Madness of match play could lead to fourth tourney win

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Golf is not the kind of sport that races the pulse of the casual fan. Sports fans right now are more wont to engross in March Madness, the ongoing men’s basketball tournament, to immerse in the sheer bracketology of it all.

Not only is the Cal men’s golf team also in a bracket this weekend, but it’s just the third such tournament in the program’s long history. If the past few weeks have been any indication, these Bears have the talent to get their fans’ pulses racing.

When match play is involved, there’s always a certain degree of madness.

“Match play just has a different life to it,” said Cal coach Steve Desimone. “I think there’ll be some really good matches.”

The No. 9 Bears will fly a rejuvenated squad to Bradenton, Fla., this weekend for the Callaway Collegiate Match Play Championship with the intent of winning the team’s fourth tournament of the season. Never in program history has the squad won more than three in a season.

Yet that fourth win has proved elusive.

Their first crack at setting the record was foiled when underclassmen Michael Kim and Joël Stalter missed the Del Walker Match Play Championship on Feb. 27-28, limiting the squad to a third-place finish. Twelve days later, the team came within a stroke of winning the Southern Highlands Collegiate Masters — finishing ahead of nine top-25 teams in spite of relinquishing a six-point lead.

But with the squad now fully intact, this weekend’s match play presents Cal’s best opportunity to snatch that win yet. Though no Cal golfer finished higher than Max Homa’s tie for fourth place at Southern Highlands, four Bears finished in the top 15.

“We have a very balanced team one through five,” Desimone said. “What we like about our team is that any of our guys can get going and really play well. Any one of our guys can play.”

The two-seeded Bears will need their depth in a match play format that promotes besting a single opponent over besting an entire field. Though Cal should have no problems dispatching UNC-Wilmington in the first round, that depth will come in handy in the later rounds against foes like No. 7 Arkansas, No. 16 Duke and No. 25 Oklahoma State, all schools that have finished ahead of Cal earlier in the season.

“Of 16 teams, there’s depth and quality there with about eight to 10 of those schools,” Desimone said. “I can guarantee we’re looking forward to having fun.”

Though weather won’t be a factor, the Concession Golf Club is designed for match play, with water on more than half of the holes and a variety of risks and rewards that add intrigue to the individual matchups.

The Bears place a premium on match play strategy, one that could come in handy at the NCAA Championships in June. The season’s final competition has used match play for the highest eight qualifying teams since 2009.

“We put pressure on other teams,” Desimone said. “Match play strategy is a different strategy.”

An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated that Brandon Hagy was Cal’s highest finisher at Southern Highlands. In fact, it was Max Homa.