SANTA CRUZ, Calif. – Sean Yu was leading the Western Intercollegiate by himself at 7 under when he hit his tee ball to about 25 feet away from a devilish back hole location on the par-3 18th hole Tuesday at Pasatiempo Golf Club. Four putts later, he was signing for a 1-over 71 and sitting in a logjam at 5 under.
“That’s Pasatiempo,” San Jose State head coach John Kennaday said of the famed and frustrating Alister Mackenzie layout. “It gives and it takes.”
The closing one-shooter took two shots from Yu on this occasion. But it also served as the junior’s proving ground.
Yu arrived at San Jose State two falls ago as a redshirt sophomore from Cal, where he planned to study business but quickly became homesick after his parents moved back to Taiwan following Yu’s graduation from Arrowhead Christian in Redlands, Calif.
Being away from his family, Yu said, was “horrifying.” But still wanting to play college golf, Yu opted for a fresh start at a smaller school.
“I worry about all of my players,” Kennaday said, “but Sean’s somebody that needed a little more of a helping hand and guidance.”
On the golf course, though, Yu made an immediate impact. At San Jose State, there is a tradition where newcomers have to earn their golf bag by shooting under par in qualifying. Most fail to do so on their first try. Even senior Kevin Velo, the team’s stroke-average leader the past three seasons, needed six rounds before he received his bag.
But Yu passed the test his first try, birdieing Pasatiempo’s 18th hole – the same hole and pin position as Tuesday – to shoot 1-under 69 in the team’s first qualifying round.
That season, Yu posted a respectable 72.69 scoring average and tied for third at the Mountain West Conference Championship. He started his junior campaign with three straight top-10 finishes.
Now, he’s in contention at one of the most prestigious tournaments in college golf.
Yu, who trails 36-hole leader Isaiah Salinda of Stanford by three shots, has made 12 birdies through two rounds at Pasatiempo. Just three of those came in windy, firm conditions on Tuesday, but Yu, a skilled ball-striker, has not missed many shots from tee to green.
“The kid is ridiculously good and he just hasn’t shown anybody yet,” Velo said. “He’s going to be really, really good, it’s just a matter of time. What we saw on the first day was just kind of flash of what he normally does. … If he gets the putter hot, he’s unbeatable.”
Yu said picking up his first college victory at Pasatiempo would mean a lot. It would mean just as much for the San Jose State program, which, at No. 53 in the Golfstat rankings, is the eighth-best-ranked team in the 13-team field.
Asked if he expected his team to be in this position – leading Stanford by a shot at 1 under – Yu said, matter-of-factly, “No.”
Added Velo, who birdied No. 18 on Tuesday to join Yu, Pepperdine’s Clay Feagler and USC’s Cameron Henry in a tie for second: “We try to keep expectations low.”
But that doesn’t mean that the Spartans don’t believe they can get the job done.
Yes, they’ll be going toe to toe with some of the best teams in the country. But they also know this course better than anybody. They’ve hit every shot imaginable out here. And they’re every bit capable of winning this thing.
Pasatiempo might have taken two shots from Yu on Tuesday at No. 18. But on Wednesday, it could give he and San Jose State a pair of trophies – and a blue letterman’s jacket.