How Harvard's Golf Programs Stay Sharp During The Winter Months - MASSGOLF

Despite A Mild Winter, College Teams Like Harvard Utilize Indoor facilities & Technology To Stay Sharp

By Steve Derderian

ALLSTON — The clock strikes 3 on a windy Wednesday afternoon when Jeffrey Fang rolls up on his scooter outside the 175 North Harvard Street building, a multi-use, one-story facility in the backdrop of the historic U-shaped Harvard Stadium. He walks inside and to the right, down a hallway before stopping and scanning into a door on the right.

Inside is where one of the most historic collegiate golf programs in Massachusetts has been training for the spring season since returning to campus on February 1. It’s a relatively rugged layout — a low-ceiling room with an artificial putting service covering the entire floor. Sunlight pokes through the small rectangular windows in the back of the room, which has an array of lockers that contain everything from gloves, golf balls, and yardage books to energy bars and the occasional candy snacks. To the right are a pair of TrackMan simulator hitting bays against the wall, while the remaining walls are filled with motivational quotes from the likes of Phil Jackson and Michael Jordan, as well as plaques with past accolades from Crimson men and women.

While the current indoor complex has served the program well over the years, it’s on the verge of a major upgrade. Harvard has it announced that it will open a 5,000 sq ft indoor training facility as early as this fall. Specific details are limited but according to coaches and players, the facility is expected to have multiple simulator areas, a larger putting area, and a synthetic practice bunker.

With players who come from all over the world, their experience with indoor training varies, but ultimately the goal is universal: Improvement.

“It’s really making the best of what you’ve got this time of year,” said Brian Isztwan, the captain of Harvard’s men’s golf squad, who hails from the Philadelphia area and played in the U.S. Open Qualifier at Foxborough Country Club last year.

Senior captain Brian Isztwan, left, looks over TrackMan numbers with teammate Brian Ma. (Mass Golf)

The indoor golf space is essentially a second home for Catie Schernecker, the 2021 Mass Women’s Amateur champion who is in her sophomore year at Harvard. Her father Fred has been Harvard’s Director of Golf since 2012, overseeing both programs, but he coached the women’s team five years prior.

“I’ve been here kind of a lot actually,” Schernecker said with a chuckle. “It’s good energy to be back with the team. This year I feel like we all have pretty good strategies for using the indoor space well. It’s really a good time to sharpen up some technique stuff.”

The space typically accommodates 3-4 golfers total at a time, so golfers from both the men’s and women’s squad use the facilities in staggered sessions. On this day the men have a few scored tasks, which essentially serve as part practice, part competition. In addition to a distance putting challenge, there’s a wedge test on the simulators.

Darren Choi sets up a putting drill during practice. (Mass Golf)

“What’s the wedge test?” first-year player Darren Choi says after warming up. In this challenge, each player hits 40 shots ranging between 75 and 115 yards, receiving a score for each shot based on their distance to the pin (100 being dead on). By mid-afternoon sophomore Diego Saavedra-Davila, who this test is named after, set the pace with an average of 85.7, edging out Isztwan’s 85.6.

Still to go is Brian Ma, who last year recorded the lowest scoring average of any Ivy League golfer—and the best in Harvard’s history. (He also shot even-par or better in all 12 of his competitive rounds in Fall 2022). The California kid, who has a bottle of sunscreen sticking out of his bag’s side pocket, is right on pace to set the high mark for the team. But on ball No. 38, he hits one off line. “What are you thinking?” Isztwan asked as Ma prepared for his penultimate strike. Ma gathers himself and the final two shots are absolute darts — a 100 and 95 — and he finishes with an 86.2, the top score for the day.

“Any sort of competition right now when we’re indoors is very welcome,” said Ma, who learned the game at San Jose Municipal Golf Course (CA) and still returns there on trips home. “We only have an hour and a half every day so it’s not much to ask myself to focus in for an hour and a half, so I just get in the work and make sure I stay sharp until the spring.”

Brian Ma works on his alignment during practice. (Mass Golf)

After completing a grueling lift session on the other side of campus, three members of Harvard’s women’s squad — Yoona Kim, Isabella Gomez, Iris Wang — step into the room just as the sun is setting. Their practice session is a bit more straightforward, playing 6-holes at Wachusett Country Club. But it’s not the actual club, rather one of courses uploaded to the TrackMan system. The Donald Ross course was chosen for a reason, as the squad will be playing the Ross designed Country Club of Orlando on February 18 when it opens the spring season against Rollins College. 

Naree Song, who was named Harvard’s head coach in January, is also on hand to help set things up and give feedback as needed. Before becoming an associate head coach at Harvard, Song had a stellar junior golf career that included a low amateur finish in the 2000 U.S. Women’s Open at age 14. Song attended the University of Florida and went on to earn a victory on the LPGA Futures Tour (Epson Tour today).

“We have a lot of those competitions to keep improving not just technical work but to make sure we’re working on skills that will help us score,” Schernecker said. “Coach Song has done an awesome job motivating us to keep doing those skills sessions and having competitions.”

Gomez, who was born in New York but hails from Bogotá, Colombia, first came to Massachusetts four years ago when she earned medalist honors at the U.S. Girls’ Junior Amateur qualifier at Marlborough Country Club. Last year, she led the Crimson with a 75.33 scoring average and it showed as during her training sessions she was hitting solid drives and had a deft touch on shots into the green.

Isabella Gomez hits her opening tee shot playing Wachusett Country Club on the simulator. (Mass Golf)

Team captain Meiyi Yan was born in Beijing and took up figure skating as her first sport. The family then moved to Connecticut, where she later took up ice hockey, and it wasn’t until the family moved to Florida when she really took a liking to golf, a sport that could be enjoyed year-round. When she came to Harvard, at first she was hesitant about being able to improve during breaks in the season, but said that changed last year.

“I couldn’t make a solid strike,” Yan said. “My game needed a ton of technical adjustment, and I was fully able to utilize the space for that. That’s when I started believing my game could improve being in the indoor space.”

Even after the day’s tasks are complete, some of the players stick around to putt a few extra golf balls, get some feedback from coaches, and ultimately enjoy the time they have together. After sinking a long practice putt Isztwan’s face is deadpan, but while walking toward the cup, he gives a salute and cracks a smile before reaching down and picking up the ball.

Hopefully it’s a sign of things to come in the spring.

Catie Schernecker, who grew up in Brookline, is in the midst of her sophomore year at Harvard. (Harvard photo)