“Ganbatte!,” shouted the blond-haired rookie.
Ayako Okamoto, playing in her first American tournament, was head-to-head against Sally Little in the final round of golf at the Arizona Copper Classic. Patti Rizzo, who was out of contention, cheered her new friend on to her first victory on foreign soil. Rizzo had a cousin who was half-Korean and she was in her first year herself, so she wanted this new girl to know she was welcome in America.
Rizzo and Okamoto traveled together to the next tournament in Phoenix, where there was a herd of Japanese media. Rizzo, convinced her friend was fresh meat like herself, was confused. Okamoto laughed at the rookie’s ignorance and explained that she was already a superstar golfer. She had won eight tournaments and had topped the money list in Japan the year before. The youngster was shocked, but the friendship grew from there.
Rizzo played nine years in the LPGA alongside Okamoto. Eventually, she would join her friend in the offseason and finish the Japanese LPGA tour. In 1992, she lived in Japan and played a full tour. The Japanese people, greater golf fans than Americans, loved the on-field rivalry between the friends.
“Okamoto and I would be like head-to-head a lot of tournaments so for the fans, this was really fun to watch because they knew we were best friends and now they knew that on the course we’re like rivals,” Rizzo reflected.
Rizzo even had Japanese sponsors, most notably Tokyo Dome, the equivalent of Sun Life Stadium in Miami.
“They had like 12-foot posters of me in the Subways and the McDonald’s.”
Rizzo ended up winning nine events in Japan. The people loved her and accepted her as their own.
“When I would win a tournament, I could give my speech in Japanese which the Japanese people just thought was like awesome that this gaijin, an American could give her speech in Japanese and thank the sponsor in Japanese. So Japan was really where I tell people I was a superstar,” Rizzo smiled.
She was born and raised in Southern Florida and attended the University of Miami for three years before turning professional. Her golden hair and sun-kissed skin prove she belongs nowhere else but the Sunshine State. She has toured all over the world, including her stay in Japan and has lived in France, where her late husband is from. For now, she finds herself back home as the head coach for the Hurricanes women’s golf team.
Rizzo had no intentions of becoming a coach. After retiring from the LPGA in 2004, she was playing at a local fundraiser. Somebody asked what she was going to do with her life. She didn’t know, and somebody shouted the suggestion of coaching.
“I started laughing and I go, ‘Coaching? I don’t know anything about coaching! I don’t know anything about teenage girls,’” said Rizzo.
Soon after, the athletic director at Barry University contacted her. He offered her the head coaching position and a chance to get her college degree. She would have loved to get her degree from Miami, but she took the deal.
“All I was thinking was, ‘Oh, I can go back to school and get my degree free.’ And I thought, ‘Maybe this is a path to another career because what am I going to do now?’ So I figured I’ll give it a try. And of course they’re going, ‘Oh, you just have to be a few hours with the girls on the golf course.’ I’m thinking, ‘Oh, ok.’ How little was that lie!” laughed Rizzo.
She spent six years with Barry and was very successful. The Buccaneers had 47 top-five finishes and three tournament victories. Despite this, she always had her heart on the green and orange.
“The whole time I was at Barry I just had in my head that I wanted to get the Miami job. Once I finished my degree, I was like just waiting for the previous coach to retire and I just kept telling myself, ‘I’m gonna get that job, I’m gonna get that job.’ I kept waiting and then when I finally got it, I was thrilled. I was like as happy as Blake is now,” Rizzo described. She ran into Blake James’ office as soon as she heard he officially became athletic director in February because she knew he had the same excitement as her.
Rizzo takes a motherly approach to coaching. Her assistant, John Koskinen, came with her from Barry to Miami. He is the disciplinarian and she is the encourager.
“When I got the job here, I thought, ‘Man, I need to bring John because he’s OCD about everything and I’m not so we will make a perfect team.’”
Rizzo described how Koskinen hands out the discipline for wearing the wrong uniform to practice and he supervises the punishment, making sure the girls finish their sets of lunges or whatever is assigned. Golf is a very self-disciplined sport, which makes the coaches’ job easy. Any offenses are very minor.
“Basically, she’s so chill. The reason I came here is because of her,” said Rika Park, a sophomore on the team.
Park is from Japan and was attracted to Rizzo’s laid-back personality and her ability to relate to her culture. When Park is struggling on the course, Rizzo will comfort her by saying things like “Cheer up” in Japanese.
Leticia Ras-Anderica also came to Miami because of the coaches. Both Ras-Anderica and Park aspire to be professional golfers just like their coach. Rizzo takes her role as mentor very seriously. She is completely honest with her girls about their chances to make it professional.
“She was a great player when she was on tour and so she’s got a lot of experience of what it was like. She’s always telling us ‘Do this. Do that,’” explained Ras-Anderica.
The team is a family within itself. There are only seven girls on the team and they don’t just play together, they eat and go to the movies just like any group of friends.
Rizzo has two children of her own and they are her pride and joy. She married Jacques Depardon in 1994 and they had two children before he passed away in 2000.
“I’ve pretty much raised them by myself, not pretty much, I have,” stated Rizzo.
Her son, Severiano, lovingly called “Sevi,” is 17 and is considering joining the military. Rizzo’s father was a colonel in the Army and she thinks her son has what it takes to follow in his footsteps. He will probably attend Miami-Dade College for one year and then apply to transfer to Miami.
Her daughter, Gabriela, is 15 and is the complete opposite of her mother. She is a cheerleader and loves everything girly. Rizzo described herself as a tomboy growing up. She is very proud that her daughter is “very anti-drugs, alcohol, smoking. She’s like so headstrong.”
It is hard for Rizzo being a single parent. It is evident that she grows weary at times. Her friend Lori Nelson played basketball for Miami when Rizzo was on the golf team. When Rizzo travels, she sometimes leaves the kids with Nelson. Other times, Rizzo leaves the kids home alone and trusts that they will be responsible. Her kids aren’t perfect, but she knows they are typical teenagers.
“I’m very proud of them. They’re both achievers and they’re both leaders. The kids follow them around, they don’t follow the kids around,” she beamed.
Rizzo said that raising her kids is her greatest accomplishment in life. However, she does feel pride in her golf success. She is a member of the University of Miami Sports Hall of Fame. She was the 1982 Rookie of the Year in the LPGA. She won over $1 million in her career. Her final goal is to hoist one more trophy, the NCAA championship for Division I women’s golf.
“That’s about my ultimate goal and then I will have completed a full circle and I can look back and have everything to be proud of,” said Rizzo.
Sitting in her office surrounded by blown-up pictures of herself swinging a driver or crouching to gauge a putt, Rizzo clutches her silver cross necklace.
“I’ve had a lot of blessings in my life and I don’t think that’s accidental,” she reflected. “If you do your best to understand what your purpose is you’ll be much happier in this world and my purpose is to give back to young people and to make all these girls become better people, better golfers, smarter and go on into their own world and to realize what their purpose is in life.”