LAS VEGAS – Justin Suh certainly has a good sense for timing.
The USC junior led by two as he got set to his approach shot out of the left rough Wednesday at Southern Highlands Golf Club’s par-4 14th.
With a 58-degree wedge from 110 yards, Suh launched one right at the flag.
“I saw Kevin (Sverduk, the team’s psychologist) in the back, he lifted his hand up and once he did that, I was like, ‘Oh my god, it has a chance,’ ” Suh said.
The ball landed a few feet short of the hole and rolled right into the cup for a thunderous eagle.
The hole-out would prove to be the kill strike to the rest of the field. Suh fired a 2-under 70 in the final round of the Southern Highlands Collegiate to finish at 8 under overall and earn a two-shot win.
He already entered the event ranked No. 1 in the country. Now, he has a fourth win on the season – and his third in his last four tournaments – adding to his collection a triumph at a loaded Southern Highlands event that is one of the most coveted wins in college golf’s regular season.
Suh’s rise is no mystery, and it didn’t start this season.
The junior began his climb toward the top by sharpening his body and mind last season. As the spring embarked on the 2016-17 campaign, Suh paid more attention to his nutrition and fitness. He’d already put in plenty of time on his mental game with Sverduk, another factor that was paying dividends.
It led to his first college win last spring in what turned out to be an elite second half of the season where few players were better. So moving to No. 1 and earning a bundle of wins this season? It was only a natural progression as he’s continued to work, especially with Sverduk.
“You’re never mastering whatever he’s teaching,” Suh said.
Chris Zambri, USC’s head coach, said Suh worked hard on his short game this offseason, leading to significant improvement around the greens. That has played a part in Suh’s continued jump this season, but clearly the foundation in moving to No. 1 is still his mind.
Simply, the junior just isn’t afraid. At the Nike Collegiate Invite this fall, Suh came to his final hole (the par-4 ninth at Pumpkin Ridge’s Witch Hollow course) with a shot at the title.
Facing an approach shot from the rough and having to get beyond a set of 100-foot tall trees, Suh calmly went right over them and cozied the ball to 7 feet. (He missed the putt and finished in a tie for second, but the shot-making still sizzles.)
“He has no doubt in his game,” said Kaito Onishi, Suh’s freshman teammate. “If he needs to hit a low cut, whatever the trouble is, he would hit a low cut. Whereas other players would be like, ‘Oh I’m scared that a bad thing happens.’ ”
He actually showed off possibly a better piece of shot-making on the hole before his eagle. At the par-5 13th, Suh found the fairway and then went with a high carving slice with his 3-wood (purposely taking some distance off) that he got to land soft and stick on the firm green. The three-putt par that ensued didn’t seem to faze him (See: the following hole).
Zambri has often gushed about how tactically Suh plays, noting last spring that he feels the budding star plays as smart as any other player in college golf.
“He handles things as well as I’ve ever seen for a young college golfer,” Zambri said.
So the win at Southern Highlands is no surprise. Suh finished tied for third here last year, and the exacting layout is known as a thinker’s course where intelligence and patience are paramount.
That plays right into Suh’s hands.
Even if the junior’s mentality is more of the same, he’s had to keep things in focus as his environment has changed.
The 17th-ranked Trojans lost the meat of their lineup heading into 2017-18, with Rico Hoey and Andrew Levitt graduating and Sean Crocker turning pro after his junior season.
Suh is team captain this season, expected to be a leader for a revamped and young squad. (The turnover has also allowed Suh to largely shed his “Boomer” nickname – you can find the backstory here – a development he’s certainly not sad about.)
He’s also had to deal with the expectation of that No. 1 ranking that he has carried for a significant portion of the season.
Suh had a fever this week in Las Vegas, but he brushed that off. Prior to the tournament, though, he didn’t feel in a great place mentally.
Fortunately, Sverduk made the trip to Southern Highlands and prior to the opening round had a 15-minute session with Suh. Sverduk reminded the junior that it’s naturally almost impossible to the avoid thoughts around a No. 1 ranking.
He also noted that it’s no longer a factor once play begins.
“It all kind of goes away once the tournament starts. Once the tournament starts, all that matters is the shot in front of you,” Suh said. “That’s what I did for the whole tournament.”
And it led to another win.
You can throw whatever you want at Justin Suh, he’ll be ready.