Sports: The Golffather

March 31, 2006
Pointers: women's golf coach Brooks  with senior Janangelo, three-time All-American

 Pointers: women's golf coach Brooks with senior Janangelo, three-time All-American Photo: Jon Gardiner

 

Move-in day can be stressful for any freshman, more so if your father is in Korea on business and your mother is in Nevada because of a new job.

Fortunately for golfer Jennie Lee, her new coach, Dan Brooks, happily assumed the role of caddie for his newest team member. When Lee arrived at Raleigh-Durham International Airport in August, Brooks stood there waiting to greet her. He helped her load her clothes, golf clubs, and stuffed animals into the back of his gray Honda and found her a place to stay that night.

The next morning, he drove Lee to East Campus and made certain her possessions were safely stowed in her second-floor room in Randolph residence hall. He stayed long enough for Lee to check in and meet her roommate. Then, before leaving, he instructed her to call him on his cell phone if any problem arose. "I feel like a parent," he said with a smile as he exited Randolph.

During his more than twenty-one years at Duke, Brooks has assumed many roles--coach, mentor, friend, confidant, psychologist, motivator, even surrogate parent--while building a program that now resides atop the leaderboard in women's college golf. Yet for all his success--his teams won national championships in 1999, 2002, and 2005--Brooks remains the same low-key guy who enjoys reading and doing pencil drawings in his free time.

He says he believes his players need balance in their lives, as well. "You know, golf is a game. It's fun. So I'm not a taskmaster. I'm not somebody who is going to demand that they hit so many balls," he says. "I am constantly trying to get them to make choices themselves, individual choices--that this is what they want, not for Duke, not for their parents, but this is what they want. You do that by letting them have a life, not just by cramming workouts and practice down their throats."

Liz Janangelo, a senior, says team members appreciate the fact that Brooks treats each of them as individuals. "He learns about us as a person and as a golfer and makes us better at both. He realizes we're all different, different things make us tick, and, by realizing that, he's able to motivate us." Last year, Janangelo recalls, she was playing poorly at a tournament. After the second round, Brooks came over and told her, "'I have so much confidence in you. Just go out there, be yourself, and have fun.' The next day I shot 62."

There is no secret formula to Brooks' success. It starts with persuading the most talented players to attend Duke. But Brooks says he looks at more than scorecards when recruiting. He wants a player who is both team-oriented and independent, someone who is upbeat and fun to be around. Before he offers anyone a scholarship, he does some sleuthing.

"You watch how they recover from a bad hole. You see how they interact with their parents and with the other players," he says. "How promptly do they respond to your e-mails? How well do they write e-mails? Do they just do them with fifteen typos and no capital letters? I want them to respect the fact that they're talking to the coach at Duke, and these are indicators. There are hundreds and hundreds of little indicators."

Brooks' philosophy about golf and its practitioners was greatly influenced by his grandfather, Frank Stewart, a golf pro and course superintendent who lived next to the pro shop on a nine-hole course in Buhl, Idaho. Stewart introduced his grandson to golf at an age when most kids play with Legos, and a young Brooks could barely wait for the next four-hour family trip to Buhl from their home in Baker, Oregon.

"My grandfather was one of my heroes," Brooks says. "He was just one of those guys who said, 'Always play the ball as it lies' and 'Never have bad behavior on a golf course.' He was the guy that set those standards and gave me this really deep appreciation of the game."

One thing his grandfather did not offer him, however, was formal lessons. "He was never really that hands-on with my game, and I sort of wish he had been more."

Using a self-taught swing, Brooks headed to a nearby golf course each evening to hit balls on the 5th hole. "I would hit about sixty balls at a time, then pick them up and do it again." He eventually honed his swing to the point that he became a top player on Oregon State's golf team.

Brooks wanted to attend graduate school to study history, but instead got a job to pay off student loans. (Oregon State did not offer golf scholarships at the time.) He found work as an assistant professional at a Boise, Idaho, country club. The head golf pro taught Brooks "a little about the golf swing," which he, in turn, passed on to his own students. "Then I realized, 'Wow! I really like teaching golf. This is cool!' "

Brooks came to Duke in 1984 and, from the start, focused on building a winning program. Early on, he concluded that too much of his time and energy was spent worrying about the performances and psyches of six players vying for the fifth, and final, spot on the traveling team. So he reduced the size of his team from the customary ten players to six or seven, a risky move because injuries or illness could prevent Duke from fielding a full team in a tournament.

"I needed a smaller team so my priority could always be the core of our talent, not the periphery. If team size made it so I couldn't help the best on the team get better--if all I was doing is helping players make the lineup--I wasn't doing all I could do to win."

Another key to the program's success is Brooks' ability to adapt to the players' needs. If a player wants help with her swing, Brooks stands ready to work with her. But these days many top players want to continue working with their longtime hometown instructors, an arrangement with which Brooks is comfortable.

Although he may not be each player's swing coach, each team member relies on Brooks for myriad reasons, says Virada Nirapathpongporn '04, a member of the 2002 national championship team.

"All of us knew we could always go to him to talk, just about anything," says Nirapathpongporn, now a member of the women's professional Futures Golf Tour, who still returns to Durham to work with Brooks on her swing mechanics. "Many times my swing lesson turned out to be an hour of us talking our hearts out, me crying, and then me leaving feeling like a new person. So I used to joke to him that my most productive practice is not a good hour on the range, but a good twenty-minute talk."

Last year, Brooks broke the NCAA Division I record for most tournament wins by a women's college golf coach. Not only have his teams won three national championships (the only women's teams at Duke ever to win an NCAA crown), but also three of his players--Candy Hannemann '02, Nirapathpongporn, and Anna Grzebien, now a junior--earned individual NCAA titles in 2001, 2002, and 2005, respectively. Two other players, Jenny Chuasiriporn '99 and Brittany Lang, nearly captured the most prestigious tournament in women's professional golf, the U.S. Women's Open, while still students at Duke, in 1998 and 2005, respectively. (Lang left Duke in 2005 at the end of her sophomore year to turn pro.)

After winning the national championship last year, Brooks' team was invited to visit the White House. At the ceremony, President George W. Bush jokingly referred to Brooks as "Coach B." In fact, the comparison with Coach K is not a far-fetched one. Both men have coached three NCAA-winning teams, are in their respective Halls of Fame, and are known for their ability to adapt to the changing landscapes of their sports.

Still, for all his success, Brooks is uncomfortable with the comparison to Krzyzewski. He notes that basketball is about molding individuals into a team; the same is not true in a solitary sport like golf. And the public pressure and scrutiny in men's college basketball far exceeds that which exists in college golf.

"So I think what he's accomplished is greater than anything I have accomplished," Brooks says matter-of-factly.

But Janangelo says she understands why people compare the two coaches' careers: "Coach Brooks has been at Duke for such a long time, he has such a great track record, and he really puts his heart and soul, puts all his passion, into it. Just like Coach K."