By George Tarnow
Special to The Washington Post
Monday, April 24, 2006
When Georgetown women's golf coach Connie Isler walked into her first coaches meeting before her first tournament last fall, she was mistaken for a player.
"They told me to leave," said Isler, who was 21 when she took the job. "And when we were playing at UC Irvine, the [course] starter took the pen away and told me, 'Players don't have to sign in, only coaches.' "
Isler, 22, is the nation's youngest head coach in any Division I sport. Last July, just two months after graduating from Georgetown, Isler took over for her former coach, Leland Keyser, who stepped down.
"Players and parents kept raving about the work and leadership Connie provided," Georgetown Athletic Director Bernard Muir said. "We thought, why don't we give her this opportunity, and after talking to her, we walked away saying, 'She knows what she's doing.' "
Part of knowing what she was doing came from being the sole senior on the team the previous year and knowing the psychology of a player-coach relationship.
"The transition was especially smooth," senior co-captain Nicole Hayashi said. "It was probably one of the best things that's happened to this program. It's very easy the way she approaches things, because she was in our position last year."
Georgetown began its spring season with a win in a March tournament at Campbell University in North Carolina, the Hoyas' first win in a tournament in two years. Georgetown won again at the Hoya Invitational on April 2, defeating higher-ranked teams such as Yale and Princeton. Their wins were a follow-up to their success in the fall season in which they jumped 46 spots to No. 84 in the NCAA rankings.
"Our goal is to break the top 75 this spring," Isler said. "That's very doable."
Christy Larrimore, a senior co-captain and former Maryland State Amateur champion who played at Archbishop Spalding, began to appreciate her former teammate's presence as a coach even more during a tournament at Notre Dame last fall. There, she ran into a par 3 that worried her to the point that she made Isler stand by her every time she played it.
With her coach next to her, Larrimore hit the green in each of the three rounds, getting closer each time, until finally taking dead aim at the flag in the final round and hitting it to within tap-in range.
"Now I make her play all the par 3s with me," Larrimore said.
As a senior in the spring of 2005, Isler split her time between wearing a business suit and golf uniform. She was interviewing for jobs in the finance world in case playing on the professional circuits didn't work out. Coaching was the last thing she thought she'd be doing.
"I didn't know I wanted to play pro; I didn't know what I wanted to do with my life," Isler said. "Golf was always my dream, but I wanted to be realistic. I was surprised [to have been offered the job]; I was only 21, and at first I wasn't sure what he [Muir] was asking me. I was really shocked, because it's a pretty demanding position at any age. But, there was no reason for me not to take it."
Isler had to figure out how to schedule practices around classes and pore through applications for potential recruits. Things like loading up the van with golf bags and chauffeuring the team to practice were now her responsibilities. Even renting a van for herself and 12 players proved to be a hassle requiring her "to sweet-talk the general manager of Avis to give the okay."
Isler, however, acknowledges that her biggest adjustment was dealing with the fact that her old college friends were now players she had to coach and supervise.
"I had to let them know I can still be your friend, but now I'm your coach, and if I have to enforce certain rules, that -- as much as I don't want to -- I'm going to," Isler said.
Isler was a star player at Meade High School and then thrived at Georgetown, where she was co-Big East champion her senior year. She learned the game and how to handle its pressure at an early age, playing with her father, Rod Isler, a retired two-star Army general.
"There was always one hole when I first started golfing when I was little, a long uphill par 5 that was towards the end of the round, that I would get tired on," Isler said. "He would always tell me to struggle through it. Nobody was going to help me finish, but myself."
Isler will play in the ultra-competitive Futures Tour this summer, where everyone vies for a limited number of spots in the LPGA. The lifestyle is filled with motel living, meals at diners and endless drives to remote tournament locations.
"I expect to play and see where it takes me," Isler said. "I have nothing to lose. I have the support of my parents, everyone around me and the team. If I didn't try it, I'd always regret it. It's definitely not a glamorous lifestyle, but if you love golf and you have the potential to do it, why not do it?"
Meanwhile, Isler has settled into her role as a coach and is enjoying perks like sitting across from John Thompson III at coaches meetings and receiving an expense account. While she hopes to qualify for the LPGA next season, Isler says that returning to Georgetown "is definitely something that I'd be interested in."
Perhaps by then, she'll be recognized for the position she holds.
"At tournaments where the staff doesn't know me, people still ask me what I'm studying in school," Isler said. "When I ask for certain things, they start to tell me they need to talk to the coach, not the player."