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Course knowledge reigns supreme early at Western Intercollegiate

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SANTA CRUZ, Calif. – The margin of error at Pasatiempo Golf Club is small, a matter of a few yards on many holes. And with the iconic Alister Mackenzie design playing firm and fast, the line is even finer for the competitors at this week’s Western Intercollegiate.

USC senior Justin Suh found that out the hard way in Monday’s opening round.

A par away from tying the tournament record, Suh stepped on the tee at the 181-yard, par-3 finishing hole and sized up his shot. With the wind blowing in from the right, Suh planned to hit a strong 9-iron and aim about a flagstick right of the difficult back-left hole location.

“A yard too much,” Suh said.

Suh’s ball bounded off the back of the green and into the rough. With his ball sitting down and the green running away from him, Suh knew there was little chance of keeping his ball on the correct shelf. It’s a shot that the typical weekend hacker couldn’t pull off in 100 tries.

“Zero chance,” said Suh, who chipped short of the hole and watched as his ball rolled down the slope and just off the front of the putting surface. Luckily for the world’s top-ranked amateur, he only dropped one shot.

“I was happy with a bogey,” Suh said.

Suh’s opening 6-under 64 didn’t break any records, but it did earn him a share of the individual lead after 18 holes of the Western Intercollegiate, where host San Jose State leads as a team at 4 under. Suh, who won this event two years ago, shares the top spot with two other players who have quite a bit of local knowledge on this course, Stanford senior Isaiah Salinda and San Jose State junior Sean Yu.

Salinda is a horse for West Coast courses. The San Francisco native won the Pacific Coast Amateur last summer at Olympic Club before reaching the semifinals of the U.S. Amateur at Pebble Beach. He also was T-5 two years ago at the Western, where he held the co-lead before closing in 76 and losing to Suh.

On Monday, Salinda made seven birdies, including making a 25-footer on the par-4 second hole. But Salinda knows that the bigger shots around Pasatiempo are the ones that negate big numbers, which is why he was more impressed with his par save at the par-3 fifth hole, where he faced a 50-foot birdie putt that he smartly chipped to 5 feet.

Salinda has certainly come a long way since the spring opener in Hawaii, where he finished outside of the top 80. The slump was caused by swing and equipment changes, but Salinda is finally starting to find his groove again.

“Mentally, I’ve turned the corner,” Salinda said. “I have the confidence to score well again.”

Salinda’s NorCal rival, San Jose native Suh, excels between the ears. USC head coach Chris Zambri called Suh one of the best course managers he’s ever coached.

“He’s not one bit afraid to have a 35-footer,” Zambri said. “He’s always willing to play the smart shot.”

Suh grew up playing Pasatiempo and knows where not to be on this golf course. With the exception of two par 3s, Nos. 5 and 18, Suh avoided trouble. He made six birdies and eagled the par-5 sixth after lipping out a bid for albatross from 242 yards out.

As for the third co-leader, Yu, who began his college career at Cal before transferring to San Jose State two years ago, he made his share of bogeys, notching three in his first six holes. However, he also led the field with nine birdies, including five straight, at Nos. 11-15.

“My putter just caught on fire,” Yu said.

While Yu, who had never led a college event before Monday, might not have the pedigree of Suh or Salinda, he might know the course better than his challengers at the top. The Spartans practice at Pasatiempo once a week and it shows. Yu described how the firm conditions, the firmest and fastest he’s seen at Pasatiempo (though Monday afternoon's rain should soften up the course a bit), demand that players play about 5 yards shorter on shots into greens.

“You have to plan to land the ball short and hope it stops somewhere next to the pin,” Yu said.

How vital is that type of experience for the mid-major program, which is two shots clear of USC and Oregon with 36 holes remaining?

“It might’ve given us a little edge,” San Jose State coach John Kennaday said with a smile.

For those who don’t know Pasatiempo well, they must learn quick. Course knowledge is key around these parts, and the first-round leaderboard is proof.