As the No. 2-ranked men’s golf team gets ready to tee off its 2016-17 campaign this weekend in Chicago, the hype behind this year’s squad is palpable. After losing 4-1 in match play to Texas during the semifinals of last spring’s NCAA Championships, the roster has undergone almost no rebuilding. Instead it has reloaded, bringing back all five starters from last year’s team while adding two top-flight freshmen, most notably Cheng Jin, from Beijing, who competed at the 2016 Masters. This Saturday, the team begins its quest to capture their first-ever NCAA Championship in one of the team’s most anticipated seasons in school history.
In effect, head coach Chris Zambri, who enters his 11th year at the helm, has assembled a dream team of amateur talent. Junior Jonah Texeira comes into the season fresh off of a semifinal appearance in the 2016 U.S. Amateur tournament in August. His teammate, junior Sean Crocker, accomplished the same feat a year ago at the 2015 U.S. Amateur, the summer after being named Pac-12 Freshman of the Year. Redshirt senior Andrew Levitt and senior Rico Hoey, both offer immense experience and all-conference quality play. Hoey, who averaged the second-best 70.86 stroke average on the team in 2015, even captured the SCGA Amateur earlier in July. Also back are two battle tested sophomores in Justin Suh and Ryan Slater. As freshmen, they combined for 59 rounds, showing that Zambri is not afraid to throw inexperienced, young players into the fire. Suh even qualified for the US Open this summer, narrowly missing the cut by two strokes.
“We are starting the season off this week with a team that I feel can go all the way this year,” Hoey said. “We have prepared for this year the same way we did last year, which is just pushing one another to get better and better. I am excited to get it started.”
This weekend’s stroke play tournament, the OFCC/Fighting Illini Invitational at Olympia Fields, will offer the Trojans a very stiff early challenge. Featured in the field are the No. 1-ranked Texas Longhorns, who return four starters from the team that prematurely ended the Trojans’ season at the NCAA championship in the spring. Hosting the tournament is No. 3 University of Illinois, which has three current players who qualified for the U.S. Amateur. The Trojans will be able to test themselves against elite level competition right away and see if they can live up to their lofty expectations.
The most compelling aspect of the impending men’s golf season is whether or not coach Chris Zambri will tamper with an already near perfect lineup. Jin possesses future superstar ability. The 18-year-old player has already won the 2015 Asia-Pacific Amateur Championship and a 2014 PGA Tour China event as a 16-year-old.
“I think I need one more step before I go to the top standard of professional golf,” said Jin to PGATour.com.
The Trojans’ coaching staff is certainly not complaining about his decision, but with such a solidified starting five, seeing where the young phenomenon fits in will be one of the most compelling storylines of the season.
The second freshman on the team, Kyle Suppa from Honolulu, may also push for playing time. He was ranked No. 33 on the Junior Golf Scoreboard upon graduating from high school. Even with past pedigrees, no player will be safe from competition for playing time this season.
The Trojans possess depth, talent and experience. This weekend, they will begin to chase the one thing they don’t have: a national championship. The chase begins in Chicago, where USC men’s golf will look to prove why it deserves to be considered one of the top teams in the nation.
“We probably have our deepest roster ever heading into this season,” Zambri said. “With that, our goal is to continue to improve on a weekly basis but to try to win every golf tournament we play. Where we are going in Chicago, Olympia Fields, will be a great test.”