LOS ANGELES – Want proof that you don’t need a high-dollar practice facility on campus to excel as a college golf program? Look no further than USC.
Since Chris Zambri took over head-coaching duties in 2006, the Trojans have consistently been one of the top teams in men’s college golf despite not having an on-campus course or range. USC players have a nice collection of local courses they can play, including Riviera Country Club, but it’s not always easy to reach them because of Los Angeles traffic and course schedules.
Instead, Zambri and associate head coach Justin Silverstein make use of what they have – two golf simulators, an indoor putting green, an outside green with a bunker, and the baseball and practice football fields – and an effective testing system that lets coaches and players know where certain aspects of each player’s game stands. Those tests include putting, ballstriking and bunker play, and Zambri collects data on notepads before inputting the info into his computer; he’s done this since the 2009-10 season.
“I could get a freshman and in 30 minutes know if this guy needs to work on his bunker play or his putting stroke, instead of waiting three months to collect data from tournaments,” Zambri said. “It’s great to have something to compare and a way to express to the guys where they stand with certain parts of their game.”
Junior Justin Suh is known as “The Model” because he takes full advantage of the Trojans’ on-campus practice options. Suh finished last season ranked 26th in the nation individually, a product of him buying into the USC way in L.A.
“These tests and drills that we do give us an advantage,” Suh said. “We’re never just beating balls. … Every time we practice as a team, we’re competing, and that’s something that Zambri has us doing every day.
“We never have a ball that doesn’t matter during practice.”
Who: Justin Suh
School: USC (junior)
Hometown: San Jose, Calif.
Credentials: Finished last season ranked 26th by Golfweek as he compiled six top-10s, including a victory at the Western Intercollegiate. … Tied for 19th at the 2017 NCAA Championship, a year after sharing 10th at the 2016 championship.
Who: Chris Zambri and Justin Silverstein
Credentials: Zambri-coached USC teams have advanced to match play four times (including the last three seasons) at the NCAA Championship and won four Pac-12 Championships. Jamie Lovemark won the 2007 NCAA individual title under Zambri. … Silverstein, who played and coached at Arizona, was hired as an assistant for the USC women’s team in 2012 and switched to the men’s side in 2016. … USC finished last season ranked second in the Golfweek/Sagarin rankings.
Staying on line
For players that have access to a golf simulator (pictured at right), the extreme line test is a good measurement of one’s ballstriking ability.
The test uses 2- through 9-irons, and players hit 20 shots, alternating among the clubs. (The order is 7-iron, 3, 8, 4, 9, 5, 8, 4, 7, 3, 6, 2, 7, 3, 8, 4, 9, 5, 8, 4.) After each shot a record is made of how many yards offline the ball flew. After 20 shots, the yardage is totaled. The USC record low is 43, achieved by Rico Hoey last season.
“It shows you what your misses are and what you’re bad throughout the bag for your irons,” Suh said. “For me, freshman year, my short irons were really good, but with my long irons I always struggled to consistently hit it on the line. That’s what the test points out, that you’re not as good of a ballstriker as you think you are.”
When Zambri’s players miss putts, it’s not always because the stroke is bad. To determine if the stroke is indeed the culprit, Zambri has players take what he calls the 10-putt test (pictured at left).
This test consists of 10 4-footers, all on the same straight line. Zambri stands behind the hole, straight away from the player, and scores each putt. A putt that drops in the center of the hole receives three points, a putt that goes in on either side gets two points, and one point is given for a putt that catches the lip and drops. A missed putt is zero points.
If a player scores fewer than 25 out of a possible 30 points, then Zambri knows that player needs to address something in his stroke.
USC’s creativity shows in the short- and mid-random tests, which are done either on the practice football field or in the outfield of the baseball stadium.
Suh especially benefits from the mid-random test, which tests a player’s ability to hit a certain yardage between 90 and 135 yards.
“It’s so key in playing well in these tournaments, because that’s your striking zone, that’s where you make birdies,” Suh said.
As Suh hits from a mat near the right-field foul pole, Zambri stands out in the outfield with a rangefinder and his notepad. He’ll use the rangefinder to get a yardage, then challenge his player to hit it right at him. Like the extreme line test, players are scored by how close they are to the target.
“I stand there and hope he hits me,” Zambri said as Suh fired a wedge shot at him. “… Then I’ll move.”
Playing in the sand
Behind the centerfield wall at USC’s baseball stadium sits a practice green with a bunker where the Trojans do another test.
Like many of the other tests, players try to hit shots as close to the target as possible. Players hit 15 bunker shots, 12 to the closer top part of the green and three to the far bottom-left part of the green.
Zambri stands with a long PVC pipe, which serves as both a flagstick and a measuring device. A player gets two throw-out shots, while the other 13 are totaled up in inches. A good score is 650 or fewer inches – an average of just more than 4 feet for the 13 balls. The best score was by Sam Smith, who totaled just 349 inches, an average of just over 2 feet.
(Note: This story appeared in the September issue of Golfweek; all photos by Kelvin Kuo/USA TODAY Sports Photos)