Aspen Sojourner: While you were in high school, Stanford recruited you to play basketball, but you ended up on the golf team. How did that happen?
Martha Richards: My golf career is the best decision I never made. I worked with two great coaches at Stanford. Under Tara VanDerveer, the basketball team, which I was on, won a national championship in 1990. At the same time, Tim Baldwin, the golf head coach, said, “Let’s see how good you can get.” Ultimately, Tara told me I had to choose which sport I wanted to play. I chose golf. Giving up your favorite toy is a lot different than having someone take it away from you.
And you learned some good life lessons along the way.
Within three months, Tim unexpectedly needed funding to keep Stanford’s program a varsity sport. He taught me so much about growing a business. People give money based on relationships and connections. They don’t give it out of obligation. Those relationships are what help organizations be successful.
After college, you played on the LPGA Tour for two seasons; how was the transition?
College golf is a team sport, whereas being on the LPGA turned out to be a lonely ride because, ultimately, as Tim told me when I started on the Tour, you aren’t nearly as important as you think you are. Yes, people care about your performance, but they’re not going to lose sleep over it.
Give us one of your most memorable takeaways from your time as a pro.
When I showed up for a tournament in Hawaii early on, two of my heroes, Juli Inkster and Patty Sheehan, invited me to play a practice round. While we were on the course, I noticed that they never got their putters out. Instead, they were chipping on all the greens. On the sixth hole, I finally asked why. “There’s no practice area for chipping, so the best place to do it is on the golf course,” said Inkster. Immediately, I started doing what they were doing. We were playing a “skins game,” and on the last hole, we were tied. I had the last chip shot and Juli said, “Knock this one in, rookie!” I won the game. To this day, I kick myself for not playing more practice rounds. The big takeaway for me was, don’t miss your moment when it’s in front of you. Start getting comfortable with getting uncomfortable.
You later coached golf at a big university, another high-profile gig.
After I got off the Tour, I got a head coaching job at Boise State. Then I went to the University of Texas to be an assistant coach. I ended up at Vanderbilt University for seven years as head coach, then I returned to Texas, ultimately stepping away in 2014. If you don’t love recruiting, you really can’t coach in college. One summer, I was on the road for 56 nights out of 80. My health suffered, and I was just visiting my house.
There must have been some rewarding aspects, too.
Coaching, for me, has always been about helping young people develop as human beings. Sure, part of my job was to win a national championship, but, more importantly, I was there to teach future citizens of the world to be successful adults. For many of my athletes, I was also a transition parent, so much of my job was about listening to them and helping them hear themselves.
Coaching, for me, has always been about helping young people develop as human beings.
How does playing sports help kids develop in other areas?
Learning to be a great teammate is the single most important thing you get out of athletics. Sports teach resiliency and provide opportunities that can’t be replicated in the classroom. They help kids develop skills like creating boundaries and setting priorities and goals. Of course, every player wants to win a state championship, but getting there is a by-product, in part, of creating a culture where individuals ask more of themselves in order to support their team. In the business world, unless you’re a CEO, you’re a teammate.
What brought you to the Roaring Fork Valley?
I met my now-wife in the fall of 2015, and she was living in Aspen, where she grew up. I was in Denver at the time, working with a company called BirdieFire, which created software for golf statistics and live scoring. I moved here to be with her.
As Aspen High’s athletic director since 2017, how do you share some of the lessons you learned as a pro athlete and college coach?
My job is really about helping our coaches succeed. My hope is that Aspen High is known for its team culture. We offer 25 varsity teams for 550 kids. We have many crossover athletes, so the more that our coaches can send the same message, the more our athletes will be successful. Our coaches certainly aren’t in it for the money—they’re there for the right reasons, which is to share life lessons with the kids.