For the past several weeks, the men’s golf team has held the top spot in the national rankings, and the talented group will look to keep it that way. The No. 1 Trojans are competing against some of the best competition there is at the Western Intercollegiate, which began Monday at the Pasatiempo Golf Course in Santa Cruz, California.
Through one round of the tournament, the Trojans stand in third place with a score of 4-under. Pac-12 rivals Oregon and Stanford are currently first and second with scores of -9 and -5, respectively. Oregon’s Aaron Wise is the individual leader after one round with a round score of 63 strokes; USC’s junior Rico Hoey and freshman Justin Suh are tied for the team lead with round scores of 67, followed closely by senior Andrew Levitt with a round score of 68.
The Trojans began last month with two consecutive victories in the Southwestern Jones Invitational and the Southern Highlands Collegiate, led by outstanding performances by Levitt and sophomore Sean Crocker. Crocker, who finished second overall at the Southern Highlands Collegiate, earned Pac-12 Golfer of the Month honors after helping the Trojans push past two other top-20 teams in Las Vegas to win the tournament. Crocker also turned in a solid effort at the Goodwin — where the Trojans finished ninth overall — with a 2-over to finish tied for 17th in the tournament to close out the month.
Crocker will have to continue to perform well for the Trojans to have a shot at winning the Western Intercollegiate, as the field is among the toughest the team has seen this year. USC is one of six top-25 teams competing in Santa Cruz; their opponents include No. 7 Arizona State, No. 9 Stanford, No. 15 Cal, No. 21 San Diego State and No. 25 Washington. Unranked Oregon, UCLA and Arizona are the Trojans’ other Pac-12 foes in the field, along with Pepperdine, the University of Texas at El Paso, Hawaii and UC Irvine.
For any of the teams to win the tournament, they’ll have to tackle the challenging course at Pasatiempo, which was designed by Alister MacKenzie, the same architect who created the master-class links at Augusta National. USC has seen success at the Western Intercollegiate in the past, winning the tournament six times, but the Trojans haven’t finished first as a team since 1995. The last time a Trojan captured an individual victory was Sam Randolph’s win in 1986.
“Like Augusta, the greens are a big part of the challenge at Pasatiempo,” head coach Chris Zambri said. “In addition to the greens, there are many large trees that need to be avoided.”
Zambri, who is at the helm of the USC men’s team for his tenth season, has led the Trojans to a successful season thus far with a roster that features both veteran leadership and young talent. In addition to Levitt and Crocker, Zambri will also look to Hoey and sophomore Jonah Texeira to contribute in a big way to the team’s total score. On Feb. 10, Hoey was named to the Ben Hogan Award watch list for the second consecutive year; the Hogan Award is collegiate golf’s equivalent of the Heisman. Crocker’s name also appeared on the list this year for the first time.
“As the season approaches the end, it is very important that everyone is playing well,” Zambri said. “We are good enough that if everyone is playing like they can play, we can compete to win every tournament we play.”
The “everyone” Zambri refers to also includes Suh and Ryan Slater, each of whom has finished in the top 15 at least once this season. It’s easy to think of golf as an individual sport, but winning collegiate tournaments takes a collective effort, which the Trojans have been able to successfully put together several times this season. The team has finished in the top 10 at each of their nine tournaments this season, with their lowest finish coming in the Goodwin two weeks ago.
USC will finish the month of April with the Pac-12 Championships, but the Western Intercollegiate is essentially an identical preview of the postseason tournament. The Trojans will face off against nearly all of their conference opponents in Santa Cruz, enjoy a few weeks off preparing for the postseason, and then meet up with Arizona State, Stanford and Cal, among others, once again in Salt Lake City beginning April 29.
For now, the Trojans have their sights set on winning in Santa Cruz.