Up-and-down is the best way to describe the No. 17 Cal men’s golf team’s fall season. At some points, the Bears seemed unstoppable, such as when they set a tournament record in their first round of the Alister MacKenzie Invitational at home or when they built up an 11-stroke lead over second-place North Florida in Maui last weekend.
But, at other points, the team’s performance was mediocre at best, especially after a string of weak final rounds in the middle of its season.
Still, closing out with a victory in Maui with its strongest tournament finish of the year, the men’s golf team showed promise and a renewed energy to redeem itself from last spring, when its season was prematurely cut short at the NCAA regionals, where the Bears failed to qualify for the NCAA championship — their primary goal for this spring.
Last year, a competitive field at regionals and the lack of a home-course advantage may have kept them out, according to redshirt senior Sebastian Crampton, but at the start of this season, they hoped to wipe away that disappointment.
Still, the team struggled early on. At the Carpet Capital Collegiate, the team finished in 11th place, but this was in the absence of star senior Collin Morikawa, who was competing as part of Team USA at the World Amateur Championship.
With Morikawa back in the lineup and placing second individually overall, the team bounced back with a third-place finish at the OFCC/Fighting Illini Invitational. After this, the team took a brief break from match play to take down rival Stanford at the inaugural “Big Match” before returning for the Alister MacKenzie Invitational, where it placed second to a Pepperdine team that put together a record-setting performance.
The Tavistock Collegiate Invitational in Florida, which had been Cal’s breakout win of last season, proved difficult for the Bears as they continued to drop in the rankings because of a large number of double and triple bogeys, overshadowing a solid first round. They ultimately finished in eighth, but in many ways, this invitational may have set the Bears up for a strong showing at the Ka’anapali Classic, their final tournament of the fall, the next weekend.
“It really hit home in Florida how important and how damaging it is to make a double bogey or a triple bogey,” director of men’s golf Walter Chun said. “It’s just a momentum killer. And in team golf, if someone makes a triple bogey, that forces your teammates to try and make a few birdies to make up for it.”
The Ka’anapali Classic was the turning point of the fall season. For the first time, the Bears had a complete lineup with freshman James Song, redshirt junior Jamie Cheatham, redshirt senior K.K. Limbhasut, Crampton and Morikawa. This team put together a spectacular showing, eventually culminating in an 11-stroke victory and displaying what Cal is capable of doing when the whole team is together.
“Honestly, as a coach, you can’t ask for a better finish,” Chun said. “You end with a win, and it shows them heading into the offseason what they’re capable of doing. It’s a feather in their cap for just kind of an up-and-down fall season, but they really finished strong.”
This was the first tournament back after surgery for Cheatham, and Chun gave him a lot of credit for his recovery process. He noted how Cheatham was at the gym stretching every morning for at least an hour starting at 5 a.m., and for this reason, he believed that Cheatham deserved the chance to rejoin the lineup for the Ka’anapali Classic.
Despite the strong finish to the season, Cal has a lot of work to do if it hopes to perform well at the NCAA regionals this spring. As Chun noted, golf is “fickle,” and a win today does not necessarily mean a win tomorrow. Still, Crampton recognizes that a major strength of his team is its ability to stay positive even during tough times, and this strength will hopefully benefit the players as they transition into the winter hiatus.
“We stayed positive throughout every event whether it was good or bad,” Crampton said. “But the key for us is just being close as a team, having good camaraderie and staying together. I think that’s a big positive for us.”
Akshara Majjiga covers men’s golf. Contact her at [email protected].