The saying “Better late than never” could be the theme for USC this season. And this week at Karsten Creek, site of the NCAA Championship, that seems to be the case as well.
The Trojans opened with a 15-over 303 to tie for sixth place in the morning wave, and they have their work cut out for them in the remaining 36 holes of stroke-play qualifying if they are to make the top 8. The top eight teams will qualify for match play, which begins Friday.
USC started the season with a last-place finish at the Ping/Golfweek Preview, where the Trojans were nine shots in front of 14th-place TCU. Head coach Chris Zambri’s squad finished the fall with a 23-24-1 overall won-lost-tied record, and the Trojans entered the winter break with concern about the .500 rule. Thoughts of playing here this week in the national championship might have been overtaken by just having a good enough won-lost record to be postseason-eligible.
“You have tons of concern about it (.500 Rule),” Zambri said. “But on the flip side, at the end of the year, if you are still on that number, what kind of impact are you going to have anyway?”
For the first part of the spring season, the Trojans were a team that was trying to get on the right side of the .500 Rule, a team trying to get in contention to win a tournament. Heading into the Southern Highlands Collegiate Masters, USC was garnering little attention, and the attention they were being recognized for was for being under .500.
It wasn’t until late March, at the Callaway Match Play Championship, when USC appeared to turn the corner. The Trojans placed third in the event, with their only loss coming to eventual champion Duke in the semifinals.
Following the Match Play Championship, USC stepped up its game and has played as well as any team in the country. In their next outing, the Trojans won the ASU Thunderbird Invitational by 14 shots over runner-up San Diego State. USC followed that with a second at the Western Intercollegiate, a playoff victory over Oregon at the Pac-10 Conference Championship and a second-place at the NCAA West Regional.
“We just played great after the match play championship,” Zambri said. “I saw that we had five guys that were competing – in the mix to score every single time we played, versus what we saw earlier in the year, where we were dealing with what we kind of dealt with today, with one guy kind of blowing out and not having anything to fall back on.”
Sophomore Sam Smith was the player that had his struggles today, with an opening-round, 18-over 90. But Smith and fellow sophomore Martin Trainer, who posted 75, are two of the players Zambri pointed toward as helping the team turn the corner.
Much of that can be attributed to the play of Trainer.
Trainer has recorded four consecutive top-7 finishes, including a victory at the Pac-10 Championship. Trainer defeated Oregon State’s Alex Moore in a seven-hole, sudden death playoff to become the 21st Trojan to win the conference title.
“I have worked really hard on my game,” Trainer said. “It was really frustrating the whole year. I felt like I was ready to break through and have some good tournaments, but I never quite did it. I finally managed to do so in the last couple of months. It feels great.”
Trainer could not pinpoint a certain part of his game.
“Everything just came together,” he said. “I had bits and pieces, but if I had to say one thing, it would be consistency in all aspects of my game coming together at once.”
Zambri points to Trainer’s approach as his strength.
“He is super bright, a hard worker and he is talented,” Zambri said. “He makes good decisions when he plays and very good at keeping his emotions in check, which is a big part of his game and certainly big part of this place.”
Here at the NCAAs, the Trojans sit at the start of this championship in a position similar to how they started the year. Zambri sees it as an advantage.
“It benefits us because the course is difficult now and because we have some ground to make up,” Zambri said. “I think we should be able to regroup. I know we can.”
Like his coach, Trainer also is ready for the challenge.
“We didn’t play that well, but I am not too upset about it,” Trainer said. “It was a good day to score, but you never know and either way we have two more days. I am not worried about it. I know I am going to play well, and hopefully the other guys will. If we do that, we will be fine.”
If the theme continues, expect the Trojans to play well in the coming days.