Cal looking to finish off perfect season
Behind the scenes with the Cal men's golf team
Our Sean Martin snapped a few pictures during a recent trip to Northern California to visit with the undefeated Cal men's golf team.
Behind the scenes: Cal men's golf
BERKELEY, Calif. -- California men’s golf coach Steve Desimone loves numbers. He compiles detailed statistics at the start of each season to objectively measure his players’ performance, especially in the short game. Such frank assessments have been key to the Golden Bears’ development into the nation’s No. 1 team.
“Knowing the numbers is what it’s all about,” Desimone (pronounced DEZ-ih-moan) said. “They say, Look, whether you like it or not, here’s your game. You can resist all you want, but you resist at your own peril.”
There’s one number that has carried extra significance during Desimone’s 34 years as coach: Zero.
That’s the amount of direct funding the men’s golf team receives from its university. The team must raise its own funds for scholarships, coaches’ pay, travel and recruiting. That obstacle is overcome by the program’s enthusiastic leader, a former Cal basketball player who started as the volunteer coach when golf was just a club sport.
The Bears, in spite of humble beginnings, won the NCAA title in 2004 and are favorites this spring after winning all five of their fall starts. Their quest for a perfect season resumes Jan. 28-29 at the Arizona Intercollegiate in Tucson.
Cal’s strength is its depth. Desimone said he seeks humble high-achievers, the type who are amenable to constructive criticism and able to thrive in Cal’s challenging academic environment. He found that with his 2009 recruiting class, which included Brandon Hagy, Max Homa and Michael Weaver.
“There are times you know you have some special players,” Desimone said. “I believed right from the start that all three of those guys had special qualities: the character, the personality, the desire, the commitment. You don’t know if they have the DNA. You don’t know if they have the God-given talent, but in terms of building a great player, the components were all there.”
Hagy, Homa and Weaver have improved throughout their careers and are in the top 25 of the Golfweek/Sagarin College Rankings, joining sophomore Michael Kim, who is the nation’s No. 2 player. Hagy and Weaver were semifinalists at last summer’s U.S. Amateur. They have another common bond: Both are enrolled in Cal’s Haas School of Business, the nation’s No. 3 undergraduate business school, according to U.S. News & World Report.
“I think we all realized early on what our weaknesses were,” said Weaver, the 2012 U.S. Amateur runner-up. “(Desimone) doesn’t sugar-coat things. He’s not trying to beat you down, but he’s going to tell you exactly what he thinks.”
Former Cal player Peter Tomasulo calls Desimone a “father figure.” Junior Joel Stalter said his coach is “always enthusiastic and always very positive.” There’s one area where Desimone won’t compromise: the importance of the short game. Cal’s first private practice facility, at Oakland’s Metropolitan Golf Links, was a short-game area that opened in 2007.
“He gets guys who are willing to work hard,” Tomasulo said. “He doesn’t go straight off the AJGA’s who’s-who list.”
Tomasulo was the last player to make it through walk-on tryouts in his freshman year. He redshirted that first year, but by his fifth season was the No. 1 player on the Bears’ 2004 NCAA title team.
Desimone, 64, hikes the steep hills of Santa Rosa’s Mayacama Golf Club on a recent January afternoon, eager to assess his team in its first practice back from the holiday break. Mayacama’s 15th tee is the perfect place to reflect on a career. The tee stands some 100 feet above the fairway, affording panoramic views of the Northern California countryside.
Desimone is a detailed storyteller, easily recalling decades-old minutiae. He uses his trademark phrase, “Holy Toledo,” multiple times when reflecting on a program that repeatedly has defied odds.
“This program was founded on people giving back, caring and believing,” he said. That includes Desimone, who’d never played golf until his Beta Theta Pi fraternity brothers coaxed him onto the course. He played 11 consecutive days after that first 36-hole day at an executive course at Oakland’s Lake Chabot.
Upon enlisting in the Navy, he became a good amateur golfer during a 19-month stay at Pearl Harbor, where he played basketball and baseball for the Submarine Force U.S. Pacific Fleet. “I was a jock,” he said. He’d do clerical work until noon, then play golf until team practice or games.
He returned to Cal in 1972 to finish his history degree – his thesis was entitled “The Rise and Fall of the Athenian Empire” – and work as the athletic director, basketball coach and on the admissions board at The College Preparatory School in Oakland.
The Cal golf team, which began in 1912, was dropped as an intercollegiate sport in 1979, along with men’s volleyball and wrestling. Bill Manning, the university’s director of recreation and intramural sports, was one of Desimone’s regular golf partners. He asked Desimone to coach the school’s club golf team.
The first fundraising tournament featured 53 players at nearby Orinda Country Club and netted $5,500. Donated 25-pound bags of produce were offered as first-place prizes. Former Northern California Golf Association president Frank Brunk, a famed Cal alum who returned a kickoff 102 yards for a touchdown against USC that helped secure Cal’s spot in the 1950 Rose Bowl, turned to Desimone after the tournament and said, “You know, Steve, I think we’re on to something.”
Desimone started as a volunteer coach with a $2,500 budget in 1980. Golf was reinstated as a varsity sport in 1982 after the program showed it could be self-sufficient. Cal finished more than 170 shots out of first place in its first conference championship after reinstatement, Desimone said. That event was held at Los Angeles Country Club, which will host this year’s Pac-12 Championship. The Bears are the defending conference champions.
Desimone didn’t become the full-time coach until 1988; he was responsible for raising his $35,000 salary. (He now makes about three times that.) His role demands him to be as much CEO as golf coach.
“The business plan has been for this slow and steady growth in all areas of the program,” Desimone said.
Approximately 30 volunteers work for the Cal Golf Committee, which helps the team’s fundraising. Three committee members, plus Desimone’s wife, Linda, take turns driving the team to and from Desimone’s Orinda home and the airport for tournaments, saving a few thousand dollars annually. An endowment, charity golf outings (highlighted by the annual Cal Golf Tournament, which netted more than $200,000 last year) and annual giving raise about $500,000 per year. This year’s team has three scholarships; NCAA rules allow men’s golf teams to give 4.5.
“It’s gratifying that so many people believe in what we’re doing,” Desimone said. His greatest gratification comes from the opportunity to work with young people, he said.
“He’s always been in it for the players,” associate head coach Walter Chun said. “If he would’ve been in it just to win, he would’ve left long ago.”
Desimone has endured long enough to see his program progress from a club team to college golf’s dominant squad.
Holy Toledo, indeed.