RANCHO MIRAGE, California — In actual distance, it's 1,861 miles from the first tee at River Falls Golf Club to the first tee at The S at Rancho Mirage.
Figuratively, though, it feels a lot longer than that when your name is Lance Westberg, you coach the UW-River Falls women's golf team and you are trying to narrow the gap between your program and the best that NCAA Division III has to offer.
That's why Westberg, assistant coach Jessica Reagan and seven Falcons golfers spent their Spring Break this week among the sun-splashed palms of the Coachella Valley competing against the nation's elite in the University of Redlands Bulldog Classic.
Six of the 12 teams were ranked in the top 25 of the latest GolfStat.com NCAA Division III women's golf poll — led by defending Division III national champion Claremont Mudd Scripps, a cooperative athletic program serving Claremont McKenna College, Harvey Mudd College and Scripps College — and two more were in the top 40. River Falls, meanwhile, checked in at No. 75 out of 148 Division III teams.
River Falls, however, was coming off a breakthrough performance at last fall's Wisconsin Intercollegiate Athletic Conference Championship where it smashed a pair of school scoring records and enjoyed just the third top-four WIAC finish in program history. So why not see how much further to go to get to the next level?
The answer? The Falcons learned they still have work to do after shooting rounds of 367 and 358 to finish 10th — 125 strokes behind Claremont Mudd Scripps and 76 shots back of the nearest team ranked in the top 25 (the Poets of No. 18 Whittier College).
Then again, for River Falls, that wasn't the point of going through the effort to be here.
"It's something different," said Westberg, who was named WIAC coach of the year last fall on a vote of conference coaches. "We're coming out here to give the girls a good experience, but also to see some really good golf. We see some really good play in our league, especially with Stout, Whitewater and Oshkosh. But to come out here and see some teams that do well on the national stage allows us to see the best so, hopefully, we can work our way up there."
Indeed, Stout, Whitewater and Oshkosh have combined to finish first, second or third at each of the last three WIAC Championships. In the last five years, no other school in the WIAC has broken up the party at the top and managed to win a conference title.
The way most college tournaments are structured, however, teams are often paired based on GolfStat ranking to start the event and the previous day's score for subsequent rounds. That means River Falls' view of Stout, Whitewater and Oshkosh has usually been from a few fairways over.
In fact, in the last 14 rounds over the last five years of the WIAC Championship, the only time River Falls has played with those schools was on opening day of the tournament last fall when they were grouped with Stout and Whitewater while top-seeded Oshkosh was paired with tournament host Platteville. Coincidentally, after shooting 336 playing in that company, the Falcons shot a school-record 321 in the second round on their way to a 54-hole total of 1,003 — 45 strokes better than the program's WIAC Championship mark set in 2017.
"The second day of the conference tournament, they played at a level they haven't played at yet this year," said Westberg, whose 13-player roster is comprised largely of golfers from northwest Wisconsin and Minnesota. "That was really cool, but it doesn't just happen all in one day. It's the work they put in.
"I'd be out on the course in the summer, just playing on my own, I'd see girls on the team driving (to River Falls) from over an hour away and see them a hole over. It's (Division III), they're just choosing to do it. But that's rewarding when you see players that are putting in their own time, they're learning their own course, they're practicing a lot in the off-season."
On the one hand, their week in California has been a reward for that hard work. On the other hand, it has been a fact-finding mission for Westberg — and the rest of us, really — to figure out why more Division III schools don't load up on the sunscreen, pack up the golf clubs and find a way to flee Wisconsin's lingering winters more often.
Of course, for those programs not blessed with the football and basketball-fueled budgets of Division I schools or the alumni-nourished means of private schools in Division III, one of the big reasons is money. While each Falcons golfer paid for her airfare to get to California (getting to and from on Southwest Airlines, where golf bags fly free), River Falls picked up the cost of meals, lodging and the tournament entry fee.
That latter cost was a whopper — $1,300 to enter the team and $250 per player to bring two individuals. For those of us who call California home, we refer to that as a Sunshine Tax.
