Penn State will announce Denise St. Pierre’s retirement today after 31 years at the helm of the women’s golf team. On Sunday, in a bit of incredible timing, St. Pierre managed to slip one final, monumental line onto her career resume: that of national champion.
Penn State won the first National Golf Invitational in history on May 14 by holding off a charge from Iowa over the closing stretch at Ak-Chin Southern Dunes in Maricopa, Arizona. St. Pierre, 61, gave a masterclass in knowing your players – one that arguably began in August.
St. Pierre didn’t want her team to hear from outside voices that this would be her final year coaching, so she decided to tell them herself. She punctuated the announcement with a clear request not to dwell on her farewell season. There would be no celebrating coach’s last this and final that.
It’s possible, St. Pierre said, that her retirement motivated her team at the NGI, but more probable, in her mind, is that they had their own goals to accomplish. Penn State finished a disappointing 12th at the Big 10 Conference Championship and narrowly missed making regionals as a team (qualifying Mathilde Delavallade, however, as an individual).
St. Pierre also kept the creation of the NGI to herself until the season had played out, wanting her players to be striving for what they had always been striving for since the beginning: an NCAA berth.
But having the NGI to extend their season? “I can’t tell you what it means,” St. Pierre said, “especially to my players who are leaving.”
St. Pierre is an early riser and a morning planner on tournament days, and she did it one last time before Sunday’s final round. Penn State had a five-shot lead on Santa Clara with 18 holes to play.
“I always reflect on, what do they need at this point in time?” St. Pierre said. “Something that just kept repeating over and over in my head was, ‘Nothing different, Denise.’”
As Iowa, who had started the day in third, made a charge midway through the round, closing the gap to two shots late in the back nine, St. Pierre again made a conscious effort to be who she has been all season with her players and not to change tactics with the heightened stakes. St. Pierre admits to feeling her insides churning at times.
When Drew Nienhaus drove it in the bunker on the par-5 16th then successfully got out and hit her approach to 6 feet for birdie, the gap widened a little more in Penn State’s favor. After that, Isha Dhruva stuck her approach at the par-3 17th for birdie. In the anchor spot, Michelle Cox drilled her second shot to 8 feet on the par-5 16th and made eagle.
Knowing how much to tell each player is one of the nuances St. Pierre has mastered nearly four decades into this career.
“I think each one of them handles things a little differently,” she said. “You have to know your players to know when to say something to them and let them be who they are.”
Penn State’s 5-over final round was the best team score on Sunday. The Nittany Lions finished the week at 15 over with Iowa at 25 over. Mercer was third another shot back.
A lot of coaches, Dhruva noted, are serious on the golf course. They give yardages and back off.
“Coach does that, but she also makes sure we’re smiling and we’re laughing,” she said. “I know if I see her on a tee box, I’m able to make a joke or two, even if I had a bad hole before or a really good hole before, and that’s something I very much appreciate in a coach.”
Jokes aside, St. Pierre admitted to not having much in her long career to which she could compare this situation. Sometimes she felt she had to control her own nerves just as much as her players had to control theirs.
For Megan Menzel, Iowa’s head women’s coach, a final-round pairing beside St. Pierre and Penn State was big. Through the years, St. Pierre’s teams, she said, have shown up with sharp short games and a loads of heart.
“She brings so much to our coaching group,” Menzel said. “We talk a lot about empowering young women and I’ve just always seen that from her teams. . . . She walks around that golf course and just expects them to compete and really pulls that out of them. I’ve just admired that.”
Menzel credited her team for putting heat on the Nittany Lions down the stretch, and sees this experience as going a long way for a young squad. The Hawkeyes have only ever been to the postseason one time before this week – in the 1990s when they won their conference championship and an automatic qualifying spot.
“I think there’s a lot of really good teams that get left out of regionals, so I think that for us to be able to highlight these really strong teams and good players, I think it’s just an invaluable opportunity,” Menzel said.
Iowa freshman Shannyn Vogler will take home the inaugural NGI individual title after a 5-under total for 54 holes. Vogler went 3 under on the front nine and leapfrogged Penn State’s Cox when Cox took a triple bogey on the final hole.
Dhruva can’t remember a time when she has laughed harder with a group of people than this week at Ak-Chin Southern Dunes. She’s one of three seniors leaving Penn State alongside St. Pierre, and won’t ever forget standing in the 18th fairway on Sunday, watching fellow senior Sarah Willis putt out ahead of her.
Dhruva and her teammates like to joke with St. Pierre that they’re “her last and favorite team.” It’s special, she said, to have the kind of bond that she and her teammates had with St. Pierre.
“She’s definitely nurtured us in more ways than just being a golfer – in being better students and better people, and I couldn’t ask for a better person to guide me throughout my college career.”