After years of preparation and with some of the nation’s best players, the Pepperdine men’s golf team’s second NCAA Championship title was no surprise
With a masterfully recruited team years in the making, the 2019– 2020 Pepperdine men’s golf season began with intense momentum. Boasting some of the nation’s top players and an unquenchable competitive spirit, the players were more than prepared to put in their best to clinch the 2020 National Collegiate Athletic Championship (NCAA) title until the COVID-19 pandemic brought the season to a halt. Although key teammates graduated in 2020, and the summer brought a great deal of uncertainty, the team’s momentum held strong. After a highly competitive season, the team made history yet again to seize their second NCAA title at the 2021 NCAA Championship.
In 1997 Pepperdine men’s golf journeyed to the Chicago suburbs to battle it out for their first championship title. That year marked the team’s third appearance in the championships, and, at the start of the championship, they ranked 24th out of the 30-team competition. Their head coach, John Geiberger (’94), was out of commission due to an unexpected case of chickenpox, so former Waves player Kevin Marsh (’96) and former associate athletic director Tim Wilhelm (’75), who had come to observe the tournament, stepped in to aid the team throughout the week’s competition. Despite the challenges, the team played expertly to secure a win against runner-up Wake Forest University.
While the 2021 championship was a longawaited celebration after the team first raised the trophy in 1997, the accomplishment was made possible through years of careful development and exceptional talent. In Pepperdine’s early years at the Los Angeles campus, a top-tier golf program was already planting its roots. One of the program’s early mentors included former Pepperdine athletics director Wayne Wright (MA ’66) and, in 1981, following a brief hiatus, the golf program made its return with Professor Emeritus Bob Gilliam as its first official head coach.
Since the men’s golf program’s formal inception, the team has logged 20 West Coast Conference (WCC) wins, 11 appearances at the NCAA Championships, and nearly 50 player awards, including the 2020 National Player of the Year Award given to Sahith Theegala (’20), who is currently competing— and making headlines for his impressive performance—as a rookie in the Professional Golfers’ Association (PGA) tour. In the last decade, the team has climbed in the rankings from its spot beyond the top 100 programs to topping charts at number one in preseason rankings—a rise due in part to head coach Michael Beard (’02), who has been named the WCC Coach of the Year four times and received the 2020 and 2021 Dave Williams Award honoring Division I collegiate golf coaches across the nation.
Since the program claimed its first NCAA Championship title in 1997, team recruits have longed to see Pepperdine on the championship green again. As a Waves athlete from 1998 through 2002, Beard knew the program was one of the best in the nation. He was a talented golfer holding several school records at the time, including a 72.72 scoring average, 55 below-par rounds, and 22 top-10 finishes. He was also named an All-American player in 2000 and 2002.
“Golf is such an individual sport, but I felt a deep sense of community playing with Pepperdine,” reflects Beard. “We cared tremendously for each other off the green, but we also had a healthy competitive spirit between each of us.”
That sibling-like rivalry pushed the team to finish eighth in the 2002 NCAA Championship and chart in the top 40 of teams across the nation.
After graduation, Beard played professionally for six years and displayed his talent in several mini-tours as well as two PGA tour events. After a stint assistant coaching for Pepperdine briefly during the 2010–2011 season and at Arizona State University from 2011 through 2012, Beard made his long-awaited return to Pepperdine as head coach in 2012 beginning a decade of unprecedented growth for the program.
“I always knew Pepperdine was a top program, and I wanted to bring to this group of players that same sense of camaraderie I felt as an athlete,” shares Beard. Reflecting on his own professional golf experience, he saw how easily the sport could get complicated. His hope was for his players to find joy in the simplicity of golf.
Beard not only envisioned what the men’s golf team could be capable of but also knew the practical steps he needed to take to see the vision come to fruition. With the support of Pepperdine Athletics, Beard began his search for the nation’s most coveted recruits. In 2015 Theegala joined the team’s ranks and quickly became a standout competitor, earning him the WCC Freshman of the Year award and ranks in the All-WCC first team and the Golf Coaches Association of America PING All-West Region team in just his first year. Throughout his college golf career, Theegala tallied three NCAA All-American awards, and, in 2020, he won the Haskins Award, the Ben Hogan Award, and the Jack Nicklaus Award, becoming one of just five players to win all three awards in the same year.
Other notable recruits included Roy Cootes (’19), Clay Feagler (’21), senior Joe Highsmith, junior William Mouw, and Frederick Wedel (’16), who each played integral parts in several WCC Championship and NCAA Championship appearances. As Beard recruited new talent, the powerful culture of community he wanted to replicate from his time as a student-athlete was top of mind. He knew to look for players who could fit in with a group of strong personalities and had a deep desire to specifically attend Pepperdine.
“Coach Beard is so aware of the players he has and what makes them tick,” shares Wedel, who ranks fourth in Pepperdine’s all-time scoring average and is currently in his fifth year of professional golfing. “He gets the best out of each of us. That means he doesn’t always tell you what you want to hear, but what you need to hear to be better. It takes somebody special to push players to something greater, and has that ability to create a winning culture. I can’t give enough credit to Beard and to the whole Pepperdine family for molding me into the person and player I am today.”
Beard’s dedication to his players and his commitment to excellence on and off the green led players to push through adversity and strive for greatness. The team, which previously ranked outside of the nation’s top 100, quickly progressed an average of 15 places over the course of six years until the close of the shortened 2020 season when the team earned the nation’s number one ranking.
“In 2017 we were making our way back from the championships, and each of the guys knew they belonged on that green—they just needed to keep getting out there and making slight improvements,” shares Beard. From that year on, each player continued to tap into their team relationships to grow and progress together.
“Every year the team would get better, and our attitudes would change. Each new player coming in saw the success of the players before him, leading to each of us knowing we had a chance to win a national championship,” shares Cootes, who competed with the Waves in the 2019 NCAA Championships. “Coach Beard was such a big influence on that shift. He created such a trustworthy environment that we knew we could achieve anything.”
A Championship Legacy
After seven years of careful planning, recruiting, and coaching, the team was ready to raise the championship trophy again. On June 2, 2021, after a demanding competition over six days in the grueling Scottsdale, Arizona, heat, the dream of the team winning a second NCAA Championship was finally a reality. The tenacity of the 2021 championship players was reminiscent of the 1997 team. This time, the Waves managed a 3–2 victory over the University of Oklahoma, Pepperdine’s rival as the top-ranked team in the nation, with expert plays from Highsmith and Mouw, who both won the first two points in the championship’s new match-play format, and fifth-year senior Feagler, who secured Pepperdine’s lead on the 18th green.
As the team enters the 2021–2022 season to defend their title, teammates Dylan Menante and Mouw were named to the Haskins Award preseason watch list, the same award Theegala received in 2020. Additionally, the team continues to be highly ranked, competing at the highest levels of collegiate golf in the nation, proving Beard’s tenure as head coach continues to position the team and its players for greatness.
“As we enter this new season with a smaller group of players, we are going to continue putting our energy into the camaraderie and team relationships,” Beard says. “We want them to be comfortable with failure and know that they have a team to fall back on when they need support.”