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The Sideline: Emily Fletcher marches on a slow climb to the top

May 21, 2014


Source: Northwestern Athletics

Emily Fletcher observes the action. Fletcher is in her sixth year as the women’s golf head coach and has led her team to national prominence.

Welcome to The Sideline, a series of profiles of Northwestern’s coaches where The Daily’s sports staff provides detailed looks into the lives and personalities of all 19 varsity coaches.

Over the past few years, women’s golf has been at times one of Northwestern’s most exciting and boring programs.

The Wildcats have made it to NCAA Regionals five consecutive years and seemingly improved as seasons wore on. Following three finishes of 10th or worse at Regionals from 2010 to 2012, NU broke out of its shell in 2013. That spring, the team won its first-ever Big Ten Championship, and placed sixth at Regionals, advancing to NCAA Championships for the first time since 2000. A new year has brought continued success, with the Cats earning another trip to nationals, entering the event as the 15th-ranked team in the country.

However fanciful the narrative, NU’s climb to national prominence has been slow. When Emily Fletcher took over the head coaching position in 2008, a Big Ten title and a trip to nationals were on her agenda. It wasn’t until Fletcher’s second season that the team even reached Regionals, and it would be a half-decade before she could cross those two goals off her list. There is much to be admired in a patient, long-term awakening, but it doesn’t offer the sexiest storyline.

And though there have been some standouts during Fletcher’s tenure, the rise is more attributed to increasing the depth of multiple elite players rather than riding the back of one electric individual.

The recent history here has not been one of miracles in the team’s climb to the national stage. But there is something to be said for steadiness, and the Cats appear to have built a sustainable model of success for years to come.

All of this suggests the good times have rolled in for Fletcher in her six years at Northwestern. Although for the most part that’s been true, the full picture is more complicated than that.

Fletcher’s road to Northwestern

There really wasn’t much suggesting that Fletcher would inevitably become NU’s women’s golf head coach. In fact, being a college coach in any capacity never really factored into her plans.

The catalyst that moved Fletcher to her current position was a long relationship she had developed with none other than NU director of golf Pat Goss.

“I had sort of reconnected with Pat when he was coaching and they hosted the Windon Memorial at the Glen View Club when I was working there as an assistant,” Fletcher said. “At the end of the event, Pat asked me, ‘Have you ever thought about getting into college coaching? Because if you do, I think you would be a great coach.’ And I said, ‘Oh, that’s really nice. Thanks.’ And never really gave it any more thought. Fast-forward a few years and when the position opened up here and Pat took over as director of golf. He was a big part of the hiring … and he circled back around and asked me again. I was at a point in my career that I thought it was a good opportunity.”

It took a certain leap of faith from Goss to pull the trigger on Fletcher, who at the time had no experience in college coaching at any level.

But it would be misleading to say Fletcher was entirely green to the job. She started her college golf career at Longwood University in Virginia before transferring to Ferris State University.

The golf program at Ferris State wasn’t the main factor that enticed her there but rather the school’s professional golf management program, the first of its kind in the country.

For Fletcher, who was interested in the business of golf, it was the perfect fit at the right moment. She used the program’s high-quality connections to procure multiple internships during her undergraduate years, first at La Paloma Country Club in Tucson, Arizona, and then at Desert Highlands Golf Club in Scottsdale, Arizona.

“Those internships are designed to start you at the bottom rung of the ladder,” Fletcher said. “You start in the bag room, and picking the range, all of the grunt work. Then as the internships progress, you take more and more responsibility, more teaching, more work with junior golfers. Working in the golf shop, merchandising, purchasing and that kind of thing.”

By the time she graduated from Ferris State in 1987 with a marketing degree, Fletcher had 18 months of job experience under her belt. She quickly found employment in post-grad life as an assistant professional at Desert Highlands and stayed for four years before moving on to Glen View, where she was in charge of instruction duties and golf operations.

During that time, Fletcher became well-acquainted with the LPGA Tour. In 1996, she became the assistant tournament director for the Wachovia Betsy King Classic, a position she held until 2004.

But it was her teaching that gained her the greatest notoriety. Fletcher was the swing instructor for LPGA player Jenny Lidback for nine years, a partnership that produced 20 top-10 finishes and a major championship victory in 1995. It was a relationship that ran very deep. Fletcher was not just a teacher but also Lidback’s mentor, occasionally her caddy and sometimes her business liaison when it came to clothing contracts and sponsorships.

Whatever the various duties, Fletcher felt the greatest sense of pull toward building Lidback’s golf game.

