Stanford's head women's golf coach turned the Cardinal into modern winners with old-school character
Interview by Travis Hill
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For Anne Walker, a bit of luck, some fast talking and a heap of hard work paved the way from Lanarkshire, Scotland, to Palo Alto, California. As the head coach of Stanford’s women’s golf team, she has led the Cardinal to previously unseen heights. But the victories off the course might mean even more to her.
You’re originally from Scotland. When did you come to the States?
I grew up there, played all my junior golf there and my family still lives there. I was recruited to play at UC Berkeley and came over on a golf scholarship in January 1998. It’s a pretty good story.
I was all set to go to the University of Edinburgh, starting there in October. In August, I was going to play in this one-day tournament. Through a mutual friend at this golf tournament, a Scottish lady said, “Hey, I got an email from this American coach—anyone interested in going to school?” And I’m like, “Sure, I am.” Raise my hand, I’m in. So I get set up and [Nancy McDaniel, the women’s golf coach at Cal] was going to watch me play. Then this woman I’d never met watched me shoot my lowest score ever. Afterward she asked if I always played like that, and I said, “Sure, I do.” I shot 69; it was the first time I’d ever shot in the 60s.
She thought she’d uncovered this diamond in the rough.
Seriously, and it was back before the internet, when there were diamonds in the rough. You could actually go find something not everyone knew about. Suddenly, she was frantic: “You’ve got to take this SAT test and you got to do this and you got to do that. You can’t start at Edinburgh.” She starts telling me I have to do all this stuff and then I can start in January. I said that was great. Then she said she should come home and meet my parents. I told her it was fine, she didn’t need to come; I would just tell them I’m going to America, no big deal. She said, “This is a big deal; I should probably meet your parents.” So I called my mom from the golf course—this was before mobile phones—and I’m in the pay phone saying, “Hey, Mom, I met this American lady; she said she has to come meet you. I don’t know what to tell you.…I’m going to Berkeley.” A few months later, Nancy called and asked if I wanted to come on an official visit, so I can see the campus and make sure I liked it. This was so stupid of me, but I said, “No, I don’t need to do that. I’ve been to Disney World with my parents. I love America!” [Laughs.]
That’s quite a transition, from Scotland to Berkeley.
It was nuts. I showed up and my suite-mate was this girl from LA. She was older, a little wacky, and said, “You and I are going to get along great. Just don’t touch my pot plants.” Well, in Scotland, pot plants are pansies.
Like potted plants?
Right. In Scotland, we call them a pot plant. I thought, “Wow, this girl is growing pansies and she’s creeped out that I’m going to touch them?” I relayed the story to Nancy and she said, “Oh, my God. This is marijuana; don’t touch them, don’t go near them.” It was such a crazy transition. I grew up in a farm in Scotland and then straight to Berkeley. It’s a miracle I stayed.
Did you always want to be a coach?
No, my plan was to play professional. I was one of those players on the cusp; I’d shown glimpses of greatness and glimpses of never going to make it. But I was going to give it a go. Then, literally on my graduation day, I found out that our assistant coach at the time was moving on. Nancy said that was an opportunity if I wanted it, and it didn’t take me long to be Scottish and think, “Make money or go on Tour and spend money? I’m going frugal and making money.” I jumped on and it’s been a blessing that’s worked out really well….I have so much respect for Nancy; she was such a big influence on my life.
Fast-forwarding a bit, you were an assistant at Cal, took the head coaching job at UC Davis, then at Stanford. That is quite a leap. What was that like?
It was intimidating, but Stanford for me was always the dream job. I was really fortunate to have a good run at Cal with Nancy, and that got me to Davis, where a bunch of great kids came together and played well. All of a sudden I’m in this position to have a real shot at this job, and it was overwhelming. The interview process, the whole thing dragged out to six weeks—at the same time, by the way, that I was getting prepared to be married. [Laughs.] It was a stressful time.
