The Cal men’s golf team entered Monday’s stage of the NCAA Championships in Fayetteville, Arkansas, seven strokes behind the final match-play qualifying spot.
After senior and National Player of the Year candidate Collin Morikawa finished five under par to lift the Bears to a tie for third place after the first day of competition, Cal struggled in the following two days, leaving the Bears with one more day to put themselves in position to win a national title.
As part of an early group, the team finished its round Monday with a tournament score of +45, which placed it in 10th. The Bears had to wait for the remaining teams to finish before finding out whether their efforts were enough to qualify for match play.
“We were in the clubhouse watching the live coverage on Golf Channel,” said Cal redshirt senior KK Limbhasut. “It was definitely nerve-wracking, knowing that it was my last tournament, and it would be great to play the next day.”
Ultimately, SMU and Clemson finished their rounds in a tie for +44, which began a playoff between the two teams for the final spot in match play and ended the Bears’ season.
“I think the second and third rounds, we kind of struggled in the middle,” Morikawa said. “It came down to a shot, and I think we all kind of looked back and wondered where we could’ve saved a couple shots.”
Morikawa finished the tournament at an even par, tying for sixth place overall. Limbhasut, Kaiwen Liu and Jamie Cheatham all finished in the top 65 as well, and Cal’s season ended the same way it did the last time the team competed at the NCAA Championships in 2016 — a 10th-place finish, just narrowly missing a chance at match play.
On the first day, things seemed to be going in Cal’s favor, as Morikawa’s performance put him on top of the individual leaderboard. Strong performances by Liu and Cheatham, who were 12th and 29th, respectively, put the Bears in a great position to fight for the national title.
The difficulty of the course, however, got the best of the players on the second day. The team recorded a +13 round after recording a +4 on Friday. This dropped Cal into a tie for seventh after Saturday, as Limbhasut and Sebastian Crampton struggled to compete at their usual levels.
“With golf, it’s up and down,” said Cal men’s golf director Walter Chun. “Besides Oklahoma State, every team had their tough day. Over the course of four rounds on a golf course like this, it’s tough to sustain excellent golf.”
Still, Cal was in the mix. To qualify to compete on Monday, the Bears needed to remain in the top 15 at Sunday’s end. The all-important day saw Morikawa shoot a +4, his worst of the season. Limbhasut, on the other hand, had Cal’s best round of the day, allowing him to join Liu and Morikawa in the top 100 for the first time in the tournament.
The Bears did just enough to slip through to the next round, finishing the day in 14th place. But although they had a fairly solid round on Monday, it wasn’t enough to clinch a spot in Tuesday’s match play.
“Obviously, we’re disappointed,” Morikawa said. “But this is just another thing to use as a ladder, another step to what we do next.”
Morikawa, Limbhasut and Crampton all played in their final collegiate golf events and will be pursuing professional golf careers as they leave their Cal days behind.
“I think I’m going to miss my team the most here, because this is my only chance to play golf as a team,” Limbhasut said. “Cal has provided me with a lot of tools to be successful, and I’ve met a lot of people along the way. Without Cal, none of this would’ve happened, so I’m really grateful for the support I got these last five years.”
Chun will pick up training for Cal golf next August with a young team, hoping to rebuild and return to the NCAA Championships again next season.
Akshara Majjiga covers men’s golf. Contact her at [email protected].