Miami golf coach Patti Rizzo comes full circle, inspires players on, off course

Patti Rizzo didn’t take up golfing until she was 15. In fact, before that, she didn’t like the sport at all. She, like many kids, thought it was too slow and boring – that it was for old people.

Even when her family moved to Country Club of Miami when she was 12, the North Miami native wasn’t interested in the golf course there. But Rizzo broke her ankle playing basketball when she was 15, and a walking boot sidelined her on the basketball and tennis courts. So she went next door and grabbed some clubs from her neighbors.

“I was getting stir crazy … I just started hitting golf balls and a doctor at the club who knew I was athletic, he started teaching me,” said Rizzo, now the University of Miami women’s golf coach.

That doctor would become her mentor for three years. He made her quit basketball, tennis and anything else that took her away from the golf course. He saw something in the 15-year-old girl who had never enjoyed golf before, and five years later Rizzo was the number one ranked female amateur golfer in the U.S. as a sophomore at the University of Miami.

As a junior she was the number one ranked collegiate golfer, something that seemed impossible to a younger Rizzo, who thought she’d never go to college. She thought she was going to skip it and become a professional on the Ladies Professional Golf Association (LPGA) Tour.

“Norm Parsons, the old golf coach here [at UM] recruited me,” Rizzo explained while sitting in her office, surrounded by 20 years of accolades, awards and gifts from around the world. “I thought I’d just be a pro golfer. Maybe practice a year or two after high school and go out on the tour. And I had no idea, I didn’t know much about college golf … But after Norm recruited me it ended up being the best move of my life.”

The summer before her senior year at UM, the collegiate All-American played in a professional tournament on the LPGA tour against a field of seasoned pros. She came in tied for first at the end of the tournament, but came in second after losing in a one-hole playoff. She knew she was ready for the tour, and she wasn’t going to let the moment pass her by.

“I had won so many events the previous year in junior golf, I won like 13 out of 16 events so I felt I was ready,” she said. “Unless I had a player who was winning everything, I would never encourage her to not finish school. If she’s winning everything, then maybe she needs to go for it while she’s hot. That’s how I felt: I’m really hot right now, I’ve got confidence, and I’m getting all these invitations to play big events and endorsement money. And I was like ‘I’m going to turn pro,’ and I figured I could always go back to college for one year if I had to and you know, full circle comes around.”

It was a long full circle for Rizzo though, who was not wrong in feeling ready for the tour. She won Rookie of the Year on the LPGA tour in 1982, and won four tournaments over the next 10 years. But it was a friendship she struck up on the tour that may have been the most impactful part of her time on the circuit, a friendship that took her to playing in Japan and made her a star on two continents.

Growing up, her mom’s brother had married a Korean woman, and Rizzo saw the discrimination subjected on her cousin. When she met Japanese golfer Ayako Okamoto at her sixth event on tour, she felt compassion for the young golfer who couldn’t speak a word of English and was plying her trade in a foreign country. Rizzo took her under her wing, helping Okamoto schedule flights and even write out her victory speeches in English.

“Through that connection it opened a door for me in Japan, because they saw how much hospitality I had towards their famous golfer,” Rizzo said with a laugh. “Little did I know she’d already played the Japanese for eight years and won 29 times. I thought she was a rookie like me, and then I start finding out she’s a superstar.”

So she was invited to play in Japan, where she played for two months each year for 10 years, going at the end of the LPGA Tour season in the U.S.

“At first I was just Okamoto’s friend, then when I started winning they started respecting me as a great player,” she said.

Five companies offered her a package to stay for a year, where she lived in an apartment in Tokyo and had posters of herself in McDonalds restaurants. But she couldn’t stay. She had never gone through their qualifying school for the LPGA of Japan Tour, and so she came home to the U.S., not interested in going through the yearlong qualification process.

Perhaps it was this time abroad that made Rizzo such a mentally-driven coach. In a game that has become all about high-tech analysis of player’s swings and costly equipment, Rizzo is cerebral about the game. She got her psychology degree while taking night classes in her first two years coaching at Barry University, and three years later, in April of 2010, she came to UM. Her assistant coach John Koskinen was with her at Barry, and happily followed her to UM when she made him the offer.

“She’s so laid back, and kind of go-with-the-flow, where I feel like I need everything planned. We’re so opposite that we end up meeting in the middle and the team likes it,” Koskinen explained. “She’s just good at reading people and knowing what to say at the right time. She’s able to make the girls feel more calm or more confident, or whatever they need at that time.”

This season, Rizzo has implemented her psychological approach with what she calls the “fearless five.” This past fall, after noticing that her five starters would be scared of failing in tournaments, she began holding psych sessions with her players prior to tournaments. She wanted to know what they were so afraid of.

“You have to learn to play fearless golf. When you’re playing a practice round, no one’s afraid of anything. Then the gun goes off and you’re panicking over every shot, and you need to just play,” she said. “To play fearless golf you have to identify first what your fear is, so we had some sessions on having them figure out, ‘well, what’s your fear?’ They all had something, and I’m like, do you think your parents are going to love you any less if you have a bad day? Do you think there are seven billion people in the world that really could care less if you shot an 82 on the golf course? So when you put it all into perspective, it takes a lot of pressure off.”

Her players enjoy the talks, and it seems to be working, since the Hurricanes recently wrapped up their third top-five finish of the season in the Hurricane Invitational. They finished runners-up.

“Golf is a really hard sport, you lose more than you win,” sophomore golfer Daniela Darquea explained. “The fearless five is to get us not to worry about all the losing, just worry about playing golf and having fun.”

Rizzo has traveled the world, and her golf career has come full circle. From beginning her playing career in Miami, playing professionally on multiple continents and then ending her coaching career back in Miami, she is clearly at ease now. With a husband, two kids and a successful career, she said she’s only four or five years away from retirement. After, she wants to get back to traveling, and visit places she hasn’t been.

The golf course probably won’t be in those plans anymore, not unless the scorecards are left in the clubhouse.

“I might go occasionally to the course socially,” she said. “Drink a cocktail and a glass of wine while I’m playing. And have fun and not worry about my score. Just be with friends; it’s a whole different kind of golf when you play that way.”