Virginia Beach, Va. – Although the Ivy League formed as an athletic conference, its eight institutions are known more for their academic prowess than for their accomplishments on the playing field.
This perception is grounded largely in reality, as Ivy League representatives are perennial underdogs in NCAA national championships and the conference graduates very few players into the major professional sports leagues. As a result, the success of a current or former Ivy League athlete is viewed as a curiosity in the manner of a circus sideshow – it is rare to read an article about Buffalo Bills quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick, for example, that does not mention his alma mater, Harvard University.
The professional golf tours are no different. There are no Ivy League alumni on the PGA Tour, and just one, Jeehae Lee of Yale, on the LPGA Tour.
But 2011 has been an unusually fruitful year for Ivy League women golfers, who have been represented at every women’s United States Golf Association championship.
Princeton sophomore Kelly Shon played in the Women’s Open, Women’s Amateur Public Links and Women’s Amateur; Columbia sophomore Michelle Piyapattra qualified for the Women’s Public Links and Women’s Amateur, where she made it to the second match-play round; Yale alumna Andrea Kraus made it to match play at the Senior Women’s Amateur and is still alive at the Women’s Mid-Amateur, where Meredith Chiampa, Harvard class of 2004, lost in the first round of match play.
The high level of play is remarkable considering Ivy League women’s golf has a very short history, especially compared to the men. The early decades of American collegiate golf were dominated by schools that would make up the Ivy League, which was formed in 1954.
From 1897 to 1943, Yale won 21 national collegiate championships, Princeton captured 12 and Harvard brought six titles back to Cambridge, Mass. And the roster of USGA champions was peppered with players like Bob Jones (Harvard), Jess Sweetser (Yale) and Bill Campbell (Princeton).
This history is not surprising considering that the geography of Ivy League schools overlapped perfectly with the Northeast origins of golf in the United States. As the game began to spread geographically and in popularity, larger schools offering scholarships became training grounds for professional golfers.
As a result, male Ivy League golfers became less and less competitive on a national scale. The last player from an Ancient Eight school to qualify for the U.S. Open was Columbia’s Chris Condello, who played at Oakmont (Pa.) Country Club in 2007, just a couple of months after winning the Ivy League title.
Whereas the glory days of men’s Ivy League golf took place a century ago, female Ivy Leaguers face a future that has been growing brighter since the conference held its first women’s championship in 1997.
“When I got to Yale in 1978,” recalled Kraus, “I was the only member of the women’s team, and I played on the men’s team when I could. As my four years went on, we got more girls and we did field four or five.
“Now they’re a powerhouse. It’s amazing how good the Ivy League teams are.”
The improvement is impressive given the obstacles against recruiting top players: no athletic scholarships, high academic standards, limited schedule and tournaments often played in bad weather in the Northeast.
“Spring golf in New England is cruel and unusual punishment,” said Chiampa. “The season starts in March and we’ve played rounds in the snow.”
Mary Moan, who won the first Ivy League individual title for Princeton and is now the women’s golf coach at Bradley University in Illinois, credits the progress to a commitment by the universities to support women’s golf.
“When I was in playing and coaching, no Ivy program had indoor practice facilities,” said Moan, who coached the Yale women’s team from 2000 to 2005. “Now it seems like most of them do.”
For juniors whose sole goal isn’t to play professional golf, the Ivy League allows them to experience a high level of competition while receiving the best education in the world. “In order to have fun, I don’t want to force myself to play golf to make a living,” said Shon before she matriculated at Princeton. “I know there has to be a Plan B.”
Similarly, Columbia’s Piyapattra, who is from California and traveled across the country for college, wants to attend law school, even after winning the 2011 Ivy League title by 10 shots.
Professional golf certainly wasn’t a career goal for the 29-year-old Chiampa, who works for Citigroup and lives in New York City, where the golf options are limited.
“You either need a car and a membership somewhere, both of which are really expensive, or really good friends that play,” she said. “And I don’t really have either. I tell everyone I work with that I play golf, in the hopes that there’s a foursome that needs to be filled.”
One weekend a month, Chiampa takes the train to visit her parents and play Longmeadow (Mass.) Country Club. Her preparation for the Women’s Mid-Amateur, the only championship she plays all year, consisted solely of playing in Longmeadow’s club championship in August.
“That got me into tournament shape of putting everything out,” she said. “I don’t really do that normally.”
Other than this week, Chiampa is no different from millions of amateur golfers for whom golf is a diversion from the stresses of everyday life.
“I’ve done the subway to Van Cortlandt [Park Golf Course in the Bronx] with some friends,” she said. “It was a six-hour round. It was fun because we grabbed a couple of beers at the turn, but it’s not really a good way to practice.”