Curating confidence: Cal men’s golf navigates tricky greens, elite competition to finish strong in Westlake

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Nothing catalyzes positivity quite like an assuring experience at the beginning of an arduous mission. While it may not be the most onerous campaign, Cal men’s golf certainly has a journey ahead. After returning to tournament play Monday, the Bears will swing away until the end of April.

Fortunately, they turned in an all-so-important quality outing to kickstart their season at the Southwestern Invitational this week, where Cal duked it out with elite opponents and took fourth among such stellar company.

But more important than the outcome was the blue and gold’s ability to battle in the face of adversity throughout the two-day, 54-hole event. After recording an 18-over first round and plummeting into a tie for ninth place, each Cal golfer dropped four or more strokes off of one of their next two rounds.

“I felt like the first day was just kind of rough for everyone,” said junior Finigan Tilly. “I think just because it was 36 holes and it was a little windier — the course was tricky, the greens were fast.”

Tilly logged a standout 67 (-5) in the final round to jump up 10 spots on the individual leaderboard and capture sole possession of fourth place. But short game play didn’t make things easy for the standout upperclassman.

“They were some of the most tricky greens I’ve seen in college golf,” Tilly said of North Ranch Country Club in Westlake, California, which hosted the 12-team tournament.

With time, however — as Tilly and his teammates found this week in Southern California — comes an enhanced feel for green speed. Fifteen birdies over 54 holes expressed Tilly’s improved intuition and confidence with the flat stick.

Freshman Kento Yamawaki also stepped up for the Bears and set the precedent for continual improvement in his second round Monday. Yamawaki cut eight strokes off of his first-round 74 for a six-under 66, which tied the lowest single-round score of the tournament.

“Six-under was super strong, especially here. One of the best rounds I’ve seen this season. To wake up at 6AM, play 36 holes and on the second 18 shoot 66 — the greens are bumpier, it’s a little windier, everyone’s tired — it was the most impressive round of the tournament,” Tilly said.

Yamawaki’s low round sparked a charge in a downtrodden Cal team which, as previously mentioned, continued to drop strokes after the first 18 holes. While the freshman’s performance is indicative of his self-confidence, the team’s collective courage is beginning to shine.

No. 34 Cal captured fourth place behind only No. 6 Pepperdine, No. 10 Arizona State and Pac-12 foe No. 43 USC. Most importantly for the team, however, the Bears outplayed No. 4 BYU and No. 18 UCLA rival while also taking down rival No. 27 Stanford.

“I think we left the tournament really positive because … it kinda proved something to us that we were able to scoot past quite a few teams after the first round,” Tilly said.

Since men’s golf won’t return to action for nearly a month and will look to continue to carry their sprouting confidence, the team hopes they will stay on the course and play as much as possible.

“Slowly, we’re starting to realize that we can actually be a top 10 team. Even though I think in the beginning of the year there was a lot of speculation and talk around the fact that we were such a young team,” Tilly said. “So, I guess the belief around the team was that we’d be a top 40, top 50 team and struggle a bit. But I think we’re starting to believe we can contend here come late in the season.”

Ethan Waters is an assistant sports editor. Contact him at [email protected].