SANTA CRUZ, Calif. – A bright cobalt letterman’s jacket hangs in the golf office at San Jose State, but only until April each year. It comes off the hanger then to wait for its wearer at Pasatiempo Golf Club.
A letterman’s jacket, head coach John Kennaday reasons, is the quintessential symbol of college athletics. In early April, the green jacket is the quintessential sign of golf. Since the TransAmerica/WFG Western Intercollegiate and the Masters share the same dates, on Alister Mackenzie layouts separated by thousands of miles, Kennaday thought it the perfect tribute to the Western winner.
“It’s completely a play on the Masters,” Kennaday said.
It’s also one of the unique images of the Western, the longest-running college tournament west of the Mississippi River. College golf has gathered here since 1947 to battle tricky Mackenzie green complexes with a backdrop of Monterey Bay. The event was televised nationally in 1996, when San Jose State’s Arron Oberholser outplayed Stanford’s Joel Kribel and Tiger Woods over the final nine holes. This year, San Jose State players crowded around big-screen TVs in the Pasatiempo clubhouse, watching as Oberholser provided color commentary for the Masters.
That’s another lasting image from the Western – crowds of players huddled in masses to watch the season’s first major. Said Kennaday, “The Masters timing with this has been a unique and unexpected gain.” Because of it, the practice facilities are strangely empty for a late-season college event.
The Western Intercollegiate is the last regular-season event for many teams in this field. It’s play-six-count-five format mirrors that of the Pac-12 Championship, and the setup is just as unique. Foursomes are made up of two players from each team, so coaches can hover over three holes and see all their men play.
The Western Intercollegiate’s past champions list is predictably distinguished. It’s dotted with Tour players such as Arron Oberholser (San Jose State), Mark O’Meara (Long Beach State), Johnny Miller (BYU) and perhaps most legendary, Ken Venturi. The latter, who died last May, played for San Jose State in the early 1950s, and is part of the Spartans’ strong bond to Pasatiempo. Kennaday, who shared a close bond with Venturi, hopes to honor him in some way during the tournament. Already, the tournament’s prestige goes a long way in that. Venturi won in 1951 and ’53.
“You look at the names on the board, and you want to add your name,” Kennaday says of the list of Western Intercollegiate winners. Four of the top 20 programs in Golfweek‘s rankings are in the 14-team field this week. In filling that field, Kennaday also looks for the coaches and teams who bring the right sort of character to Santa Cruz.
Most are itching to return for the chance to test themselves at Pasatiempo – and enjoy the views. Standing on the first tee on tournament eve as his players prepared to play a practice round, California head coach Steve Desimone was overcome by course and setting. The Western was victory No. 9 last season for a Cal team that won a historic 11 times, which makes Pasatiempo home of an especially fond memory.
“This is as good as it gets in college golf,” Desimone said.
Desimone pointed to a heavy fog that hung over Monterey Bay in the distance, predicting it would slide east for a 36-hole day on Saturday and test players with windy conditions.
“You never can play this course enough,” Desimone said. All of his players have competed on Pasatiempo before arriving this week, but he predicts there are still some nuances that will throw a curveball.
Texas head coach John Fields, whose team won this tournament in 2012 before winning a national title two months later, played Pasatiempo as a collegian in 1976.
“Started developing an appreciation for this place right then and there,” he said.
Fields already has warned this year’s team that by today’s standards, Pasatiempo’s length (a seemingly short 6,500 yards that plays to a par 70) is not a good indicator of course strength. The course demands placement and precision, and provides a good education for Fields’ team.
The Western has stood the test of time in large part because of Pasatiempo – not only a challenging track but also a neutral site.
“There are a few events that hold a tremendous stature in college golf,” Fields said. He places Pasatiempo with tournaments played at Olympia Fields outside Chicago and Isleworth Country Club in Windermere, Fla.
Stanford’s Patrick Rodgers, Golfweek‘s top-ranked player in the field and No. 1 in the World Amateur Golf Ranking, won here in 2012, which was a feat, he remembers, because birdies are so hard to come by here.
“I was just a freshman, and it seems like just yesterday but I was a different player and such a different person back then,” said Rodgers, who plays his last regular-season event as a collegian this week. “… I was thinking how I was going to prepare for this week, and it really tests every aspect of your game. You have to be sharp in all area of your game.”
Rodgers is the only past champion in this field, and is reminded of its prestige when he catches a glimpse of the blue jacket in his closet.
“To be on a list of champions that is so storied in the game – not just college golf but in the game of golf – is pretty special.”