BURLINGTON, Iowa – The last time it took the Cal men’s golf team so long to arrive at a tournament? The Topy Cup, 11 years ago. That tournament is in Japan, though. This time, the Bears were traveling from the Pacific Coast to Middle America. It was supposed to be an easy trip.
The Bears didn’t arrive in Iowa until 10 p.m. Friday, though. This after most of the team woke up at 4:30 a.m. Pacific to meet at the house of head coach Steve Desimone. A delayed flight out of San Francisco led to a missed connection out of Chicago’s O’Hare Airport. After sitting in Chicago traffic, the Bears made the approximately three-hour drive to Moline, Ill., to collect their baggage. Then it was another 90 minutes to Burlington.
“I thought the day was never going to end,” Desimone said after Saturday’s practice round. “There were a lot of yawns today.”
Cal’s first trip to the Midwest this season went much more smoothly. It ended in a 12-shot victory at Michigan’s Wolverine Intercollegiate. The Bears will have to play well to repeat that feat. Arkansas, Oklahoma State and Georgia Tech promise to be stern competition at the Golfweek Conference Challenge, which starts Sunday.
The Bears (No. 20 in Golfweek’s preseason rankings), Razorbacks (9), Cowboys (8) and Yellow Jackets (4) figure to be the four favorites.
Cal has a new-look lineup, with three players who didn’t play last season. Michael Kim is a freshman, Pace Johnson a transfer and long-hitting Brandon Hagy is coming off a redshirt season.
“It’s our turn now,” said Hagy, who won last year’s New Year’s Invitational with a final-hole eagle to beat first-team All-American Bank Vongvanij by a shot.
Like California, Arkansas opened its season with a victory, at the Gopher Invitational. The Razorbacks returned their top three players from last season – Western Amateur champion Ethan Tracy, Denmark’s Sebastian Cappelen and Austin Cook, who ended his freshman season with a 10th-place finish at the NCAA Championship.
Cappelen is a long, aggressive player with all the physical gifts. He twice beat Russell Henley, a member of this year’s Walker Cup team, in singles play at this year’s Palmer Cup. The Razorbacks will add Denmark’s Thomas Sorensen, the Danish Amateur champion, in the spring season.
None of Oklahoma State’s three first-team All-Americans from last season is in Iowa. Kevin Tway and Morgan Hoffmann turned pro. Peter Uihlein is back in Stillwater, Okla. But the Cowboys still are contenders. They finished second at the Olympia Fields/Fighting Illini Invitational despite little help from Uihlein. His score counted toward the team total in just one of the three rounds.
Georgia Tech also has several newcomers in the lineup, including freshmen Anders Albertson and Oliver Schniederjans, who paced the Yellow Jackets to a third-place finish at the Carpet Capital. The two freshmen started attending Tech and practicing with the team in January, which helped ease their transition to college golf. The Yellow Jackets are relieved to have one familiar face back in their lineup: first-team All-American James White. He failed to qualify for the Carpet Capital, but shot 66-68-65 in the team’s qualifier at Golf Club of Georgia to earn his spot at the Conference Challenge.
“I played really well, so that got me really excited about my game again,” White said. “But that’s totally different than here. Now we’re in Iowa.”
It was a long trip for some teams, especially Cal, to arrive in the Hawkeye State. Leaving with a trophy would make it all worthwhile.