Young talents lead Bears in first tournament since March

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All things considered, golf has been accessible to the public during the COVID-19 pandemic. Even as parks remove rims from basketball hoops and goals from soccer fields, golfers have only had to remove rakes from bunkers and ban pulling the flagstick from the hole.

But as for team golf? Well, that’s a whole different story.

As the Bears found out during the Southwestern Invitational — a three-day, 12-team, 54-hole event hosted by Pepperdine from Jan. 25-27 — despite the relatively modest adjustments to the game, returning to a team format brought challenges the squad had not faced since March of last year.

Cal rebounded to sixth place following 36 holes of play after a rocky first round landed it in a tie for eighth. Unfortunately for the Bears, however, they were unable to continue on their upward trend on the third and final day of the invitational. Inclement conditions sent the blue and gold to the second-highest single round score for the tournament (29-over) and the worst score in the final round by 11 strokes, delivering a ninth-place finish.

“Wednesday, it was cold and windy, and I think some were intimidated by the conditions and the golf course.” said Cal’s Alex and Marie Shipman Director of Men’s Golf Walter Chun. “All in all, it exposed a lot of shortcomings we had. We didn’t hit the ball well off the tee; we didn’t manage our ball flight and trajectory with the wind well enough. We left too many putts a good distance from the hole.”

But while Cal didn’t capitalize on the novelty of a new season as a team, freshmen Aaron Du and Sampson Zheng finished first and second, respectively, for the Bears, signaling a new cohesiveness and added talent for the season ahead.

Du finished in a tie for 22nd place at nine-over, and he was the only member of the blue and gold to break par for the tournament, posting a two-under 72 on the second 18 holes.

Zheng was tied with individual champion David Puig of Arizona State for the lowest score on par-three holes for the tournament, finishing even par. He ultimately logged a 12-over tie for 34th place in his first-ever event with the Bears, just three strokes back from fellow newcomer Du.

Now-senior Finigan Tilly, who finished third for the Bears, led the team in the majority of last year’s tournaments, so the addition of freshmen who compete at his level will bolster the blue and gold for years to come. And as the team comes into its own, fans will surely see flashes of their combined ability to go low in 2021.

After all, the Bears didn’t meet as a team until just three weeks before the invitational. The team usually prepares for the spring campaign in the fall, but Cal was forced to compact months of practice into just a matter of days.

“With golf, even though the guys can practice on their own and play in tournaments, not being able to play last fall or even get together as a team, we had to cram everything we could in the three weeks before (the invitational),” Chun said.

In other words, the blue and gold got off to a stumbling start — but what could be expected from launching a team that hadn’t played together in more than ten months into windy, freezing conditions?

With their first tournament of 2021 behind them, it appears the only way to go is up for the Bears.

“As painful as it was to play poorly on Wednesday, they call it growing pains for a reason. We will be a better team because we’ve played in such tough conditions on a tough course,” Chun said. “It just felt really good to be back and compete.”

Ethan Waters covers men’s basketball, men’s golf and women’s golf. Contact him at [email protected]. Follow him on Twitter @ewate1.