HUTCHINSON, Kan. – When Cal won the 2004 NCAA Championship, Steve Desimone was told by one of his coaching peers that once he won a national title, there was no such thing as pressure ever again.
Ten years later, well, Desimone wasn’t so sure.
“Right now,” he said, “I think he was full of crap.”
Cal’s head coach was standing on the tee Monday at the par-3 15th at Prairie Dunes, offering advice on which club to pull. The Golden Bears were playing in the morning wave (teams 16-30) here and trying to post a number during the third and final round of stroke-play qualifying. Sure, they’d have to wait 10 hours to learn their fate, but a low round might have been enough to send the Golden Bears into the NCAA match-play bracket.
Though Desimone might have a national title under his belt, the rest of his five-man roster does not. And for those guys there is pressure. Lots of it.
Brandon Hagy came home in 39. So did fellow senior Michael Weaver. Even Joel Stalter, who shot 67, missed a short par putt on 16.
At the end of the day, Cal had posted a 2-over 282 for a three-round score of 10-over 850. With the first wave complete, the Golden Bears were in a tie for 17th. The low eight teams advance to match play. Their remarkable five-year run was over.
“Disappointed would be an understatement,” Desimone would say later. “Devastated is a little more like it.”
Hagy took it the hardest, at least initially. Despite struggling with his game, he had somehow pushed it to 1 under for the day when he arrived at the par-5 17th.
One of the longest hitters in college golf, Hagy hooked his tee shot into the junk left. They never found it. His provisional was in trouble too, deep in the waist-high rough, and it took him two shots just to extricate himself. His ensuing triple-bogey 8 – on a hole he easily could have reached in two – sent Cal tumbling down the leaderboard.
When Hagy walked dejectedly off the 18th green, he was cut off by his father, Richard. Dad grabbed his son’s hand, and he guided him to the scoring building with his left arm draped around his shoulder.
“It was a grind all day,” Hagy said afterward, “and to have a poor swing at the end was frustrating.”
Because of the shotgun start, the rest of Hagy’s teammates eventually made their way to the clubhouse within the next 20 minutes. They looked defeated, too. Desimone summoned his guys and called a team meeting, right there on the clubhouse veranda.
This, after all, was the No. 4 team in the country, a group just 12 months removed from arguably the best year in college golf history. At the start of the season they had four returnees from that 11-win team, but in December Michael Kim, the 2013 National Player of the Year, bolted for the pro ranks.
Many assumed Cal’s run of dominance was over, that it wasn’t deep enough to contend for a national title, but it managed to win three more times in the spring. The Golden Bears began to show signs of weakness in April, however, finishing third at both the Western Intercollegiate and Pac-12 Championship. At the Sugar Grove regional, Cal was fortunate just to finish inside the top 5.
Here, a second-round 289 left the Golden Bears in the first wave, just five shots off the pace for the all-important eighth spot, but it proved a hole from which they couldn’t recover.
Said Desimone, “It certainly had the potential for a better ending.”
Instead, it marks the end of one of the best runs in college golf history. In the past three years, Cal captured the first two Pac-12 titles in school history, won 24 of its 40 tournaments and finished outside the top 5 only twice.
“I always dreamed of playing on a top-10 team,” Stalter said, “and last year we had the best of all-time. I don’t know how it gets better.”
Desimone knew immediately that this group had immense potential. The first time Max Homa, Hagy and Weaver ever hit balls together at Metropolitan Golf Links, Desimone turned to associate head coach Walter Chun and marveled, “Those guys are going to take us to the NCAA Championship!”
Chun reminded the group of that exchange during their team meeting on the veranda. “I never saw it,” Chun told the team, “but Des predicted it.”
That’s awfully difficult to remember now, when a difficult finish meant the dream of a championship was gone. Perspective arrives only in time.
Because now the 65-year-old coach had tears in his eyes, knowing this was the end for not just his four seniors but also for one of the most memorable runs of his long career.
“It hurts when they hurt,” he said, “just like a parent.”