On the way home from the season-opening ANNIKA Intercollegiate, first-year USC head coach Justin Silverstein asked sophomore Gabriela Ruffels to describe her putting strategy.
“Never up, never in,” Ruffels replied.
The stats backed up that philosophy. Through eight rounds of qualifying and one tournament, Silverstein could measure down to the inch how much Ruffels’ aggressive approach had cost her.
Silverstein has a spread sheet that details his players’ speed ratio on greens. Players miss putts for three reasons: line, read or speed. At USC they’re dogged about speed. Three times a week the Trojans play for score at practice and that’s the only stat Silverstein asks them to keep from those rounds.
“That’s what we live off of,” he said.
It paid off handsomely at Palos Verdes, where top-ranked USC picked up its sixth title of the season at the Pac-12 Championship, claiming an 11-stroke, wire-to-wire victory over 2018 NCAA champs Arizona.
It continued at the Cle Elum Regional in Washington, where the Trojans lapped the field, finishing 18-under, 15 shots ahead of host Washington and the rest of the regional, on Wednesday.
Now it’s on to the NCAA Div. I Women’s Golf Championships, May 17-22, at the Blessings Golf Club in Fayetteville, Arkansas.
Sometimes short is the better play
When college players leave a 20-foot birdie putt short, Silverstein says, they sometimes carry on like their dog just died, throwing their arms in the air and staring at the sky in disbelief. But sometimes, short is the better play.
Ruffels has learned the virtue of holding back.
“When the greens get nasty,” said Silverstein, “we have a big advantage.”
Shock is the best way to describe how the USC team felt after longtime coach Andrea Gaston called each player over the summer to say she was leaving the program after 22 years. And for Texas A&M of all places. Silverstein, a former assistant to Gaston who spent the past two seasons with the USC men’s program, was named her replacement. Silverstein had recruited four of the six scholarship players on the women’s roster.
Gaston produced three NCAA team championships, five individual champions and four NCAA Players of the Year. If Silverstein, 33, is at all worried about maintaining that winning tradition as head coach, he isn’t showing it.
The time with USC men’s coach Chris Zambri crystallized the notion for Silverstein that he was ready to be at the helm. Silverstein was eager go full bore into the method of practice he’d learned from Zambri, one that’s waist-deep in metrics. He’d started it with current LPGA players Annie Park, Karen Chung and Sophia Popov as an assistant several years ago. But now he could make it part of USC’s DNA.
Silverstein’s players don’t come to practice and mindlessly tear through a bucket of balls. Everything is measured. Everything is a test. They work off of simulators and hash marks on the football field. Hit 20 balls at a line and ladder the clubs, marking down how many feet to the left or right the ball lands. Chuck the worst two and add up the 18 counters to get a score. Anything in the 50s is a good score. Anything 70 or higher needs improvement.
“It’s ‘Moneyball’ for golf,” said Silverstein.
There’s no doubting that USC players know their yardages as well as any team in the country. Don’t bet against them on a calm day.
They know their strengths and weaknesses, too.
“If you don’t hold yourself accountable and write it down,” said Silverstein, “you kind of create these stories about what you think your round was actually like.”
Ruffels is not a numbers person. It took time to get used to Silverstein’s stats-based system, but as the season progressed, she bought in.
Equally important to the Aussie this season: a quiet mind.
In the morning, Ruffels opens up the “Calm” app on her phone and meditates for 13 minutes, a practice she picked up from USC sports psychologist Kevin Sverduk. Ruffels endeavors to transfer that calmness to her competitive rounds.
As solid a six as you’ll find
There’s no superstar on Silverstein’s team, but there’s a boatload of depth. Six players in Golfweek’s top 56 to be exact.
For the Pac-12 lineup, Silverstein held a two-round qualifier – four players for three spots. Sophomore Alyaa Abdulghany said they’re a competitive bunch. They might not hang out 24/7, but there’s a strong level of respect among the Trojans.
“We treat each other like family,” Abdulghany said. They like that Silverstein, an Arizona grad whose playing career was cut short by five wrist surgeries, is relatable. Ruffels describes him as super chill.
According to research from the USC athletic department, Silverstein has set an NCAA coaching record this spring. His seven titles tops former Arizona coach Greg Allen for most wins in a debut season. Allen’s Wildcats won six times in 2000-01. Colette Murray won five tournaments in 2007-08, Tennessee-Chattanooga’s first year as a program.
The Cle Elum win was also the 13th NCAA regional title for USC.
But don’t bring up momentum to Silverstein. Like Sverduk, he doesn’t
think it exists.
“It’s all just averages,” he said. “It’s going to average out eventually. Momentum is something that’s falsified. It’s a feeling, but it can go as quick as it comes.”
Take 12 hours to enjoy the win, Silverstein tells his team, but when you wake up the next morning, it’s back to work.
As the numbers show, there’s always room to improve. Gwk