The No. 16 USC men’s golf team returns today to the site of their last victory to tee off their spring season, competing against a strong field at the Mauna Lani Invitational on the big island of Hawaii.
The last time the Trojans played a tournament on the Waikoloa Country Club course, a year ago this week, they cruised to an 11-shot victory.
Three All-Americans are gone from that winning five-man lineup, however, and fourth-year coach Chris Zambri will trot out a lineup of two juniors, a sophomore and two freshmen this week against some of the best teams in the nation.
“Every week we show up, I feel like we can win the golf tournament, but maybe those expectations are a little high for this group right now,” Zambri said about his young roster. “Although I think by the end of this year I really feel we can be that kind of team.”
During the fall season, USC posted finishes of eighth, seventh, fourth and sixth in the four tournaments they entered. The results, while enough to earn USC a national ranking, were not what Zambri had come to expect from his program.
“I felt like we could have played a lot better than we did in the fall,” Zambri said. “I don’t think anybody really played the way that I feel like they can play, other than Steve Lim, who had two events where he was quite solid.”
One Trojan who fell short of early season expectations was junior Matt Giles, a native Australian that held the No. 1 individual ranking in the country for a long stretch last season and was named a PING First Team All-American.
Giles struggled to replicate those results during the fall semester, finishing in the top 10 individually in only one of the four tournaments he entered.
“I struggled in the fall because I wasn’t working as hard as I knew I had to be,” Giles said.
Giles said he spent the break fixing the areas of his game he needed to improve and is ready to perform during the spring.
“My game feels quite good — I’m really excited with the boys to get back into the swing of things,” Giles said.
Lim posted the best finish of any Trojan during the fall with a tie for third place at The Prestige in October.
“The way he can play golf, there’s no reason he couldn’t be one of the elite players in college,” Zambri said of the sophomore Lim. “When he gets himself in position to do something big like win a golf tournament, I’m looking forward to seeing how he handles that.”
Three freshmen started for the Trojans in all four of the fall team tournaments. Sam Smith and Martin Trainer will be in the lineup in Hawaii, while the most heralded freshman coming out of high school — T.J. Vogel — will not play this week.
“Martin is a very good ball striker and Sam’s strength is his length and he can putt,” Zambri said about his freshmen. “I expect T.J. to settle in pretty soon here and really become a big contributor because he’s a pretty special player.”
Redshirt junior Bo DeHuff will round out the lineup for the Trojans this week, while freshman Stewart Hagestad will compete as an individual.
“The par 5’s are very attackable, so that will be a big part to our success,” DeHuff said about the Waikoloa Country Club course. “Our team is a pretty long hitting team so we have to come out of there with birdies.”
The field at the Mauna Lani Invitational is one of the strongest of any tournament this spring, with 11 of the top 20 teams in the country in Hawaii, including No. 1 Oklahoma State and No. 2 Stanford.
“We love to compete and we want to play against the best because that’s how you find out how good you are,” DeHuff said. “So it won’t be any surprise when we step up to the first tee at the national championship [and] we’re paired with a couple of the other best teams in the country.”
The tournament begins today and play will conclude with the final round on Friday.