Still, it has long been a practice for schools to host tournaments as a fundraiser to fund their own programs and, essentially, raid each other's budgets by up-charging for entry fees. Unfortunately, that practice hits budgets hardest at state university schools such as those in the WIAC where — according to 2015 Cummings Athletics College Operating Expenses data — the average operating expenses for each program was $36,303 and the combined total of the seven schools that sponsored women's golf at the time ($254,121) was less than half what it was at the University of Wisconsin for its women's program ($715,572).
Westberg and Reagan deserve credit for making this golf junket as affordable as they could. Instead of staying in a pricy hotel and dropping significant amounts of money at local restaurants, the Falcons booked an affordable Airbnb for the week, bought groceries at the local Walmart and paired up golfers to prepare meals in their unit.
"For the last two breakfasts, we've made pancakes and French toast," said River Falls' Courtney Carson, a freshman from Eagan, Minnesota. "We've all had a learning experience about, maybe, cooking because some of us haven't cooked a whole (lot). We're learning to live together and have a ton of fun together."
Westberg was glad to hear that his golfers were enjoying the experience because the trip did come at the expense of River Falls' traditional spring schedule. Instead of playing two or three one-day events within an hour of campus during April — as they have since Westberg, who is also an assistant men's basketball coach at the school, added golf coaching duties in 2015 — the Falcons will only play their one-day home event in three weeks.
"My idea behind it was to be serving each other and really bonding as a team and they're taking that to a whole 'nother level," said Westberg, whose team spent its final full day of its trip at Laguna Beach. "They're doing an awesome job taking care of each other, whether it's one pair cooks and the other pair cleans. They're rotating through and, so far, they've had some really good meals and the house really looks good."
River Falls isn't the first WIAC school to organize a formal spring trip. UW-Whitewater ended a long drought for the conference in that area last spring when it went to Florida, competed in a Division I event and played a couple of practice rounds at the site of the 2018 NCAA Division III Championship near Orlando.
This year, a handful of Warhawks golfers, coach Andrea Wieland and their families opted for recreational golf as part of a spring-break sight-seeing vacation to Ireland. When they return, Whitewater faces a grueling spring schedule that finds the Warhawks playing the next four weeks in the run up to its second straight NCAA Division III Championship appearance in Houston in May.
Golfers at other WIAC schools, meanwhile, are finding places to play on their own. Some are on family vacations to warm-weather destinations like Florida and Arizona while others are combing the Internet to find courses that are open in southern Wisconsin and northern Illinois.
There is a risk to making competition a part of the spring break itinerary for schools such as No. 21 Oshkosh, No. 22 Stout and No. 33 Whitewater. The GolfStat rankings don't factor rust into the scores that are plugged into the computer to determine the order of the top teams in Division III and one bad round, especially against good competition, can cost a team any mathematical shot it might have at one of the two or three at-large berths to the NCAA Championship.
Think about it. Halloween, Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year's all came and went since River Falls played its last competitive round the final day of the WIAC Championships at Reedsburg Country Club in early October. So did a polar vortex and more than two feet of snow that gripped the River Falls campus over the past two months, reducing the Falcons' preparation for this event to a series of indoor sessions belting golf balls into a simulator screen.
The college golf world probably didn't feel much smaller for the Falcons after two days on an immaculate course at The S designed by Desmond Muirhead, who also designed the Dinah Shore Course at nearby Mission Hills Resort — site of the upcoming ANA Inspiration, the LPGA's first major — and helped Jack Nicklaus design the famed Muirfield Village in Dublin, Ohio. At least now, Westberg and his team have a much better understanding of how to expand their presence in it.
River Falls played Monday's opening round with Methodist University (N.C.) and host Redlands, who showed the Falcons what can happen when a firm, fast and flat golf course is paired with a sunny sky, temperatures in the mid-to-upper 80s and not a hint of wind to factor into every shot. They shot 299 and 300, respectively, and led the way after 18 holes before Claremont Mudd Scripps fired a blistering 295 in the final round to finish at 600 and beat the co-runners-up by 11 shots.
"I actually really enjoyed watching them play golf," said River Falls' Dani DeWitt, a sophomore from Spooner. "Yeah, I was competing and I was sweating and everything, but watching them play the way they did, playing aggressive and knowing their abilities and such, I think that's a learning experience for our entire team — just to be able to see those kind of people out here and learn that we can do that if we work hard enough."