A Full Circle: Patti Rizzo’s Story

by Kevin Ivany

CORAL GABLES, Fla. – A broken ankle and a near catastrophe on a golf cart.

Two separate incidents, but both helped pave the path for University of Miami golf head coach Patti Rizzo, now heading into her 11th season as the leader of the program.

Some may wonder how these two situations played a role in the 1995 UM Sports Hall of Fame inductee’s journey to the golf course. To uncover that, the story begins with a gifted athlete raised in a modest neighborhood in Pembroke Pines, Fla. There, a young Rizzo could be found playing almost every sport imaginable.

From competing on the boy’s little league baseball team to playing tackle football in the front yard, Rizzo never backed down from a challenge. However, for a young Rizzo, there was still one sport she refused to play.

That remained to be true even when her family moved to a newly-opened country club when she was 12.

“We were one of the first houses built there at the country club in Miami. I came from a real modest family, both of my parents were a part of the recession and neither had the privilege to go to college,” Rizzo said. “My dad had gotten this great deal on this piece of property on the golf course because he was a really hard worker and invested in it 10 years before we moved there. He built his dream house. But even then, I didn’t even consider using the golf course at first.”

A letter winner for four different sports at the high school level, Rizzo competed on the track and field, volleyball, basketball and softball teams, while also spending countless hours on the country club’s tennis courts.

However, an ankle injury during a basketball game quickly changed the course of history for the North Miami native.

“When I broke my ankle playing basketball, I was 15 and I had to wear a walking boot for three months,” Rizzo said. “I was getting stir crazy and really didn’t know what to do with my time. So, my dad let me drive around the club with our family cart and I would just hop in that and ride all over the place. But one day when I was riding around the course, I almost ran over this older man.”

That man just so happened to be Dr. Jimmy James, who played No. 2 on Arnold Palmer’s golf team. However, instead of becoming a professional golfer, James decided to join the medical field.

“He was very knowledgeable about the game and he knew talent and athleticism when he saw it. And when he saw me with the cast, he was joking around and said, ‘Ah, you can’t run around the club house beating up the boys. Why don’t you play golf?’” Rizzo recalled with a smile. “I was like, ‘What? No way! I hate golf. Golf is for old people.’ I was just a really bratty kid. And he was like, ‘Well have you ever tried it?’” I was like, ‘No, but why would I ever want to? It is so slow and so boring.’

“He then said, ‘Well you obviously like driving the golf cart, so would you mind driving my cart for me? I’ll pay you five bucks if you drive it for nine holes,’” Rizzo continued. “He used to like to jog between shots to get exercise and for me, five bucks was five bucks. So, I accepted his offer and he said, ‘Well now you will get to see golf the way it is supposed to be played.’”

At first not knowing what he meant, it did not take long for Rizzo to all of the sudden show an interest in the sport. After watching James drive the ball nearly 300 yards, then seeing the ball back spin perfectly onto the greens before he sank incredible long putts, Rizzo quickly wanted to give it a try herself.

James would later become her mentor and he told her he was going to make her a professional golfer, but she was going to have to 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 top-ranked female amateur golfer in the U.S. after winning 14 out of 18 major amateur events.

As a junior at Miami, she was the top-ranked collegiate golfer, something that seemed impossible to a younger Rizzo, who thought she would never go to college. She thought she was going to skip it and become a professional on the LPGA Tour.

However, former Miami women’s golf coach Norm Parsons’ final move before refocusing on the recreational side of UM was to convince the local golf standout to become a Hurricane.

“Norm was the one who recruited me and convinced me that I needed a backup plan. I didn’t even end up talking to any other schools, I just thought Norm was awesome. And the whole reason I decided to go to college was because of Norm Parsons. It really was,” Rizzo said. “I hated school…I only wanted to focus on golf. But to me, Norm was just amazing. However, when I got there and learned Norm wasn’t going to be my coach, I was devastated. I even considered quitting and not going. But then I decided, I’ll give it one semester and one semester turned into three years. I loved the University of Miami, I just didn’t love school.”

Looking back on his final recruitment move as the head of the golf program, Parsons explained what he saw in the young Rizzo.

“She had a wonderful talent, she played on the boys’ team and had an outstanding record,” he said. “She was very athletic and had excellent movement with the ball. You could tell she was going to be very good. Which she was. I wish I would have had the chance to coach her.”

After three seasons at UM, the two-time All-American played in a professional tournament on the LPGA Tour against a field of seasoned pros. She tied for first at the end of the tournament, but finished second after losing in a one-hole playoff. Despite the runner-up finish, she knew she was ready for the tour and she wasn’t going to let the moment pass her by.

“Everybody was like, ‘Oh, you should finish and get your degree.’ But I said, ‘No, I think I am ready to go pro.’ When you are on a high, you want to keep going, you want to go when you are at your highest level,” Rizzo said. “Even now, unless I have a player who is winning everything, I would never encourage her to not finish school. But if she is winning everything, then maybe she needs to go for it. That’s how I felt.

“So, I quit school, went to qualifying school and finished second at Q-School,” Rizzo said. “I turned pro and my first year on the Tour I won Rookie of the Year and my second year I won my first tournament.”

Over the next 10 years, Rizzo claimed four LPGA wins, but it was not the wins and awards that had the biggest impact on her professional career. Instead it was a friendship she struck up while competing in Tucson, Ariz., her rookie year.

“In just my sixth tournament, I was heading into the final day leading the field and I got paired with this Japanese player, Ayoko Okamoto,” Rizzo said. “I always just thought I was the bomb. But when I got paired with Okamoto, for the first time in my life, in the back of my mind I thought, ‘Damn, she might be better than me.’ She was just so good and when we got paired together, she ended up winning the tournament. Meanwhile, I ended up finishing like fifth after a bad final round and I think a part of it was that I was just so infatuated by her.

