In his final Pac-12 competition of his career, senior Sam Smith earned a top-20 finish, but his No. 11 Trojans faltered their way to seventh place at the conference championships at the Los Angeles Country Club.
Smith found his stride during Tuesday’s third round, turning in a solid 1-over 71 after struggling in Monday’s opening 36-hole marathon.
The senior fired another 71 during Wednesday’s fourth and final round, moving him up to 17th place. Smith finished four strokes ahead of sophomore Anthony Paolucci, who tied for 27th.
Just one stroke behind Paolucci was senior Stewart Hagestad, who, in perhaps the best story of the event, came from the sixth position to battle for the team lead.
Paolucci came out on fire during Monday’s first 18 holes, shooting a blistering 3-under 67. The sophomore then turned in a disappointing 7-over 77 to finish the day, tying him with Hagestad to lead the team.
It was Smith, however, who overtook the pair over the final two days with the consistency he displayed all season. Freshman Yi Keun Chang and junior Jeffrey Kang rounded out the top five for the Trojans.
As expected, the No. 1 California Golden Bears took the team championship, stretching its lead over No. 5 UCLA from two strokes to 12 by the end of the day. No. 7 Stanford and No. 6 Washington finished third and fourth, respectively, with unranked Arizona State rounding out the top five. The individual leaderboard was a bit more surprising, with Cal’s No. 5-seeded senior Max Homa winning the title. The Bears’ Michael Weaver took home second place, and UCLA’s Anton Arboleda and Washington’s Chris Williams tied for third. USC head coach Chris Zambri, who expected his team to make a run at a conference title, was upset with the ultimate result.
“This week was definitely disappointing,” Zambri said. “But the fact is we still have tons to play for in the coming weeks, and we have to keep our focus there.”
The Trojans, now riding a streak of three consecutive team finishes without a top-five finish, must look to regroup for the upcoming NCAA tournament. Though the team is certainly not peaking at the right time, Zambri remains confident the squad will improve in time.
“We’re looking forward to regionals,” Zambri said. “We have two weeks to get some things figured out. We need to improve fast.”
The squad has an advantage going into the postseason, having consistently played some of the toughest teams in the country all season. Being No. 11 in the nation and finishing seventh in a conference tournament, though disappointing, does not appear so bad when the conference has four top-10 teams.
Last year, a similar Trojan squad traveled to Ann Arbor, Mich., and won an NCAA regional behind an excellent performance from Jeffrey Kang, Martin Trainer and Steve Lim. It will take that type of effort from Kang and his teammates to return USC to the NCAA championship round. If the squad can return to its excellent early-season form, in which it tied for first in the Prestige tournament and won the North Ranch Intercollegiate, it should contend for a national championship.
The NCAA tournament begins May 16 and can be followed at the NCAA’s official website and on the Golf Channel.