“You feel a tremendous amount of responsibility and burden because it’s their livelihood and they’re going out and playing golf for a living and their score matters,” Fletcher said. “Having to discern if it’s the right thing, if it’s the right time to make an improvement that needs to be done. You have to be mindful that they can’t just scrap it. They have to maintain their level of play and keep their tour card. Part of the balance there is having a good feel for when it’s time to push and when it’s time to play with what we’ve got for a little while.”

For nearly two decades, Fletcher had unwittingly built the base she needed to succeed at Northwestern.

Opening years

Fletcher was hired as head coach in May 2008, entering a program that had scored solid results over the years but one that Goss felt had lingered below its potential.

“I always felt we had always underachieved in women’s golf a bit,” Goss said. “What we’ve seen with all of our sports here at Northwestern is that it is a very appealing and attractive place for female student-athletes. So we knew there was a great potential to grow that program.”

Fletcher came in at a good time. Goss’ new position signified a greater integration between the two golf programs, a development that meant more attention and more funding for women’s golf. And Lauren Weaver, NU’s first real blue-chip recruit, had already committed to the program.

It was certainly a favorable position for the new coach, but Fletcher added her own flavor to the job.

“I remember that all the girls told me that she’s really tough, and that you have to do a lot of drills,” Weaver said. “A lot of girls weren’t really happy with that because there was a lot more structure than their previous coaching. But I thought it was great. She really wanted to develop you as a player and that’s what I was looking forward to.”

Whatever the advantages, NU failed to qualify for Regionals in Fletcher’s first season. But program-building takes a few campaigns, and in due time the results of the team’s work shone through.

Constructing a national power

As the Cats inched closer and closer to their goals of a Big Ten title and an appearance in the NCAA Championships, the origins of the progress were obvious: NU was on a recruiting roll.

Before Fletcher, NU rarely garnered a top recruit. From the program’s inception in 1997 to 2007, Jennifer Hong, Alice Kim and Hana Kim stood as the only Cats players who were ranked among the top 25 in their recruiting classes.

Weaver, eighth in her 2009 class, offered hope things might be changing, and that’s all that Fletcher needed. Devon Brown, 25th in her class, followed in Weaver’s footsteps to NU the next year.

Then they came in bunches. The 2011 class included the nation’s No. 16 and 17 recruits, Hana Lee and Brittany Mai, and 2012 brought in No. 7 Kaitlin Park and No. 25 Suchaya Tangkamolprasert. And after No. 27 Kacie Komoto joined in this past season’s freshman class, Fletcher struck the largest fountain of gold yet when she convinced Sarah Cho and Hannah Kim, No. 4 and No. 9 in the country at the time of their signings, to join NU in the fall.

It’s a deliciously fruitful base that sprouted out of a largely barren system before Fletcher arrived. Certainly the aforementioned advantages and increasingly tantalizing results have been major factors in this recruiting binge.

But there’s something about Fletcher that provides the main factor in explaining this monsoon of talent.

“When you sit down with Emily, she’s just a very genuine person,” assistant coach Beth Miller said. “I know that players and parents feel really good entrusting their child to her for four years. She’ll help them become the best person on top of being the best golfer they can be.”

Fletcher gets rave reviews among her current and former players for her personality. She’s genuine and considered a nice and caring person by her players. The warmth she exudes from the get-go serves as a major enticement.

Yet there’s a certain edge to her as well, born out of a fierce competitive streak.

“My initial impression was that she was passionate,” Park said. “She just pushed me to the program with her passion. I was looking for that motivation, she brought that competitive side that showed me the goals you can have in college.”

And it doesn’t end there: Fletcher has an ego so small a microscope might miss it. You can see it in the way she goes about recruiting.

In many college golf programs, the assistant coaches play a significant role in the recruiting. At NU, Miller isn’t an ancillary part in the process, but rather a full-on partner with Fletcher on the recruiting trail. To add to that two-headed monster, Fletcher entrusts her players to socialize with recruits; have meals with them, take them to courses in the area and talk to them about the program. For her, the current lot of talent will be the one that sells the next generation.

If that weren’t enough, one more factor stands out in this recruiting prowess.

When programs become elite, as NU arguably has with back-to-back NCAA Championships appearances, it is easy for the enjoyment of it all to drown in a sea of incessant determination.

That has not been the case for the Cats, and is the last piece of the puzzle in explaining the program’s rise to prominence.

“I talked to players from other programs and not all of their coaches afford them a lot of fun,” Weaver said. “But Emily loves doing team bonding things. At nationals last year, after each round we went to movies, went shopping, et cetera. When we win it’s clear that it’s a team victory rather than a bunch of individuals playing together.”

A scare of a lifetime, a ‘ridiculous’ response

Everything was on track for Fletcher as the Cats season wound down in 2010. She was entrenched as the head coach and appeared on the precipice of a major leap in the program’s fortune.

