The Geiberger family reunion last week in Chicago sure didn't turn out the way anyone expected. Al Geiberger, long a respected touring pro, played as planned in the Ameritech Senior Open at Kemper Lakes, finishing 57th. His daughter Lee Ann also made the trip. But Geiberger's son John, coach of the Pepperdine golf team, came down with chicken pox the Tuesday before the NCAA Division I Men's Championships at nearby Conway Farms and was quarantined in his hotel room a few miles from the course for the entire week. "When Coach got sick," says senior Jason Gore, the team's best player, "we all looked at each other and said, 'Well, that clinches it. There's no doubt we're going to win this thing now.' "
Doggone if they didn't. After surviving two rounds played in unseasonably raw weather—hardly the kind of stuff encountered at Pepperdine's campus in Malibu, Calif.—the Wave wrested the lead from host Northwestern in the third round, gaining a two-shot advantage. In last Saturday's final round Pepperdine, led by senior Michael Walton's 68, held steady while its pursuers failed to mount a serious challenge.
Poor Northwestern, with a legacy of athletic frustration—the school's only national championship was in fencing, in 1941—came unglued and dropped into a tie for seventh, much to the disappointment of the purple-clad fans all over the course. Only Wake Forest made any kind of a run at 20th-ranked Pepperdine, going five under par on the final day in the play-five, count-four format, but the Demon Deacons had too much ground to make up. They finished second, three shots behind the Wave, who rolled in with a four-day score of 1,148, nine over par.
About the only bummer for Pepperdine, other than Geiberger's chicken pox, came when Gore double-bogeyed the 72nd hole. His closing seven had no bearing on the team results—the Wave had already locked up its first championship—but it knocked Gore out of a first-place tie with Charles Warren of Clemson and Brad Elder of Texas for the individual title. Warren went on to win on the first hole of a playoff. "It didn't bother me," said Gore, who transferred to Pepperdine after playing his first two years for perennial power Arizona. "The team won, and that's what this tournament is all about. I took a big chance, leaving a top-10 program to go to a relatively small school, but I love these guys, and it all worked out."
As a junior player Gore frequently played against Tiger Woods, last year's NCAA champ, who reportedly is having a modicum of success on the PGA Tour. Without Woods, who drew record crowds while breezing to a four-shot win in 1996 at the Honors Course near Chattanooga, the NCAAs were back to normal, meaning that the tournament was wide open and sparsely attended. To be fair, the event was going head-to-head against the hometown Bulls' run through the NBA playoffs, and the Ameritech, but it was fortunate that Northwestern was in the hunt, because the Wildcats provided some much-needed texture and local color.
As long as Northwestern stayed in contention, former coach Jeff Mory, who left the program in February to take the head pro's job at Conway Farms, had the chance to become Big Ten golf's equivalent to Bill Frieder, the Michigan basketball coach who resigned at the end of the 1988-89 regular season and then watched assistant Steve Fisher guide the Wolverines to the NCAA title. When Mory took the Conway Farms job, he knew he was leaving a talented, veteran team that was hell-bent on earning a place in the NCAAs. The team took off under 27-year-old Patrick Goss, who looks as young as his players. "Sometimes we'll go out to a restaurant and play 'Who's the coach?' with the waitress," says senior Scott Rowe.
The 23rd-ranked Wildcats finished second to Ohio State in the Big Ten tournament and went on to qualify, barely, for the NCAA finals by tying Drake for the ninth, and last, spot in the Central Regional. "This week we showed the college golf world that Northwestern has made a serious commitment to being a contender at the national level," said Goss.
Pepperdine made the same sort of commitment about 10 years ago. Geiberger, 29, played for the Wave from 1989 to '91, helping Pepperdine win two West Coast Conference titles, and a year ago he took over the coach's job from former teammate Todd Andrews, who quit to become a sales rep for Callaway. Although the Wave won only one tournament during the regular season and also barely qualified for the NCAAs, finishing ninth in the West Regional, it came to Conway Farms thinking it had a shot. "The people around here kept calling us dark horses," said senior Mark Madson, "but the teams that play against us out West know we have some really good players."
More than any of his teammates, Walton was a man on a mission. On May 17, after returning home from the West Regional, he discovered that Brian Pierce, one of his best friends from their high school days in Palm Desert, Calif., had drowned. In tribute to his friend, Walton stenciled the initials BIT on the side of the baseball hat he wore during the tournament. On Saturday, after the putt that assured Pepperdine's victory had fallen, Walton dropped to his knees next to the 18th green, put his face in his hands and sobbed uncontrollably. "Last week, the week after the regional, was one of the hardest weeks of my life," he said. "Losing someone so close to you makes you realize how precious life is. But I moved from the worst week to the best week. I just kept thinking of Brian. The biggest thing is it made me understand this is just a game. When things wouldn't go my way, I'd look at the sky and everything would be all right."
After the trophy presentation, while Gore was talking with reporters, Walton stood off to the side talking to Geiberger on a cellular phone. At least the coach had gotten to see the final round on ESPN. He was delighted that his players had printed his initials and 245, his hotel room number, on the backs of their caps. Asked if the championship had made him feel any better, Geiberger joked, "No. Now I have heart disease."