It’s not often in college sports that a team gets to return to the scene of its greatest failure for a shot at redemption.
But that’s exactly the opportunity the No. 17 USC men’s golf team got this week at the NCAA championship at Karsten Creek Golf Club in Stillwater, Okla.
The Trojans placed last in a field of 15 at the same course in September, finishing 70 strokes out of the lead at the Ping/Golfweek Preview.
USC’s performance this week, while much improved, left the team six shots short of qualifying for the match play portion of the tournament and ended its season with a tie for 12th at 31-over-par (303-289-303).
“It was a super challenging golf course,” USC coach Chris Zambri said. “They put a huge premium on driving the ball in the fairways. It was something we knew we had to work on throughout the year. We didn’t accomplish what we wanted to accomplish, which certainly was to get to the match play.”
No. 8 Augusta State claimed its second straight national championship by defeating in-state rival No. 14 Georgia 3-2 in the match play final. LSU’s John Peterson won the individual title with a 5-under-par week.
The Trojans’ improved play at Karsten Creek demonstrated their growth over the season. After failing to post a top-three finish in the year’s first six events, USC finished in the top-three in all five of its tournaments leading up the national championship. The Trojans also captured the program’s first Pac-10 team title since 2007.
“We had that Pac-10 victory and we’ve been playing absolutely solid golf for the last three months,” junior Steve Lim said.
Freshman Jeffrey Kang led the Trojans on the week with a tie for 20th individually, posting rounds of 72-73-75 to finish at 4-over-par for the tournament.
“He did most everything pretty well,” Zambri said. “He bogeyed the last two holes or he could have had a top-15 finish, which would have been pretty special for a first year kid. But in the end he had a great performance for us.”
Lim, the team’s most experienced player, recovered from a disappointing opening round 78 to post 72-75 and finish in a tie for 56th at 9-over-par.
“It was championship time: You have to play well, but I wasn’t able to do it,” Lim said. “I actually played quite well the last two rounds. I turned my game around, but a little too late after a bad start.”
Pac-10 individual champion, sophomore Martin Trainer, had posted four straight top-seven finishes coming into the event. He struggled in Oklahoma, however, shooting 75-75-76 and tying for 66th at 10-over-par.
“I didn’t really play well the entire tournament to tell you the truth,” Trainer said. “I kind of struggled a lot with my ball striking. It was just a tough, tough course and we really needed to play well to make it and we just didn’t get it done.”
Sophomore T.J. Vogel, a freshman All-American a season ago, finished a disappointing year with his worst score of the campaign — a final round 82 that included nine bogeys and two double bogeys. His total of 17-over-par (78-73 in the opening two rounds) earned him a tie for 113th.
“I know he’s going to turn it around,” Zambri said about Vogel’s prospects for next season.
Sophomore Sam Smith was disqualified from individual contention after signing for an incorrect score after his first round. His second round 71 was a big part of USC’s turnaround day, but he could only muster a 77 in the final round.
After the tournament, Zambri and his players decided to focus on the team’s progress over the last three months and what promises to be an exciting 2011-2012 season.
The incoming freshman — top-ranked junior golfer Anthony Paolucci and Daniel Lee — will add depth to the squad, while the returning Trojans have committed to a strenuous summer schedule of amateur golf events.
“I feel like we’re going to be great next year,” Zambri said. “It’s not just that we’ve got five kids coming back that were starters, but some of them are playing the best golf they’ve ever played and really turned a big corner within the last couple months. If you throw in our two incoming freshman, one of which is the No. 1 player in the country, I think we’re going to have a fabulous year.”