Did you feel like you had to change your coaching style at Stanford or did you always feel like things would work out if you did it your way?
It’s a little bit of both, because obviously there’s part of me, my DNA, that I don’t do things halfway. I’m going to give you my best and try my hardest. I’m going to work hard and be all in, and if I fall short, it’s not going to be for lack of trying. That’s the message that I continue to tell myself, because it’s still intimidating to be here every day. The stories of what people are doing here on campus, in academia, in politics, and the alumni we get to meet and see what they’ve done—it’s still intimidating. What I tell myself every day is just be a good person, do things the right way, don’t cut corners, work hard, give it your all, and if it’s not enough, then it just didn’t work out. It’s hard to tell yourself that, but it’s true.
What’s a day in the life of the Stanford women’s golf coach when you’re in season?
It starts nice and early with a wake-up call of “Momma! Momma! Can you get me some hot milk?” [Laughs.] That’s usually between 6 and 6:30 a.m. Then, until about 8:30, it’s all mom stuff, with the odd work text message or email while trying to brush my teeth and get in the shower if I’m lucky. Then out the door, trying to make some calls on the way to work. Living in Palo Alto, I live 5 miles from campus and it takes me about 30 minutes, so I have time. I get into work and speak with my assistant coach. We’re really close to the men’s coach, Conrad Ray, so we chat with him and see what’s going on. Usually there’s meetings in the department, and there’s a lot of operational stuff, so we try to hammer all that out. Then the kids start rolling into my office at our practice facility; we have a beautiful facility on campus. The locker rooms are here, they have a team area, they have a study room, they have a whole kitchen area.…It’s really nice; they’re completely spoiled. They come in late morning after their classes and we catch up on what’s going on, share a giggle. Practice starts at 1 every day, and we wrap up around 3:30. I come back in the office, usually, to answer emails and follow up with kids. Many times they want to just sit in the office and talk. Sometimes it’s about golf, often it’s not—depends what’s going on with them. Then I try to button things up by around 5:30 and drive my 30 minutes home and make calls on the way. Then walk in the door, drop my phone and it’s “Momma! Momma! Can you get me some water?” With no “please,” because she’s 3 years old and runs things. [Laughs.]
How many kids are in your program?
We have 10 right now. We’re always going to fluctuate between seven and 10 depending on recruiting classes.
What’s it like to recruit at Stanford?
Conrad, our men’s coach, always says it’s self-filtering here. The recruiting funnel starts wide, but by the time you get through all the levels, who fits in here is just a small number. But I think that makes us fortunate. Not a day goes by where I’m not learning stuff from these kids. They’re as intelligent as they’re hyped up to be. They’re thoughtful, and not just about day-to-day stuff, but big-picture stuff. These are the people who will move the needle worldwide down the line in 20 years. We’re really lucky.
But they’re still 16- and 17-year-old kids when you’re recruiting them. How do you connect?
Trying to relate to 17-year-olds…God, it’s hard. Social media is a real thing. It’s their whole life; it’s their whole way of communicating; it’s their whole way of building relationships and being in relationships. That’s probably the hardest part for me to keep up with and try to be a part of without getting too involved, because I’m not totally convinced it’s the greatest thing for each of those kids individually.
When does the recruiting process start for you? We’ve all seen some really young girls already trying to make it big.
That’s a trip, right? I’ve got emails from dads saying, “My girl is 7; she’s wanted to be on your team her whole life. Here’s her swing.” My gosh, 7? Shouldn’t you be watching Frozen or something? I would say with the better players it usually starts in the eighth or ninth grade. Other players can rise later, but I think women’s golf, alongside lacrosse, soccer and softball, is recruiting younger.
Yes, youth sports are now so competitive and regimented, you can just pull up the No. 1-ranked 13-year-old girl in the nation.
