San Jose State: Better Than the Best
Stanford is being billed as a team for the ages … so why can’t the Cardinal beat a plucky rival from down the road?
By Jordan Perez
Winning wasn’t new to Dana Dormann. She’d done it her entire life: national champion as an undergrad at San Jose State, two-time LPGA Tour winner, and now as the coach of the SJSU women’s golf team, her squad had dusted No.1-ranked Stanford in their first head-to-head meeting of the spring, at the Lamkin Invitational. So why now, on the eve of the final round of the Juli Inkster Invitational, did Dormann lose sleep with a 14-stroke cushion over that same Cardinal team? Maybe because many observers were already calling Stanford the greatest college golf team ever assembled, and Dormann knew the Cardinal women would be coming for revenge.
As the final round played out, Dormann’s nightmare came to life. Cardinal star Rose Zhang dropped a 63 at the Meadow Club, setting a course record at the Alister MacKenzie gem. Zhang hopped off of the 18th green and into the arms of congratulatory teammates; a Stanford win felt inevitable. But SJSU still had a glimmer, with Antonia Malate and Lucia Lopez-Ortega coming up 18 right behind Zhang. Birdie, birdie. Bang, bang. The plucky underdogs had dashed Stanford’s hopes once again.
It turns out that if the Cardinal are going to go down in the annals, they will have to deal with a team from a scrappy public university just 23 miles down Highway 101. Remarkably, only one year ago San Jose State was struggling with its identity.
‘The answer’s in the dirt’
Forty years ago, San Jose State was building a dynasty. It began with legends Juli Inkster and Patty Sheehan at the dawn of the 1980s; then came NCAA titles in ’87 and ’89, led by Dormann and Pat Hurst. The gritty players mirrored the image of SJSU. “It’s a working-class school,” says Inkster. “They don’t have all the fluff, but they work. They get it done.” (Perhaps fittingly, SJSU’s original name was the California State Normal School.)
Another title followed in 1992 before SJSU vanished from renown. Over time, an underfunded state school couldn’t keep up in the recruiting arms race. But with the glittering alumni leading the way, a fundraising campaign was mounted, and in 2017 a $10M practice complex was unveiled. It features a world-class driving range, a short-game area and sweet putting greens. It gave SJSU a much-needed counter to Stanford, which has its own mega-practice facility and a Golden Age golf course designed by George Thomas.
But before there was a glistening golf complex at San Jose State, the legends remember harder times: the days of bouncing among multiple golf courses and practices conducted on a baseball field. Dormann grew up adjacent to a naval base with no access to a golf course, relying on her retired military neighbors to bridge that gap. Her background birthed a relentless journey to earn a full scholarship to San Jose State. “As a college player, I thought the answer was in the dirt,” she says. “Basically, you’re gonna go out there and work harder than anyone else.”
She would have a 10-year career on the LPGA Tour before being called back home, as her husband, John, became the coach of the SJSU women’s team. When John retired in 2018, Dana was inspired to take over the program. Just two trips to nationals in the past decade meant something had to change. A five-year contract would allow her plenty of time to implement her own ideas—and she had a lot of them. Everything was centered on an open-minded approach, as Dormann had been influenced by years of having witnessed the birth of a new age in coaching culture. “Before it was more of ‘Do it because I said so.’ And we don’t really operate that way anymore,” Dormann says. “It’s more like, ‘Let’s be collaborative.’ The players have great ideas about how they can do better and what it takes for them individually to do better.”
Still, an element of the vintage SJSU fire was missing. Dormann felt compelled to bring in someone who knew the key to Spartans success: her former teammate Hurst, winner of six LPGA titles, including the 1998 Dinah Shore. It was a stylistic clash, with the long-hitting Hurst and the precise Dormann presenting a “difference of opinions” to a group that was eager to soak it all in, including a pair of talented freshmen, Malate and Natasha Andrea Oon.
“I was childish, naive, didn’t really know what I was doing when I got here, but they put some sense into me,” says Oon, who hails from Malaysia. She won her first tournament and took another medal en route to winning freshman of the year honors in the Mountain West Conference in 2019.
However, as the program was on the upswing, Hurst’s imminent 2021 Solheim Cup captaincy left Dormann in search of a replacement. She almost resorted to pulling her husband out of retirement. But when Kortnie Barrett’s name came up, Dormann took a hard look at her one-time mentee. Barrett had a strong coaching background, and Dormann knew what kind of impact she could make.
The undoing and redoing of San Jose State
Oon can’t recall exactly how it happened, but two days before San Jose State’s return to competition in early 2021, she felt pain with every step and in every swing. She told Dormann she couldn’t compete.
