year that transition works out well, because they are taking classes they already have a background in, and they are usually very good students.”
Stephanie Viola, a student-athlete development coordinator, works with international athletes at ASU. She said help for athletes struggling to learn English is readily available.
“The ones that do struggle a little more with the language, we make sure that they have a mentor or a tutor that can help them,” Viola said. “Most of the time, our international students are very good at coming in and seeking the kind of help they need.”
The classroom performances of the team’s international golfers — which include a 2008 All-Pac-10 Academic first-team selection for Norwegian junior Knut Borsheim and a 4.0 GPA for junior Tristan Bierenbroodspot of the Netherlands — offer proof that many international students perform at a top level, Viola said.
Viola said she is most impressed with how grateful many of the international students are to have a chance to play in the United States.
“Everyone that I’ve worked with is very appreciative of the opportunity that they have,” she said. “They go that extra mile to do what they have to do to be successful. The coaches take a big chance on bringing them over here, and I think [the international athletes] understand that.”
For members of the team who were born and raised in the United States, playing with a wide range of international players has been like a free culture lesson.
“We have a lot of fun with these guys,” said sophomore Scott Pinckney, a product of Boulder Creek High School in Anthem. “We all kind of teach each other to speak different languages, and I’ve been able to pick up some Swedish and now some German. The personalities are different and the lifestyles are all so different, and it is fun how we mix, and I think we mix well.”
Pinckney said the team likes to rag on German teammate Stephan Gross (sophomore) for constantly making sure that every piece of his equipment is impeccably clean.
“He really likes everything to be perfect,” Pinckney said. “His clubs always have to be clean, so we like to make fun of him a little bit and have fun with it.”
While Lein can be credited with starting a trend that has resulted in a slew of top European players coming to ASU, a large international contingent of players on the nation’s top-ranked ASU women’s golf team can be largely attributed to one athlete.
“There weren’t too many [international golfers] until I came,” senior Azahara Munoz said.
The Malaga, Spain native came to ASU in fall 2005 and finished her career last month by leading the Sun Devils to their seventh NCAA Championship.
The greatest moment of her Sun Devil career came at the 2008 NCAA Championships, where Munoz sunk a 25-foot putt in a playoff to become the individual champion.
“I had finished second a lot … always one shot behind and one shot behind,” Munoz said. “So when I finally won, it was pretty exciting. When the putt went in, I couldn’t believe it.”
Munoz’s success at ASU has paved the way for the future of the team, and it’s one that looks bright given the success this season of Carlota Ciganda, a native of Pamplona, Spain, who earned the title of 2009 Pac-10 individual champion as a freshman.
“Carlota and I knew each other really well in Europe,” Munoz said. “We’ve been really good friends since we were little, so it’s nice to go where you know someone.”
But the ironic thing about the recruitment of several of ASU’s top women golfers is that they were indirectly brought to the program by the efforts of the men’s coach.
In 2002, Lein brought Alejandro Canizares to ASU, who would end his collegiate career as a four-time All-American and the 2003 NCAA individual champion.
Canizares’ hometown is Malaga, Spain.
“I knew he was here, and we were from the same town, so [that’s why I chose ASU],” Munoz said.
She said she couldn’t be happier with the decision.
Munoz’s success at ASU has afforded her the opportunity to play on the LPGA Tour as an amateur. This season, she played at the Kraft Nabisco Invitational, and she will compete at the U.S. Women’s Open on July 6.
“After that, I plan to turn pro,” Munoz said.
As she sat in the Karsten clubhouse last month after a practice in preparation for the NCAA West Regional, Munoz said she was having a hard time believing it was all about to be over.
“These four years have gone by so fast,” she said. “You just don’t want it to end.”
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