Walter Chun had waited over a year for this moment. But he didn’t want to relax.
His California Bears squad was cruising to the Alister MacKenzie Invitational title, marking Chun’s first victory as Cal head coach.
But Steve Desimone, Chun’s predecessor and mentor, had taught him that their players needed to have a killer instinct.
So when Desimone messaged Chun that he could probably chalk up that win now, his successor wasn’t ready to pat himself on the back.
Chun’s response: I learned a long time ago that I need to keep teaching these guys to be cold-blooded assassins.
Those “assassins” never hesitated. The Bears closed out a 17-shot win Oct. 10 at the Alister MacKenzie, a Cal home event played at Meadow Club in Fairfax, Calif. Cal went wire-to-wire and finished the week 41 under. (Oh, and Bears junior K.K. Limbhasut medaled at 15 under.)
Chun had expected he’d meet his wife, Grace, and two children, 5-year-old William and 2-year-old Lena, at their home in San Ramon – the roughly 90-minute drive to Meadow Club in Fairfax isn’t exactly appealing with a pair of young kids in the car – but the head coach got a surprise.
His family was right there to greet him when he finished.
“It’s like when you see on the PGA Tour, someone wins and the kids come running onto the putting green,” Chun said, with a chuckle.
Talk about a special first win.
As for his Cal family, Desimone couldn’t make it – the smoky air that arrived via forest fires nearby would’ve been too much for his asthma. Desimone was disappointed at his unplanned absence, he’d actually purposely scheduled an upcoming vacation to Tahiti with wife Linda for right after the home event in order to attend, but he was certainly enjoying his protege’s success.
Desimone is one of college golf’s legends: a man who built Cal from scratch, led the program to a national title and made the Bears one of the country’s premier golf teams in his 37-year tenure as head coach.
Chun, 38, took over last season after Desimone retired with that legacy looming. Three key players redshirted (either to focus on getting into Cal’s business school or due to injury). That led to a difficult 2016-17 campaign that saw the Bears fail to qualify for Regionals. Prior to the Alister MacKenzie, Chun had never come close to winning as head coach.
“When your best finish after 14 tournaments is fifth place, I think it’s human nature to think, ‘What’s going on here?’ ” Chun said.
Could Chun handle following a legend? What if the transition was too much?
Desimone never doubted Chun’s aptitude. After all, the man who led Cal for nearly four decades pegged Chun as the program’s biggest overachiever.
It took Desimone a year to figure out whether he actually wanted Chun at Cal. Before Chun’s days as Desimone’s assistant coach and then associate head coach (roles he filled from 2004-09 and 09-16, respectively), he was just another one of his players.
And seemingly not good enough for Cal. Desimone cut Chun from the team twice during his redshirt first season in 1997-98. The seasoned head coach told Chun frankly, he would need to go home to Memphis that summer, find the best instructor in the city and work relentlessly if he had any chance of making next year’s team.
Chun listened, but Desimone had to pare down his roster, and as the summer wound down, he cut him a third time. Always respectful, Chun was dejected but adamant he could make an impact on this team. Desimone leveled with him: OK, go play in the California State Fair Men’s Amateur Championship and call me after when you finish.
Chun placed in the top 12, beating several members of the Cal roster. He phoned Desimone as promised.
“He told me, ‘I deserve a spot on this team. What are you going to do about it?’ ” Desimone said.
Unfortunately the 12-man roster was still full. But Desimone was so impressed that he called up his superior to beseech for another spot just for Chun. The request was granted and they went from there.
Chun would spend five years on the team, becoming a two-time team captain, before his long tenure coaching under Desimone.
But his boss’ health had increasingly failed him near the end of his tenure, and, as Golf Channel recently revealed, Desimone was diagnosed with multiple myeloma, a metastatic cancer, in March 2016. He’s since gone into remission and is currently in the maintenance stage.
Desimone still takes two chemotherapy drugs, velcade and revlimid, but his treatment is certainly scaled back from what it originally was. He estimates himself at 75-80 percent of normal and he’s started playing golf again.
The situation doesn’t remain ideal, but it is progressing.
“It’s been a little up and down,” Chun said. “But he’s doing well. He’s off to Tahiti, so it can’t be that bad!”
Desimone certainly doesn’t seem fazed. In fact, he may be more concerned with GT. That would be Golfstat Torture, a term he trotted out to describe the anguish of trying to keep track of his old team’s progress remotely.
Trying to keep up with the team’s closing in on its first win only made his GT worse.
“I was a caged animal (following that on Golfstat). My wife wanted to get the hose and just shoot it on me and cool me off,” Desimone said, with a laugh.
