Strong field fits history of Western Intercollegiate
SANTA CRUZ, Calif. – If you could pull your eyes away from the stunning view off Pasatiempo’s first tee on Friday morning – one that, on a clear day, stretches to the Monterey Bay – a glance to the right revealed a 20-feet-tall electronic scoreboard. To the left, players milled about the putting green, preparing for the practice round. It’s Transamerica/WFG Western Intercollegiate week in Santa Cruz.
Rarely does a college event find a consistent home and date for more than half a century, but this year marks the 67th anniversary of the Western. It’s the oldest college tournament on the West Coast, and it carries a deep history. The past-champions list is 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 played for tournament host San Jose State in the early 1950s, and is part of the Spartans’ strong bond to Pasatiempo, a highly acclaimed (and highly challenging) Alister MacKenzie design.
“I don’t know an older golf tournament with a richer tradition,” said John Kennaday, San Jose State head coach. “Some of our champions have done some pretty exceptional things in the game.”
The Western Intercollegiate debuted in 1947, and was a match-play event for the first 11 years. Length of playing history aside, here’s perhaps the best nugget about the Western: It was once broadcast live, nationwide, on ESPN.
Consider that this is a college tournament, then let that sink in.
Not to disappoint, viewers got their TV introduction to the Western in 1996 as Oberholser, the last San Jose State player to win this event, shot a back-nine 30 to overtake the Stanford duo of Joel Kribel (who won the following year) and Tiger Woods. It was worthy theater.
This week’s 14-team field includes top-ranked Cal and four more in Golfweek’s top 10. Many coaches make it a staple on their competition schedule. With the Pac-12 Championship two weeks away, the field and the format provides a fitting late-season event for teams in that conference. The Western is a play-6-count-5 format, like the Pac-12s. Here, foursomes consist of two players from one team, two players from another team. It allows a coach to cover just a hole and a half.
“It adds another dimension,” Kennaday said of the format.
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SHORT, BUT WITH TEETH: The worst mistake a player can make at Pasatiempo is reading too much into the scorecard. The course tips out at just more than 6,500 yards and plays to a par 70. It doesn’t say much about what awaits.
Designed in 1929 by MacKenzie, Pasatiempo puts a premium on accuracy. Heavy Bay Area air means short yardages go right out the window, and large greens are surrounded by extensive bunkering.
As USC head coach Chris Zambri said, “It’s legendary here in California.”
Perhaps that’s one reason the tournament has survived at this venue for so long. UC Irvine head coach Paul Smolinski guesses his team hasn’t missed more than one or two Westerns since he began coaching in 1998.
“This is my favorite college tournament,” Smolinski said. “It’s a different kind of golf because the greens are so severe. It’s a different brand of golf than what we’re used to seeing.”
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PART OF HISTORY: Stanford’s Patrick Rodgers returns to defend his Western Intercollegiate individual title this week. Not surprisingly, he brings good memories back to Pasatiempo.
“I think it just really suits my game,” Rodgers said. “You have to be really mentally disciplined. It just tests all areas of your game.”
For Rodgers, the week is about the bigger picture: Playing a classic course, watching the Masters with his Stanford teammates, being a part of tradition.
“I know this event is pretty unique in college golf with all the history.”
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WATCHING WEAVER: Top-ranked Cal is the only team in the field with a player in this year's Masters. Redshirt junior Michael Weaver earned his invitation to Augusta courtesy of his runner-up finish at the U.S. Amateur. He is the first Golden Bear to play the Masters while on the Cal roster.
Weaver’s absence means two things for the Golden Bears. First, with head coach Steve Desimone in Augusta this week, assistant coach Walter Chun has the early-week reins. Desimone plans to arrive Saturday afternoon as Weaver is likely to miss the cut.
Because six players can play for the team score at the Western, two more players got a chance to play Pasatiempo. Added to this week’s lineup: freshmen James Yoon (three starts this season) and Walker Huddy (two previous starts).
Cal is playing for its ninth victory this season, chasing the 10-victory record set by Oklahoma State during the 1985-86 season. The Golden Bears last won this event in 1950.
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RETURNING AS A COACH: Had Tim Mickelson been able to finish one spot higher on the 2000 Western Intercollegiate leaderboard, it would have been the fourth consecutive top-10 finish of his senior year at Oregon State. Alas, the streak ended at Pasatiempo.
Mickelson, now head coach at Arizona State, is on the other side of the game. The Western is one of a handful of tournaments at which he’s experienced that reversal.
“I don’t remember if I bogeyed the last hole or not but I just remember that I played very conservative around the entire golf course – off the tee, around the greens,” Mickelson said. “I basically am telling my guys the same thing I remember being told, which is you’re better off on the front edge or short of the green than you are 10, 15 feet above the hole in many spots.”