Then, in June, Fletcher was diagnosed with breast cancer during an annual exam.

The shocking news contained an even greater hint of surprise due to the fact that Fletcher’s family had no history of the disease. She would be relegated to months of chemotherapy doses and radiation treatments.

This was a year after Phil Mickelson dealt with the news that both his wife and mother had breast cancer. But if you thought his fortune turned, it was nothing compared to Fletcher.

After all, Mickelson wasn’t going through the treatments himself and both of his loved ones became breast cancer survivors.

When Fletcher’s mom was diagnosed with breast cancer a few months later, it was another blow in an increasingly tough year. NU’s coach would ultimately beat her cancer, but her mother died the following March.

Anyone would’ve understood if Fletcher used the time, a period marked by physical weakness, hair loss (replaced by a wig) and death, as an occasion for extended rest at home and a justifiable neglect of her coaching duties.

Lauren Weaver was a sophomore on the team at that time, and, she said, that didn’t happen.

“She didn’t miss a single tournament, she hardly missed any practices. It was really amazing,” Weaver said. “She never seemed physically sick, upset or nervous. There is no way from an outsider perspective to tell that she was dealing with these issues. I was with her on the team through the whole treatment and I could barely tell. It was ridiculous.”

Weaver wasn’t alone.

In a year where the team’s main storyline could have been about Fletcher working through these health issues, then-junior Alex Lederhausen insists it wasn’t.

“As a player, of course, you were aware what she was going through,” Lederhausen said. “But she was very open if you asked her questions, which was nice. At the same time, I don’t remember that being the central theme of that year. It was always in the back of our heads, but it wasn’t what she was all about. First and foremost, she was our coach and second she was going through chemotherapy. It made us appreciate her a million times more.”

Others tried to make the Cats’ season about Fletcher’s fight. After NU hosted the Big Ten Championships, an undertaking the coach puts up with some of the program’s greatest accomplishments, Fletcher was honored as Big Ten Co-Coach of the Year.

The award was in large part due to NU’s play that season, but Fletcher’s peers also wished to show her gratitude for staying the course through a very trying year.

How did Fletcher pull the deception of the century? By digging deep into her bulldog spirit.

“My faith is really important to me,” Fletcher said. “And I think I felt empowered in a unique way. I look back on it and go like, ‘How did you really do that?’ But you just push through it one day at a time. To have it culminate with what happened last year was a big thing.”

Moving forward

If any of the program’s boring remnants are left, that might change very quickly.

More Big Ten crowns appear in the offing, as well as at least serious contention in future NCAA Championships. If a shot at a national title doesn’t excite, nothing will.

The good times should continue for Fletcher and her squad, regardless of whether they live up to this potential.

That’s bound to happen when Fletcher makes it a point to keep tabs on her players’ personal lives. She created such an inclusive environment that Lederhausen once called Fletcher before her parents, who lived close by, when her car got a flat tire.

In another instance, Fletcher completely revolutionized Lee’s strategy to social interactions.

“Hana, her freshman year, she was very quiet,” Weaver said. “She would talk and you couldn’t hear her because she wouldn’t speak up. We were at breakfast one day and the waitress forgot Hana’s bacon. And then Hana would go (and) quietly say, ‘Miss, can I have some bacon?’ And Emily just goes like, ‘What? I can’t hear you! Nobody can hear you!’ and Hana was like, ‘Can I get some bacon, please?’ Emily told her that she needed to speak up and from that moment, Hana’s personality totally changed. She was super outgoing the rest of the year. Everyone liked being around her and she joked around a lot.”

There is little evidence NU will suddenly stagnate. There is a certain carefree environment around the team, but Fletcher’s fiery side surfaces from time to time, usually at the exact moment it needs to.

Fletcher also never takes for granted she’s mastered what it takes to be a coach.

“One of the biggest points about Emily is her willingness to really want to improve the people around her, but also herself,” Lederhausen said. “Any coach, good or bad, can get stuck in their ways and be stubborn and try to execute something do it their own way. But what Emily does very, very well is that she is really willing to be flexible about what works for everyone and what gets us to that common goal of getting better. For every year that she was a coach, she not only improved the program but also improved herself as a coach.”

The coach’s quest for perfection will continue. Fletcher takes pride in what she has helped fulfill in six years, but, for a woman who wouldn’t let cancer keep her from her team, complacency is never an option.

“It’s certainly encouraging to tick off and actually accomplish some of those things we set out to do,” Fletcher said. “It’s my nature, though, that I’m never satisfied. As much as we were excited about what we did last year, that was last year. … As I see it, we are part of a story that is still in its early stages.”

Correction: A previous version of this story misstated the year NU first qualified for Regionals. It was Fletcher’s second season as coach. The Daily regrets the error.

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