Men start regional play in Washington on Thursday

With final exams in the classroom finished for the semester, the No. 10 USC men’s golf team is gearing up for its biggest tests of the season on the golf course.

The Trojans have only two tournaments remaining on the schedule: this week’s NCAA regional championships at the Gold Mountain Golf Club in Bremerton, Wash., and, if they qualify, the NCAA championships in early June.

“The great thing now is that we don’t have to worry about going to class or exams or writing a paper,” junior Matt Giles said. “Our sole focus is our games and getting ready for the tournament. It’s an advantage we have over other schools that haven’t finished yet.”

In order to move on to the NCAA championships, the Trojans will need to finish in the top five of their 13-team regional.

“I like where we ended up,” USC coach Chris Zambri said. “We played the course earlier this year and it’s a good, difficult golf course. I think we have a team that plays well on tough courses.”

All five of the Trojans starters this week played at the Gold Mountain course in September at the Fall Preview, where USC finished in seventh place.

The Trojans are seeded second in the regional, behind host and Pac-10 champion No. 4 Washington. Big Ten champion No. 11 Illinois, No. 25 Oregon State and San Diego are among the other favorites in the packed region.

The Trojans top performer of the season, freshman T.J. Vogel, will lead USC’s contingent in Washington. Vogel, who has finished no lower than a tie for 22nd in his last five tournaments, was named the Pac-10 Co-freshman of the Year last week.

Vogel finished in a tie for 27th at 9 over par at the Fall Preview in September.

Giles, a junior and two-time All-American, was USC’s highest finisher at the Pac-10 championships, placing in a tie for 10th. His score of 12 over par at the Fall Preview earned him a tie for 36th.

“My game is looking pretty good,” Giles said. “I’ve had a few days to tidy some things up and I’m looking forward to getting into it.”

Sophomore Steve Lim, a second team All-Pac-10 performer, finished in a tie for 26th at last month’s Pac-10 championships and tied for 32nd at 11 over par at the Fall Preview.

Lim’s performance at the NCAA West Regional last season, where he shot a final round 66 to help the Trojans squeak into the NCAA championships by one shot, showed this year’s freshmen what a rookie can accomplish in the postseason.

Freshman Martin Trainer has been a solid contributor for the Trojans all season and his best finish came on the Gold Mountain course, where he shot 6 over par to place in a tie for 12th at the Fall Preview.

“The course sets up really well for me and our team because we strike it well,” Trainer said. “It’s tough to get the ball on the green and it’s tough to get up and down. It’s a great track.”

Freshman Sam Smith claimed the fifth and final spot in the USC lineup with a strong showing at the Pac-10 championships. Playing for the first time since early March, Smith finished in a tie for 20th, the third-best finish by a Trojan.

Smith tied for 43rd at 14 over par at the Fall Preview.

With three freshmen and no seniors, USC is one of the younger teams in the field.

Trainer said he and the other freshmen have looked to Giles, the Trojans’ most experienced postseason player, to be a certifiable leader.

“Matt has a lot of good advice,” Trainer said. “He’s done this twice now and he has a lot of good pointers.”

Zambri said his players make up for their lack of experience with a unique calmness under pressure.

“I think it’s less about their age and more about who they are,” Zambri said. “I just think they’re a real professional young group and I’ll take that any day.”

The tournament begins Thursday and concludes with the final round Saturday.