At the Santa Monica High girls golf team’s first practice Monday, coach Kevin McKeown channeled legendary UCLA basketball coach John Wooden.

He started with the basics.

“We didn’t leave the putting green,” he said. “If you think about John Wooden and his basketball players, he would teach them how to tie their shoelaces.

“A good shot means nothing if the kids can’t putt. The goal is a two-putt. Wherever they are on a green, the goal is to get two-putts and move on. We want to avoid three-putts or more, and the green is usually where [the trouble] happens. The swings will develop over time.”

McKeown, who shares a name with Santa Monica’s mayor, is focusing on fundamentals as he prepares to lead the Vikings in a 2015 campaign that begins Sept. 1 with a match against Mira Costa.

It’s the second year at the helm for McKeown, who stepped in to fill the void left by math teacher Ryan Hoffman before the start of last season. The team boasts 10 members this year, McKeown said, a significant increase over last year’s roster size.

The players will continue honing their skills on the links while facing elite players from throughout the region. Practices are typically held at Rancho Park Golf Course in Los Angeles and home matches are scheduled at Penmar Golf Course in Venice.

“It’s a very young program,” McKeown said. “Our goal is to be more competitive. We had some success last year, but the competition we’re going against is very tough. We’re looking forward to continue building upon some of the small successes the girls had individually and see if we can recreate that and grow and mature a little bit more this year.”

This year’s squad features senior captain Tiana Elliston, who is tasked with leading a group of mostly underclassmen. An assistant captain last season, Elliston steps into the role vacated by graduated senior Claire Goldberg.

If last year was any indication, Elliston and her teammates will be up against talented golfers who have been playing the sport for years. Many of the Vikings girls are playing catch-up, McKeown said.

“They’re improving,” he said. “But the level of competition is humbling. The girls we’re playing against, from Palos Verdes or from Mira Costa, there’s a culture of kids growing up doing this.

“That’s what I’m trying to find out: Where are the girls around here who have been playing golf with their families? … We’re going against kids who are getting [college athletic] scholarships. It can be tough.”

For McKeown, who is also a Samohi band director, serving as coach of the girls golf team has given him a new perspective on education overall.

“Coaching girls athletics has been really eye-opening and has helped my teaching,” he said. “I’ve found that they’re very hard on themselves. They worry about what others are perceiving of them. So I try to teach them life lessons through golf.

“I’m from Ireland, and my dad taught me golf. So I’ll tell them something that I learned with an Irish proverb and they go, ‘You’re weird.’ But eventually they start to recognize what I’m saying.”

jeff@smdp.com

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