The nerves are understandable. A mentor wants to see his successor thrive. Desimone also has let go control of a program that he had headed since 1979 (the team had lost varsity status, but would be reinstated with Desimone’s help in 1982). It’s one he has promised (and delivered) on self-funding, with the $12 million target for endowment – meaning the program would be fully funded – still to be reached.
There’s also the contender status Cal has earned in the college golf. Desimone had openly stated Chun was his preferred successor, but the jump to head coaching duties can be daunting.
When Desimone was in charge, Chun was free to be the friendly coach while the head man could “scare the lights out of” players, as former Cal golfer Max Homa put it.
His sophomore year, Homa engaged in a casual football game with friends and tore a ligament in his left ankle. With Regionals looming, his coaches were pissed.
Homa was ushered into a meeting with Desimone and Chun and expected the head coach to chew him out. Instead, Desimone indicated he was too tired and mad for too long that day to yell at Homa. He turned to Chun to light into his injured player.
It didn’t have quite the same effect.
“It was hard at the time not to laugh because I’ve never seen Walter like that. It just didn’t seem like him,” said Homa, who’s serving as a Cal volunteer assistant this season. “I’m sure he’s gotten better at being a little scarier.”
Chun has, out of necessity.
Yes he remains supportive, but Head Coach Chun has had to do the dirty work: Respond to an angry parent, suspend a player if he’s not meeting the standards, punish the team when someone messes up.
Not pleased with his squad last season after a 14th-place showing at the Querencia Cabo Collegiate, Chun had the players run sprints on the beach prior to leaving for their flight home the day after the tournament.
“I need them to know that I’m not their buddy,” Chun said. “I’m more the authoritative figure now.”
Chun doesn’t have Desimone’s ability to “erupt like a volcano,” but he’s known as a captivating speaker. Collin Morikawa, who finished solo ninth at 9 under at Meadow Club, remembers well a fired-up pep talk Chun made ahead of a match last season at the Cypress Point Classic.
“I don’t know if I could repeat some of (what he said),” Morikawa said, with a laugh.
It’s early in the season, but Cal sits at No. 17 in the Golfweek/Sagarin College rankings – after finishing 2016-17 at 74th.
The return of the redshirts (among those are Limbhasut) has keyed into Cal’s quick jump back up. And clearly Chun’s comfort has grown in the head coaching role.
As always with Cal, though, fundraising remains a key indicator of program health.
The program’s annual fundraiser, the Cal Golf Tournament, took place just under a month ago. The 38th annual event usually boasts a minimum of 130 sign-ups, so Chun was nervous when heading into the 2017 edition he had secured just 90.
The numbers didn’t quite stack up, but the fundraising did. The event garnered over $200,000 in donations, and that fundraising total was among the top five in Cal Golf Tournament history.
“It crystallized for me that I’m still getting tremendous support,” Chun said.
Now that Chun has the first win monkey off his back, can he build on it?
The Bears return to action Sunday at the Tavistock Collegiate Invitational, an event where the team finished 15th (a.k.a. dead last) in 2016. This week could be a nice early test on their true progress.
The best news for Cal is that Chun has understood the role of winning as a team for two decades.
The 38-year-old only passed through qualifying for two events in the 1998-99 season – his first non-redshirt year as a player. Desimone rarely deviated from qualifying (at least before the postseason comes into view), and yet on both those occasions he didn’t put Chun in the starting roster.
The Bears won both events. Rather than stew, Chun came into his coach’s office after the first victory and told Desimone that with the team winning, he made the right call to keep him home.
Desimone was floored.
When Chun repeated that message after the second win, Desimone became even more incredulous.
“When do you hear that? You don’t!” Desimone said. “I’m saying, ‘Who is this guy?’ ”
Two decades later, he views that guy as another son.
Before Chun had a shot at his first win, he had to try his best just to keep the tournament on track. The smoky air meant a potential shortening of the event in the name of player safety. The golfers actually played in carts for the first 36 holes on Oct. 9.
But by the middle of that day, the smoke had cleared out. In a strange omen, that help came from a breeze the opposite of the course’s prevailing wind.
Even more promising were the comments Chun read from players after the win, quotes that confirmed everybody is in on his post-Desimone path.
“It hit home that what I’m doing for them, they appreciate it and value me is as a coach,” Chun said.
The transition from Desimone’s right-hand man to the boss has been swift. But with what Chun is seeing from his players, maybe Cal’s continued jump will be as well.
“These guys are starting to sense that they can be contenders,” Chun said.
Sounds like the cold-blooded message is seeping in.