This was to be the long-awaited weekend that elite Arizona golfers Vivian Hou and Yu-Sang Hou were to fly from Tucson to Georgia for the Augusta Women’s Amateur, stepping onto golf’s sacred ground at Augusta National.
Instead, UA women’s golf coach Laura Ianello watched as the Hou sisters put on goggles, masks and gloves and flew home to be quarantined in Taiwan.
“I don’t know if we’ll ever see Vivian and Yu-Sang here again,” Ianello said Friday, emotion apparent in her voice.
This was to be the start of Arizona’s push toward a third consecutive berth in NCAA golf’s version of the Final Four. It was a team so blessed with talent that freshman Kailie Vongsaga, who had not been able to crack the team’s lineup since school began seven months ago, won the recent Wildcat Invitational at 9 under par. The Wildcats won the championship by a school-record 22 strokes.
“At some point, I’ll have to pick up the pieces,” says Ianello. “In the perspective of a coach whose team has spread out to all parts of the world, there’s a bit of fear in me.”
At the highest levels of the game — Arizona won the 2018 national championship — women’s college golf is a global game. Ianello’s starting lineup includes three players from Taiwan; one, Gile Bite Starkute, from Lithuania; and another from England. Arizona’s top incoming recruit is from Switzerland, and the leading recruiting commitments in the Class of 2021 are from France and Italy.
“It’s not like driving in from Kansas,” says Ianello, whose life has changed so thoroughly because of the coronavirus closures that she is sure of just one thing: Her invitation to run an elite junior’s golf camp in Germany with Arizona men’s golf coach Jim Anderson is no longer on the summer schedule.
“I’m not going to Germany,” she says.
Two weeks ago, Ianello and assistant coach Justin Bubser began preparations for the imposing Pac-12 championships — Arizona, USC, ASU, Stanford and UCLA are all ranked in the top 11 by Golfweek.com — and for the NCAA finals, which were to be held at the familiar Grayhawk golf compound in Scottsdale.
Now Ianello’s focus is not on golf but on the well-being of her student-athletes.
Junior Hollie Muse, who is from Liverpool, England, has been unable to return home because her mother is undergoing chemotherapy treatments for Stage 4 breast cancer.
“Hollie just couldn’t take a chance of traveling all the way home and infecting her mother,” says Ianello, who helped to arrange for Muse to accompany freshmen teammate Therese Warner to her home in Southern California.
It is a situation that makes golf seem unimportant.
“Therese’s parents are just wonderful,” says Ianello. “They’re taking Hollie into their home, helping her get organized and to complete the semester in online classes. They’re just the best. Maybe Hollie can fly home in a month or two when things calm down and get better. But no one has any idea when that day will come.”
Now that golf has become secondary, Ianello has become a full-time mom to Natalie, 6, who is doing her school projects online, and Joanna, who soon turns 5.
“It feels like a reboot, a re-charge,” Ianello says. “It’s the first time I’ve ever had this much time to be with them. I love it.”
But with the stay-at-home mom role comes the unexpected insecurity of not having day-to-day control of her professional life.
Since becoming Arizona’s golf coach 10 years ago, Ianello has operated perhaps the most successful of the UA’s 19 sports programs. You don’t just walk away from that, or shrug and hope it’ll work itself out someday.
“I’ve always struggled with missing time with my kids, but now that I’m missing time as a coach it makes me realize how important your career is,” says Ianello. “You’re impacting the lives of these young people. It hurt me so much to see them being shipped to all parts of the world.
“I’m constantly worried about them, scared for them.”
And then there is this: Laura’s husband, Jeff Ianello, is the executive vice president of SeatGeek, a New York-based firm that buys, sells and distributes tickets for every conceivable sports event and entertainment event in America.
There are no ongoing sports events in America. No Garth Brooks concerts, no “The Lion King” plays on Broadway. It is part of Jeff Ianello’s role to determine how many employees at SeatGeek keep their jobs.
So no, golf isn’t item No. 1 these days.
“Emotions are high,” Laura Ianello says. “I feel pressure that the Hou sisters will turn pro and not return to school. But at what time will that be determined?
“Will I have a chance to recruit to fill those roster spots? What if Gile’s parents decide it isn’t safe for her to return to the United States next year? What if our recruits don’t show up in August?
“Like so many other people dealing with uncertainties, I just do the best I can and pray we’ll all be OK.”
Contact sports columnist Greg Hansen at 520-573-4362 or firstname.lastname@example.org. On Twitter: @ghansen711.
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Tucson-area coronavirus coverage from January to March: Nearly 1,300 cases in Arizona, stay-at-home order
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