College notebook: Home cookin’ for Trojans?
The NCAA Division I Championship goes Hollywood this year, with the best teams in the country descending May 29-June 3 on famed Riviera Country Club in Pacific Palisades, Calif. Host USC needn’t travel far -- “Hogan’s Alley” is only a 25-minute commute. How much of an advantage does that provide the Trojans, being able to venture out as a team to Riviera about once a month?
“Riviera isn’t the kind of place where a ton of teams can just come in, play and get accustomed to it,” USC coach Chris Zambri said this week. “I was out there with two of my guys (who are members) this morning. We’ve really made it a priority for our players to get familiar with the course.”
Of course, any advantage the Trojans might enjoy at NCAAs is negligible if they aren’t playing well. But after a 10th-place finish at the season-opening Prestige at PGA West -- “an anomaly,” Zambri said -- they seem to have found their stride, finishing seventh at the U.S. Collegiate, winning the Gifford Collegiate and battling Texas down the stretch before a runner-up finish at last week’s Amer Ari Invitational in Hawaii. The Trojans moved to No. 4 in the Golfweek/Sagarin College Rankings, one spot behind UCLA.
“I haven’t had many occasions as a coach when we didn’t win and I didn’t really feel any sting,” said Zambri, in his sixth season as USC coach. “I didn’t have any sting (at the Amer Ari) because we played solidly.”
No player was more solid -- particularly down the stretch -- than sophomore Jeffrey Kang, who rallied late in Hawaii and defeated Texas freshman sensation Jordan Spieth in a playoff. After a clutch up-and-down on No. 15 at Waikoloa Beach Resort, Kang hit a wedge to 4 feet on the final hole to force a playoff at 11-under 205 (67-67-69). Kang’s par on the first extra hole was enough to clinch his first individual title.
“We knew that when he made a couple of things better” -- primarily, Kang’s accuracy off the tee -- “the sky was the limit for him,” Zambri said. “It should be a good shot in the arm for him.”
USC is a unique top-5 team in that it has no established star. To hear Zambri, it wouldn’t be a surprise if any of his players finished in the top 5 in a given week. At the Gifford, it was senior Steve Lim’s turn. Last week, it was Kang’s. Soon, it may be time for freshman Anthony Paolucci to break through.
Said Zambri: “We’ve got a lot of guys who are really hungry to be great.”
With the NCAA Championship coming to town, is there a more promising sign than that?
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STEPPING IN: With a 30-under 834 performance at last week’s Amer Ari Invitational, Texas won its fourth consecutive event -- the first time it has accomplished that feat since 2002 -- and left little doubt as to the No. 1 team in the country. The Longhorns, however, will be without the nation’s No. 1-ranked player when they tee it up next.
Jordan Spieth, who has four top-6 finishes in as many starts this season, received a sponsor exemption into the PGA Tour’s Northern Trust Open, on Feb. 16-19. That event, to be held at NCAA Championship venue Riviera, conflicts with the Longhorns’ next tournament, the Puerto Rico Open.
Texas coach John Fields said freshman Kramer Hickok and senior Alex Moon are two candidates to replace Spieth in the lineup.
Said Fields: “We’ve got a couple of really good players sitting in the wings who can help us.”
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SHORT SHOTS: Memphis will join the Big East Conference in all sports, beginning in fall 2013. The Memphis men are No. 41 in the Golfweek/Sagarin College Rankings. . . . T.J. Vogel’s first victory as a Florida Gator, at last week’s JU Invitational, also vaulted him into the top 10 in the Golfweek/Sagarin Rankings. He is the highest-ranked player in the SEC, at No. 7. . . . Despite an ailing right knee, North Florida junior Sean Dale, No. 6 in Golfweek's rankings, is expected to play at this weekend’s Gator Invitational. He was able to compete at the Jones Cup last week, less than a week after withdrawing from the JU Invitational. . . . Oregon slipped from No. 2 to No. 6 in Golfweek's rankings after a 12th-place finish at the Amer Ari Invitational. No Ducks player finished in the top 20 individually.
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A LOOK AHEAD
What: SunTrust Gator Invitational
When: Feb. 11-12
Where: Mark Bostick Golf Course at the University of Florida, Gainesville, Fla.
Why it’s important: All but one of the 12 teams in the field are in the top 100 of the Golfweek/Sagarin College Rankings. The SEC is well represented, with Auburn (No. 2) and Arkansas (No. 9) pacing the field. The Tigers won their season-opening event at the Carpet Capital and have two other runner-up finishes. The Razorbacks have won four times in five starts, and the Gator will mark the first college start for Arkansas freshman Thomas Sorensen. Florida, ranked 33rd and a winner at last week’s JU Invitational, has captured its home event for the past eight years.