“Every part of her game was so pure and so solid,” Rizzo continued with a laugh. “And I didn’t know it at the time—I thought she was just a rookie like me—but even though she was considered a rookie on the LPGA Tour, she had already played eight years on the Japanese Tour. And little did I know that she was pretty much the Tiger Woods of Japan.”

With 29 professional wins already to her name on the Japanese tour, the future World Golf Hall of Famer moved to the United States for a new challenge and stronger competition. However, she spoke very little English and it was Rizzo who took Okamoto under her wing and helped her schedule travel arrangements and make the adjustment to living in the United States.

The connection helped open the door for Rizzo to compete four times a year, for the next decade, on the Japanese Tour, on which she won nine tournaments.

“The Japanese press caught on and the country was just so appreciative that I was so open-minded and so willing to help. So, they started to invite me, when our season was finished, to play two months a year in Japan,” Rizzo said. “Funny story actually, my first event, I was 21 and I went over and played four tournaments that year. But of course on the tee box, they never introduced me as, ‘Patti Rizzo, LPGA Pro.’ Instead they would say, ‘Patti Rizzo, Ayoko Okamoto’s best friend,’ because if I was her best friend, they all were going to like me. So, I used to get [upset] and be like, ‘Well, I am not just your best friend, I am also a golfer.’ But overall, I ended up learning a lot from Ayoko and the Japanese mentality. Not just for golf but for everything in life, it was very beneficial for me.”

After the 1991 season, Rizzo decided to step down from the LPGA Tour after receiving an offer to spend the entire 1992 season in Japan. Five companies put together a package for her to play a full season overseas, so Rizzo went ahead and bought an apartment in Tokyo.

Unfortunately, Okamoto had back surgery heading into the season, so it ended up being a move she had to make completely on her own.

“I ended up learning enough Japanese to survive on my own and I ended up the leading money winner on their tour that year. I won three times,” Rizzo said. “And at the beginning of that year is when I met Jacques, who was a French man whom I met while he was on a vacation in Miami. He ended up flying back and forth from Japan when I was over there, five or six times that season. Then in 1994 we got married, the kids came and my golf career was history.”

Despite the retirement, Rizzo considered returning to the pro ranks multiple times over the next 10 years, hoping to balance being both a mother and an athlete.

After welcoming their son, Seve, into the world Rizzo attempted a comeback to the LPGA and went out on the mini tour in Florida. Overall, there were five mini tour events and the new mother won all five, confirming she was ready to try and reclaim her membership card at Q-School.

However, just a week into Q-School, she learned she was pregnant, putting her return back on pause.

In 2000, three years after giving birth to a baby girl, Gabriella, Rizzo considered making another attempt to return, but her husband suddenly passed away. The grieving mother of two returned home to be with her family and friends, ready to pack away the clubs.

The LPGA later made a rule in 2003, offering former players the opportunity to compete in LPGA events based on career earnings and Rizzo took her children and nanny and made one final attempt.

Despite feeling like she was playing some of her best golf, Rizzo did not make a single cut and realized her pro career was officially behind her.

“I went home. And every year, for like 10 years, I had hosted this charity event in Miami Lakes called the Women Sports Foundation. And that year, when the event was over, like always I stood up and thanked people for coming,” Rizzo said. “But this year, the athletic director for Barry University, [Michael Covone], had played in it and he came up to me afterward and he went, ‘What are you going to do with your life now?’ And I was like, ‘Oh, I don’t know. I guess I’ll just be a soccer mom for a while.’ And he said, ‘How would you like to coach?’

“I laughed and said, ‘Coach college golf? First, I hated school. Second, I was the most selfish player ever, the worst teammate. Third, I can’t even imagine being responsible for a group of players; I have my own two kids to worry about.’ And he started laughing and said, ‘Oh, it’s not that tough of a job. You get a lot of benefits. Why don’t you come talk to me, let’s see if we can work something out. I promise I won’t make it too tough on you. With your reputation, you should be amazing with recruiting,’” Rizzo continued. “So, I thought, ‘When one door closes another door opens.’ So, I went to the interview with them, and I loved them and they loved me, and I ended up being a coach and learning everything from scratch.”

From 2004-10 Rizzo coached the Buccaneers, while also taking the time to complete her bachelor’s degree in psychology.

“I was actually a little bummed out, because I was hoping to finish my degree at Miami, but when I asked if they had any programs for returning athletes, they said no. [It was not until a couple years later that Miami began offering former and current athletes lifetime scholarships],” Rizzo explained. “But one of the deals Mike Covone made with me was that they were going to let me finish my degree for free…I remember Mike initially said to me, ‘You are eventually going to want to coach at the D1 level, but this will be a great place to get your feet wet. Earn your degree, get a feel and in like five years maybe the job will open up at Miami.’ And that was exactly what happened.”

After 27 seasons coaching the Hurricanes, including claiming the 1984 national title, Lela Cannon retired from coaching and officials at Miami decided they wanted a Hurricane to replace her.

“When I found out she was retiring, I called up every contact at Miami asking to see if they could put in a good word for me,” Rizzo said with a smile. “I really thought it was a long shot because there were coaches that applied who had been coaching for 20 years in D1. So, I wasn’t sure if the odds were in my favor. But I got lucky.”

Now in her 11th season at Miami, little did Rizzo know that an ankle injury over 40 years ago would not only lead her to the golf course, but on a life long journey revolving around a sport she never even originally considered to be an option.