Instead of hibernating, the Bears are flying south for the winter.
Cal men’s golf is heading to Hawaii to play the Hawaii-hosted John A. Burns Intercollegiate, held from Feb. 15 to Feb. 17 in Lihue, Kauai.
Cal has historically dominated this tournament, placing in first place for five years in a row before dropping to second last year. But this season, Cal faces a particularly tough group of opponents, including No. 4 Virginia, No. 18 Texas A&M, No. 23 UNLV and No. 25 Kennesaw State.
This is Virginia’s first tournament of the spring season, and it is unlikely the Cavaliers will see it as anything more than a dry run for the rest of their tournaments. To a top-10 team that placed first at its last tournament of the fall season, the competitive Golf Club of Georgia Collegiate, the unranked Bears pose almost no threat.
Texas A&M placed fourth at the Arizona Intercollegiate, the same tournament at which Cal placed sixth. UNLV netted second place at its most recent tournament, the Jerry Pate National Intercollegiate, in the fall, while Kennesaw State placed first at its last two tournaments of the fall season, the Pinetree Intercollegiate and the Steelwood Collegiate Invitational.
Each school also fields a team of exceptionally strong players. The tournament features five of the 28 collegiate golfers named to the watch list for the Ben Hogan Award, one of the most prestigious awards in collegiate golf. The list includes Cal’s own sophomore Collin Morikawa, Virginia senior Jimmy Stanger, UNLV junior John Oda and the Texas A&M pair of freshmen Cameron Champ and Chandler Phillips. Oda and Morikawa have both made their PGA Tour debuts already, while Stanger will play in the 2017 Valspar Championships and plans to turn professional later this year.
The Intercollegiate is hosting some of the best collegiate golfers in the country, and while there are no head-to-head Ryder Cup-style matches, the stakes for the players are unbelievably high — any misstep could shoot down their chances of winning the Ben Hogan Award.
Despite the competitive field, the Bears have a chance of getting out on top of this tournament. They were in second place at the Arizona Intercollegiate after day one Day 1, before falling to sixth place at the end of the tournament. Still, that sixth-place finish is remarkably better than Cal’s three consecutive eighth-place finishes in the fall.
Cal’s new players were thrown onto the course with little to no collegiate golf experience last season, but after floundering during the fall, the players have improved dramatically. One of those newer players, redshirt freshman William Aldred became this spring’s breakout star. He performed incredibly well at the Arizona Intercollegiate and led the Bears with his 12th-place finish. Sophomore Tanner Hughes has evolved from a shaky player to a solid one, placing 23rd in the same tournament. Although Morikawa had a middling performance at the Arizona Intercollegiate, his skills can help carry Cal to victory in the John A. Burns Intercollegiate.
The John A. Burns Intercollegiate will certainly be a challenging tournament for every player on the team; it is not an ideal tournament for a comeback campaign. But the Bears will have to face difficult tournaments if they want to end up back at the top of collegiate golf, with the John A. Burns Intercollegiate being only the first of many.
Maya Rao covers men’s golf. Contact her at [email protected]