San Diego State thriving thanks to coach's tough love

San Diego State junior Nahum Mendoza.


EUGENE, Ore. – San Diego State coach Ryan Donovan has been known to take a tough-love approach with his players.

Doesn’t matter what you’ve won, where you’ve been or what you’re ranked – if you play poorly, you’re going to ride the bench.

“That’s kind of my M.O.,” Donovan said Friday. “I don’t like to give my guys handouts.”

Junior Nahum Mendoza III found that out the hard way.

A local kid who was lightly recruited, Mendoza decided to stay close to home for college and walked on to the team without a scholarship. He slacked off his first semester and drew the ire of his coach, who suggested that he either dedicate more time to his game or find another program.

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At the recommendation of former SDSU standout Xander Schauffele, Mendoza began working with swing coach Cameron McCormick, Jordan Spieth's longtime teacher, in December 2014. Individual results were slow to come, but Mendoza noticed improvement in the “scoring zone” inside 130 yards, where he eliminated mistakes and gave himself more birdie opportunities.

“I understand what I have to do to make the ball do what I want it to do,” he said. “I mastered my own swing.”

Though Mendoza had only the fourth-best scoring average last season, Donovan saw enough development that he offered Mendoza some scholarship money for the first time after his sophomore season. But after a lazy summer, Mendoza wasn’t sharp enough to crack the starting five last fall. He counted in only one of the team’s four events.

“He was just very average,” Donovan said. “We stick to our guns a little bit. Our goal is to put the best five guys out every week, and he just wasn’t cutting it.

“He came to me after the third (benching), and he was like, What’s up? I said, ‘You’ve got to earn it. You’re not impressive to me. I don’t think you’re working very hard. You need to prove it to me.’ He finally did, and he hasn’t looked back since.”

Mendoza began the spring season with five consecutive top-10s, including a fourth-place finish at Arizona State’s event, where he needed a par on the last to win but instead made triple.

“He wasn’t even fazed by it,” Donovan said. “He was like, ‘I’m going to be here a lot of times. It was just one bad swing.’ It’s almost like it goes right through him and he doesn’t even realize.”

It’s that blend of confidence and naiveté that has Donovan convinced that Mendoza will land on the PGA Tour eventually. Now that Mendoza has experienced some success, Donovan said, “He’s into it. He’s super motivated.”

Recently named to the U.S. Palmer Cup team, Mendoza entered this week’s NCAA Championship at No. 27 in Golfstat’s individual rankings. He opened with a 3-under 67 Friday to share the early lead.

“I didn’t really see it going this crazy,” Mendoza said of his season, “but Coach Donovan really got me taking it more seriously.”

And this wasn’t the first time this season that Donovan has had to deal one of his players a cold dose of reality.

Gunn Yang, the unlikely U.S. Amateur champion in 2014, returned to school last fall after taking a year off to play pro and amateur events. His game has been so uneven since that Donovan sat him for an event just a few weeks ago.

Yang proved himself worthy of a lineup spot in practice, and he ended up playing a pivotal role in the Aztecs’ appearance here in Eugene.

San Diego State was 11 shots off the fifth-place cut line with nine holes to play at the Albuquerque regional, where it was cold, windy and downright miserable.

“I felt like I was checked out for most of regionals,” Donovan said. “With nine holes to go, we needed a miracle.”

In the difficult conditions, Donovan told his team to simply make pars. The Aztecs shot even par on the back nine to tie Texas A&M for the fifth and final qualifying spot.

Donovan had walked with Yang the entire regional, and he decided to go one more hole in the play-five, count-four team playoff format. With Yang sizing up his 215-yard approach into the par-5 18th, Donovan instructed him to land his 7-iron shot left of the flag.

“The ball landed like a butterfly,” he said. “It went in like a 6-foot putt.”

The albatross helped lift San Diego State to the playoff victory and an NCAA berth. And now the Aztecs have kept rolling, for one day at least – their 3-over 283 was one of the best rounds of the morning wave Friday.

“I light the fire when I think it’s right,” Donovan said. “They know it’s not personal. We treat it like a business. We've got some guys who are a little rough around the edges, but they’re not intimidated by anybody. They’ve certainly shown that.”