Toreros on the rise with Mickelson at the helm

Tim Mickelson is in his seventh season at San Diego.

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San Diego coach Tim Mickelson was hanging around one of the university’s more popular study areas when he answered his cell phone Monday afternoon.

“I’m talking to you at our school pool,” said Mickelson, whose team will face Texas Tech on Sunday in the first round of the Callaway Collegiate Match Play Championship.

“It’s 80 degrees, and the students are just laying out doing homework at the pool – in the middle of March.”

Seven years ago, Mickelson couldn’t have pictured a better scenario: Sitting poolside on a picture-perfect day talking to a golf magazine about his top-25 team and his steadily growing recruiting pool.

San Diego finished the 2003-04 season, Mickelson’s first as head coach, at No. 170 in the Golfweek/Sagarin College Rankings. As of this week, the senior-less Toreros, building off the momentum from an appearance at last year’s NCAA Championship, are No. 25, their highest ranking ever. It’s just one of the signs that Mickelson’s slow-and-steady game plan is working.

Another sign: As far as the classes of 2010 and 2011, Mickelson said he is starting to talk to the same recruits as historical college golf powerhouses Oklahoma State, Stanford and USC.

“We’re getting those kids to visit campus and (getting) on their radar,” said Mickelson, a top recruit himself at Arizona State, where he helped the Sun Devils to a national championship in 1996 before transferring to Oregon State his senior year.

“Seven years ago, I couldn’t get a kid in the top 200 to return a letter.”

A look at the rankings

San Diego’s season-ending rankings over the past seven seasons:

2010: 25 *

2009: 59

2008: 75

2007: 78

2006: 92

2005: 117

2004: 170

  • *Current ranking

Actually, Mickelson walked away from his first interview for the San Diego job thinking he wouldn’t return. He had explained to the athletic director what he wanted to do with the program, but that “with the resources I was going to be given, there was no way to be successful.”

A couple of small compromises later, Mickelson, who had spent the prior two seasons as an assistant at nearby San Diego State, became the first full-time coach in school history.

And so the slow climb, full of fundraising and expectation-raising, had begun.

“The plan was to try to set things up so we could continue to move in the right direction for a long period of time,” said Mickelson, “for as long as I stay coaching and hopefully longer for the program.”

Over the subsequent years, Mickelson’s allotment of scholarships grew from 1 1/2 to 2 1/2, to 3, to 3 1/2, until it finally got to the NCAA-allowed number of 4 1/2. He said he wanted to set up a program that was financially smart, recruiting “two or three players every year, so not to have to find six recruits in one year.”

The Toreros’ ranking followed a similar path (see chart), jumping from 170th at the end of the 2003-04 season to 78th at the end of 2006-07, then to No. 59 last season.

In his third season, Mickelson guided San Diego to its first NCAA postseason berth. “That really signified we were going in the right direction,” he said.

San Diego has won several tournaments since, including four this season over strong fields, along with its first-ever conference championship two years ago. The Toreros have made NCAA regionals three of the past four seasons, highlighted by last year’s 13th-place finish at the NCAA Championship.

“The cool thing about it,” Mickelson said, “is that it’s exactly what we’ve envisioned: steady progress for a long period of time.”

He said he has done his best to run things like a top-25 program, by taking airplanes to tournaments, for example, and finding a course (San Diego Country Club) where his players can get memberships. A plan to build an on-campus short-game facility with an indoor teaching center, locker room, lounge and workout area also is in the works, once Mickelson can raise enough money.

“With the economy, it’s been a little difficult to fundraise lately, but with our success it has become easier,” he said.

More important might be how Mickelson has accomplished all this success, without a single huge-name recruit in the lineup.

His highest-ranked player this season lineup is Kenneth McCready at No. 82. Alex Ching, a player Mickelson considers probably his biggest-name recruit to date, is next at No. 139.

The team

The Toreros’ roster (by Golfweek/Sagarin Ranking)

  • 82. Kenneth McCready
  • 139. Alex Ching
  • 145. Scott Brace
  • 190. Jason Shano
  • 285. Ben Murray
  • 307. Gunner Wiebe
  • 434. Joseph Harrison
  • 994. Leon Knoll

“(San Diego) wasn’t a big name that stuck out to me as a kid in high school,” said Ching, who won the Optimist International his junior year. “But I knew USD was an upcoming program (and) I wasn’t recruited by big-name schools. . . . Me and Tim really got along, and I felt like I could trust him with my swing, my game, personal problems, anything.”

Of course, it helps to be “10 minutes from the beach, up on a hill so it overlooks the entire Mission Beach and Pacific Beach as well,” said Ching, who grew up in Hawaii and played on the same high school team as Michelle Wie.

But Mickelson cautions that the private school’s high academic standards make recruiting a little more demanding than getting a suntan.

Not that he doesn’t like the forecast, this week and for the future.

“If you go back to where we started, no one was coming to the school with the idea of playing professional golf,” he said. “We’re now at that point where their vision is to be on the PGA Tour but also get a good education.”

In his second year on the job, Mickelson once heard of another player from a conference rival remarking that USD might be in the same conference, but “really isn’t a Division I” program.

Now Mickelson, the younger brother of Phil Mickelson, could be in the running to sign the next Phil Mickelson.

• • •

DROUGHT OVER FOR ’HUSKERS: Nebraska, currently 90th in the Golfweek/Sagarin College Rankings, won its first team title in nearly four years this week at the Jackrabbit Invitational at Primm Valley Golf Club’s Desert Course.

It was a runaway for the Cornhuskers in both the team and individual races, with Nebraska beating runner-up Arkansas State by 15 shots and Cornhuskers senior Brandon Crick (69-70-68) winning his fourth career individual title by five shots over Kyle Peterman of Western Illinois.

The round of the tournament, however, belonged to Crick’s teammate Brett Nymeyer, who followed a second-round 81 with a tournament-best 5-under 67 that included consecutive eagles at Primm’s back-to-back par-5s, Nos. 7 and 8.

• • •

A look ahead

What: Callaway Match Play Championship

When: March 19-21

Where: Ritz-Carlton Golf Club, Dove Mountain, Marana, Ariz.

Why it’s important: What’s not to love here? Sixteen of the best teams in the nation going head-to-head like we’ll see in the finals of the NCAA Championship (see video). And it’s at Dove Mountain, home of the PGA Tour’s annual match-play event. Best thing to root for here is an upset winner, which will only add further curiosity to May’s finale.







What: Schenkel E–Z–GO Invitational

When: March 19-21

Where: Forest Heights Country Club, Statesboro, Ga.

Why it’s important: Six teams in the top 30 (Florida, 8; South Carolina, 13; Alabama, 24; Virginia, 26; LSU, 27; Tennessee, 28) of the Golfweek/Sagarin College Rankings, and eight (N.C. State, 36; Auburn, 49) in the top 50. Most interesting storyline might be the Florida Gators trying to prove that they belong among the top teams in the country.

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