Easily. It’s tricky because I didn’t even know how to hit a ball until I was 13.…I would love to move [recruiting] to a place where we could allow those kids that don’t find the game until they’re 12, 13 or 14 a chance to still be able to play in the best programs, but now most of those spots are usually taken by the time those kids are hitting their peak at 17, 18 years old. But, that said, there are now plenty of great places to play college golf.…We’ve got a ton of great coaches in the women’s game, and it’s just growing like crazy.
And so many more want to go pro. Is that the case at Stanford or do your players have other ambitions?
They want to go pro, and those are the kids that I want. It’s special when someone can say,
“I want to go to the top university and get the best degree, and I also want to be one of the best players in the world.” I don’t want the ones who say they want to be a doctor and not play competitively. I want the players who want it all. Be something different. It goes back to the recruiting funnel, right? It takes somebody pretty special to be that gifted academically and that fiercely competitive in golf.
That also sounds intense. Is it daunting for you to help them manage academics and golf?
Managing the kids is probably half the job. For me, a lot of that comes back to leading by example. I have to go back to how I started with all of this: Work hard, treat everyone well, make sure that day to day you’re doing all the things that represent you, your team, your school and your family. That is the most important; If you lose your character, forget it all. We start there. It doesn’t matter how much talent you have or how you’re supposed to be the best golfer or academic; forget that, it’s all hogwash. What is real right now? Do you have good character? Are you being a good person? Are you working as hard as you can? Is your attitude good? Are you thinking positive about your opportunities? And as long as you’re doing that, you just have to accept your result.
Another thing that comes with that kind of pressure is the essence of the game. Do you worry that playing competitively, even at this age, takes some of the fun out of golf?
I struggle with that. It’s important to me personally because I grew up in Scotland, where I loved it. I couldn’t get enough of it, sunrise to sunset. The game has changed so much now; they’re doing it year-round with constant competitions, and there’s no downtime where they’re just playing for fun. They’re always training for what’s next. My assistant coach Lauren Dobashi and I try to create an environment where it’s still fun, whether it’s through different competitions or keeping it light with music on the range. We also try to play a lot. I noticed the more the kids play, the more they enjoy it, because that’s what golf is. It’s hitting it, finding it and hitting it again. Every shot’s different; it’s beautiful.
Right. You don’t want them to be robots.
When we’re graduating kids, we assess where they’re at with their game. Do they still love it? Maybe they’re not professional—that’s OK—but are they still going to play? It’s really important to me, for the game, that we continue having women play and not just dropping their clubs and say[ing], “I got through college and I’m out.” We had Marissa Marsh graduate a couple of years ago. Last summer, she made it to the semifinals of the U.S. Amateur. I was so proud of Marissa for multiple reasons: She’s an alumni of the program and a great kid. But she’s kept her game in shape. She has a kick-ass job at Square in San Francisco, she’s a member of Olympic Club and here she is, competing on a national level. That’s really cool.
Obviously, winning national championships is important. Beyond that, what is a win for you?
I think it’s a lot like being a parent. The little steps totally matter. Like watching a kid be completely stressed their freshman year, in your office crying, and you talk them through it. You give them tools, be there for them, help them believe. Then, one year later, they say, “Oh, Stanford’s the greatest thing” and “It’s so not hard.” [Laughs.] Just watching the development from seeing that person in meltdown mode—because every freshman is in meltdown mode at any school—then, a year later, thriving in the exact same environment. Another example is Casey Danielson. She just owned the European Tour’s Q-school. That was one of my happiest moments in I can’t remember how long. That kid knocked on the door so many times in college and did everything but win.…That struggle was real for all four years. I kept telling her, “You just have to keep being there. You believe in yourself. Keep being there.” She graduates, goes to European Tour Q-school and, bam, birdies the last hole to get in the playoff, and birdies it again to win. That’s why you do it. It’s really, really, really fun to see those kids succeed.
Walker’s record at Stanford: • Six consecutive NCAA Championship berths • Four consecutive appearances in the national semifinal • The program’s first NCAA title, in 2014-15