By Jeff Shearer
AUBURN, Ala. - If recruiting rankings had been around in the 1980s, Auburn women's golf coach Melissa [McNamara] Luellen would have been a five-star prospect. A can't-miss kid.
At her home in Tulsa, Oklahoma, she received scholarship offers from as far away as northern California, and as near as the next room.
Such was the recruitment of Melissa McNamara, No. 1 junior golfer in the country in 1984 and the daughter of the University of Tulsa's legendary coach, Dale McNamara.
"I just told her she could have breakfast, or not," says Dale, laughing at the memory before turning serious. "It was a choice that she had to make and I had to sit back."
Melissa remembers, "She would tease me a little bit, like, `You want to go get a new outfit?' and I'd be like, `Mom!'"
"It took a while for me to decide whether it would even be good to recruit Melissa or not, whether it was the best thing for her," Dale said. "And I thought, `Now that's ridiculous.' We're sitting here with the No. 1 program in the country and if she wants to play for here, then that's it.
"She grew up as a little girl watching the likes of Nancy Lopez and all of the wonderful players who came through the program."
Melissa took an official visit to Stanford, watching the Cardinal compete in a golf tournament. One of Stanford's opponents that weekend? Her mom's Tulsa team.
"My team looked at each other and they said, `We're not letting Melissa get away,'" Dale said. "And they played the most outstanding golf while she was there. It just kind of knocked you off your feet. They played driven golf."
Tulsa won the tournament, and Melissa's commitment.
"When Melissa came back, she said, `I've got the No. 1 program and I've got an awfully good golf coach and a great school. I'm coming to Tulsa,'" Dale said.
"It was really my view into what it would feel like not playing for Tulsa," said Melissa. "It was pretty much that point that I had made that decision because I had been the little cheerleader since I was 9 or 10. That made my decision pretty clear. It was really in my heart."
'It was my fault'
Two strong personalities joining forces, a coach and a golfer. A mother and a daughter.
What could go wrong?
At first, everything.
"She was way too hard on me, as the coach's kid," Melissa said. "I would win a tournament and she'd make me go to qualify. Every other coach in the world is going to give that kid an exemption. Not my mom."
"It was my fault," said Dale. "I was so conscious of showing any kind of favoritism because she was my daughter, and that was my mistake."
"It kind of backfired and I got mad," Melissa said. "I still remember like it was yesterday. She would be the first to admit now that she was way too hard on me. But once we ironed that out, we had a great three years. The first year, not so great. The next three years were pretty great."
1988 TITLE SWEEP
In 1988, Melissa's senior year, Tulsa celebrated an historic week in Las Cruces, New Mexico. Melissa won the individual NCAA championship, leading Tulsa to the team title. Dale was named coach of the year.
"It was a dream come true," said Dale. "If you wrote a script, they'd throw it out because it sounded too made up."
"That's my `10' moment," Melissa said.
The 18th hole was a par 5, at the top of a hill.
Jim McNamara, Melissa's dad and Dale's husband, accompanied his daughter for all 18 holes. Dale walked from group to group, breathing heavily at an elevation of 3,900 feet.
"I'd walk up with each girl and say, `We're doing great,'" Dale said. "And I'd walk back down and pick up the next girl, and walk back up to the green, and I'd walk back down. Back and forth, back and forth, and here comes Jim and Melissa.
"He grabbed my hand, we walked up that hill, and tears were rolling down my eyes because I knew we were going to win, and that Melissa was going to win. It was just a special moment for the entire family."
While she walked the final hole, Melissa noticed her parents.
"Watching my Mom and Dad walk down the rough line hand in hand watching their kid, last group on the course," she said. "Pretty special for parents, not much less me and my teammates, but just really special for our family."
STARTING FROM SCRATCH
When Dale McNamara became Tulsa's women's golf coach in 1974, she did so without several essentials.
No office, no salary and no team.
"Title IX had passed and schools had to comply," said McNamara, recalling her program's origin. "I had absolutely no coaching background whatsoever. I was a good player and I had won tournaments.
"They asked me to volunteer coach. The school didn't have any money for this. This was one of the hardships of adding new sports, but they knew it was the right thing to do."
From her desk in a hallway, McNamara recruited five Tulsa freshman students to join her team. For her first recruiting class, she landed Lopez from New Mexico, the nation's top amateur who would go on to win 48 LPGA Tour events.
When Dale retired in 2000 after 26 years, Melissa, after 11 years on the LPGA Tour, replaced her.
After two seasons at Tulsa, Melissa moved to Arizona State, where she won the 2009 national championship before coming to Auburn in 2015.
"I'm just so proud of her," Dale said. "I don't think I've enjoyed anything as much as watching her coach. One of the thrills of my life is watching Melissa recruit, bring her team in, build the program, and they're ranked No. 19 now. To see the progress that's being made and see these delightful young women.
"She has the sense of dignity that this game demands. This sport is probably the toughest sport you can imagine to accomplish, because you never accomplish it all the way.
"She's a wonderful representative of the game. She understands what it takes to be a good player because she's been there. She works with those girls, she loves them. She LOVES Auburn. She and her husband, this is their forever home.
"It just thrills me to pieces to see her so happy and to be in a position to be able to know that all of the girls who are on your team, you're going to send them off into the world with a lot of wonderful experiences and coaching and teaching from her, and from Andrew [Pratt]. It's a duo -- a coach and assistant coach -- that has got to be the best in the country, I think."
On June 18, in their hometown of Tulsa, mother and daughter will be honored with the 25th annual Henry P. Iba Citizen Athlete Awards, whose previous recipients include Peyton Manning, Drew Brees, Jackie Joyner-Kersee and Nancy Lopez.
"They sent me the information of the past recipients and I about fell out of my chair," Melissa said. "For them to recognize my mom and me, we do have a pretty unique story. We're really kind of blown away."
With four national championships on her Tulsa resume, Dale said, "We're in such a unique situation of being mother and daughter coaches, and national championships. It's a very rare thing. I told Melissa, `It seems to me every time we take a breath, we end up making some history.'"
Melissa and her older sister, Cathy, grew up playing golf, tennis and swimming while their parents competed on the course with friends. "Our own little summer camp," Melissa said.
While Cathy moved on to other interests, Melissa, sharing her mother's competitive spirit, stayed at it, holding putting contests against boys, just as Dale had done a generation earlier.
"To be perfectly frank, it was fun to play golf because that's where all the guys were," Dale said, laughing about the lack of female golfers to compete against in the 1940s and `50s.
"This is a special Mother's Day to have my two daughters," Dale said. "I'm so proud of both of them."
In her third season at Auburn, Melissa Luellen continues to build her program, based on the proven principles she first learned from, then employed with, her mom.
"She always was encouraging, would challenge me, would celebrate with me," Melissa said. "She had it a lot harder than I did, and at the end of the day I think she was a great mom and coach."
Luellen and mom
Jeff Shearer is a Senior Writer at AuburnTigers.com. Follow him on Twitter: Follow @jeff_shearer