Cal men’s golf hopes to take advantage of unranked teams at Thunderbird Invitational

William Aldred
Casey Valentine/cal.isiphotos.com/Courtesy

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Like the namesake of the event, Cal men’s golf is taking to the skies for the ASU-hosted ASU Thunderbird Invitational, held in Tempe, Arizona, this Saturday and Sunday.

The ASU Thunderbird Invitational fields considerably less competitive group of teams than the Bears’ most recent tournaments. Cal last faced off against several ranked teams in the Southern Highlands Collegiate and the Querencia Cabo Collegiate.

The Thunderbird, by contrast, features No. 18 UNLV as its only ranked team. UNLV placed second at its most recent tournament, the Jackrabbit Invitational, and has played in two tournaments with Cal this season. UNLV placed sixth at the Southern Highlands Collegiate and third at the John A. Burns Intercollegiate, while the Bears placed 12th and fifth, respectively.

Cal must also be wary of some of the unranked teams, especially its host, Arizona State. Arizona State, which received votes but did not make it to the leaderboard, will be looking to earn back its ranking. The Sun Devils have won nine of the last 18 Thunderbird Invitationals, including the 2014 and 2015 tournaments. Arizona State has clearly parlayed its home-field advantage to victory before and will use it to its advantage again this year.

The Bears seemed to be on an upswing at the beginning of the season, netting a sixth-place finish at the Arizona Intercollegiate and a fifth-place finish at the John A. Burns Intercollegiate, both moderately difficult tournaments. But after the Querencia Cabo Collegiate and the Southern Highlands Collegiate — some of the most prestigious tournaments of the spring season — brought Cal down to 14th-place and 12th-place finishes, it will be difficult for the Bears to recover.

Cal has solid individual players, especially sophomore Collin Morikawa, who earned his first collegiate first-place finish at the Southern Highlands Collegiate. Morikawa, who is on the watch list for the Ben Hogan Award — collegiate men’s golf’s equivalent to football’s Heisman Trophy — beat out fellow watch list members such as John Oda of UNLV and Maverick McNealy of Stanford to tie for first with Oklahoma’s Grant Hirschman.

Other Bears, such as freshman Sean Yu and sophomore Tanner Hughes, routinely have solid performances, generally shooting a couple of strokes over par for a middling finish. Redshirt freshman William Aldred, who had Cal’s highest placement at its first tournament of the season, the Arizona Intercollegiate, was poised to be the spring season’s breakout star, but inconsistencies in his performances later on denied him top placements. These players have immense potential for success but still require development of their skills before they can start seeing results.

The Thunderbird may be the perfect place to develop those skills. With only one ranked team in the field, the Bears finally have a perfect practice tournament. Success in a less competitive field could prove the perfect confidence boost for the team’s more inexperienced players.

Cal has stated its desire to make the regional championships this season, but the disappointing performances in its two most recent tournaments have moved that goal further from reach. The environment at the Thunderbird Invitational is much more low stakes than Cal’s previous tournaments, however, and the Bears should be able to net a high placement. Strong performances by players in the Thunderbird Invitational will give the Bears a huge step forward in the long road to the regional championships.

Maya Rao covers men’s golf. Contact her at [email protected]