The athletic trainers assured Oon she’d be OK, but when the pain didn’t subside, X-rays revealed a stress fracture in her left foot. She wouldn’t touch a club for two months, leaving a shorthanded team scrambling to compete in Pac-12-heavy events without their toughest warrior. Oon’s first instinct was to hit the panic button – and watching her world ranking plummet into the 600s sounded the alarm. “I started from the bottom up,” Oon says. “It was a really dark moment in my life, but it was a moment that needed to happen.” Missing golf gave her a needed perspective. She learned to stop “trying to be perfect” and peeled her eyes away from the rankings. The moment she did, she surged into the top ten.
Laying low wasn’t new for Oon; that’s exactly why San Jose State was intrigued by her. A 40th-place finish at the 2017 IMG Junior World Championship doesn’t make for the most desirable recruit on paper, but John and Dana Dormann saw something special on display in the 15-year-old youngster. She was captivated by the resources the school offered at the heart of Silicon Valley, and she committed during her official visit. After graduating high school early, Oon enrolled at San Jose State in 2018. She quickly became an anchor in the team’s renaissance. But because Dana Dormann was still building the roster, there was no margin for error once Oon was injured in 2021. The team rotated a starting lineup from among Malate, Kajsa Arwefjall, Jadan Gonzalez, Jordyn Parr and Louisa Carlbom. The pressure only mounted, and the results in 2021 were modest: just three top-five finishes and no trip to the national tournament, although Arwejfall advanced as an individual. But pressure creates diamonds…and that’s when two talented Spartans sparkled.
A native of Sweden, Arwefjall won on the LET Access Tour last summer. There would be no more living in the shadow of top-10 countrywomen Ingrid Lindblad and Beatrice Wallin— Arwefjall put San Jose State and all of Sweden on notice as a ball-striking magician. Malate also found another gear over the summer. She claimed her first amateur win since arriving at San Jose State, at the West Coast Women’s Amateur, where she was the only player to shoot under par. Disappointing finishes and the burden of trying to carry her team through its darkest time provided some much-needed motivation.
“That’s when I really started to play well,” say Malate, a senior from Seaside, Calif., who at 5-foot-3 can hit bombs of up to 280 yards. “My confidence has been boosting ever since.”
Come the fall of 2021, the pieces were falling into place. The missing ingredient?
“An ability to unite in the same way,” Barrett says.
The Spartans’ spring charge
To cement that unity, Barrett implemented “speech season.” Simply, players and coaches took the time after every practice to deliver talks upon any victory, from tournament wins all the way to weekly putting drills. Immediately, coaches noticed a difference in each player’s confidence, and the top-five finishes quickly followed. By the spring of ’22, San Jose State was on fire: Four tournament wins gave coaches and players plenty of material. “You could see the gratitude overflowing,” Barrett says.
Oon agrees. Her forced break from golf combined with Barrett’s leadership helped her and the Spartans fully unleash their potential. The empowerment is visible throughout the program, with Dormann saying her top priority is developing dynamic women. The team has adopted a mantra: “Strong women come from here.”
Some of that strength comes from data: Dormann and Barrett diligently track each player’s statistics to illustrate, as the assistant coach says, “the objective reality by taking the emotion out of it.”
Adds Dormann, “We’re trying to foster an identity that revolves around peak performance, rather than being super competitive with each other.”
Barrett has used her creativity to help craft unique practices catered to growing each player. Hard work plus empathy is a potent combination. “San Jose State is the real deal,” says Stanford coach Anne Walker. “Coach Dana can assume all the credit for that.”
In their first meeting of the spring, SJSU beat Stanford by three shots, which surprised even the Spartans. Sprawled in an airport terminal awaiting a flight home, “We just kept repeating, ‘We won, we won,’” Oon recalls. “Everybody was kind of in disbelief. No one really expected us to win, except for us.”
Even after SJSU won again at the Meadow Club, there’s no bad blood between the public and private schools. As Zhang struck a pose for pictures in the wake of breaking the course record, the Spartans jokingly needled her, shouting things such as, “OK, Rose. Pop off!” Zhang offered a line of encouragement before the team champions gathered for their own photo.
A month later, the Spartans shut out No. 2 Oregon at the Silverado Showdown.
To book a trip to the NCAA regionals, they won their first conference championship in a decade. The offensive at the course that hosted the Dinah Shore included shattering the record for largest winning margins as a team (30 strokes) and an individual. Oon won by seven shots after posting rounds of 65-70-71 and led a sweep of the top three places. Lopez-Ortega finished second, and Arwefjall was third. The Spartans next head to Ann Arbor, Mich., as the region’s top seed.
These wins had their roots in a team trip six months earlier to Pebble Beach. During the retreat, Dormann and Barrett took the players to a picturesque spot along the Pacific and asked them to write down their goals. Winning medals. Competing at Augusta National. Leaping into Poppie’s Pond at the Mountain West Conference tournament. Simply being happy. All of these things have now been manifested.
The most satisfying vision of all?
Sunburned and sweating in the Arizona desert later this month, winning the national championship at Grayhawk Golf Club.