Dean Robertson, the performance coach at the University of Stirling, is still on a high after that three-week spell in which three of his students won a major UK amateur title.
On 6 June, Chloé Goadby, 23, put the finishing touches to a first-class honours degree before capturing the Scottish Women’s Amateur championship at Gullane. On the 12th, Louise Duncan, 21, and still a Stirling scholar, won the Women’s Amateur at Kilmarnock (Barassie). And finally, on the 19th of the month, Laird Shepherd, 23, who graduated in 2019, made that crazy comeback from 8 down after 17 holes to defeat Monty Scowsill at the second extra hole in the final of the Amateur Championship at Nairn.
Shepherd, as a result, will be teeing up in the Open along with next year’s Masters and US Open; Duncan, for her part, will play in the AIG Women’s British Open along with this year’s Amundi Evian Championship and the ’22 Augusta National Women’s Amateur.
Robertson had “a sneaking feeling” that his players might do well during that three-week period but that was as far as it went. In looking back, however, the 1999 Italian Open champion has no trouble in identifying a key moment in his 11-year spell with the university.
"While we all know that American colleges work brilliantly for some, they’re not necessarily for everyone. I wanted the girls to see the other side of the coin."
Initially, he had just a seven-strong boys’ squad under his wing. But when, after five years, he was asked to add an equivalent number of girls to his remit, he jumped at the chance. “The first thing I did,” he said, “was to create a mixed programme and to have them training together and playing with and against each other from the men’s championship tees.”
The girls reacted to being torn from their comfort zone by hitting further and shooting up a level. That much was understandable, but what was in it for the boys?
“It took a bit longer,” Shepherd admitted, “but the benefits, when they began to show, were just as striking. The girls were much the more mature of the two groups when they first came together; it mattered to them that they were on track with their studies as well as their golf. For the boys, on the other hand, things were not so evenly balanced. They only cared about their golf but, little by little, they started to follow the good example set by the girls.”
During the first lockdown in 2020, when golf was off-limits in Scotland, Robertson hatched a plan, starting with five Zoom calls every week by way of keeping everyone connected. “Mental skills were discussed on a regular basis and we made a big thing of talking about the importance of ‘hitting big’ and doing the necessary physical conditioning,” he said.
When golf resumed but tournament opportunities were still in short supply, Robertson arranged a boys v girls match at Gleneagles. He wanted each side to put in a month’s preparation and to tee up on the match day with the feeling that they were about to play the equivalent of a Walker or Curtis Cup.
Did the boys object to having to play against the girls?
“No,” said Robertson, “there was none of the nonsense you might have had a few years ago. They’d had long enough to get used to each other.”
The girls “smashed” the boys on that occasion and the boys barely needed to be told that they had to pull their socks up.
“We play tournaments and matches in the States as well as in Europe, but where we really score is that I have more time to observe my players than a US coach.”
When asked if there is anything in his teaching which he would like to have applied to his own amateur and professional playing days, Robertson answered in the affirmative: “These students know how to structure their practice and how to prepare for the big occasion miles better than we did in my day.”
Though Robertson himself went to a junior college in the States before turning down a place at the University of Houston, he believes that what Stirling has to offer is currently up there with the best of US universities. “We play tournaments and matches in the States as well as in Europe, but where we really score is that I have more time to observe my players than a US coach,” he said.
He is also confident in the knowledge that his charges are going to be “very employable” at the end of their Stirling experience should they decide on a Plan B as opposed to a life of playing professionally: “From what I see of them in a pro-am-type situation, they can mix with anyone, whatever their line of business.”
If Robertson is still struggling to come down to earth after his three heady weeks, his pupils’ feet have never left the ground.
Last Monday, Duncan was among the squad members hosting a group of girls for what they were calling “A Day in the Life of a Stirling University Golf Scholar.”
The visitors, all of them instructed by well-known Scottish teaching professional Karyn Dallas, were buzzing at the end of it. “Previously,” said Dallas, “they had all been chatting about America but, while we all know that American colleges work brilliantly for some, they’re not necessarily for everyone. I wanted the girls to see the other side of the coin.”
To that end, the visit could not have been better-timed.
Top: 2021 Women's Amateur champion Louise Duncan