Coming off a year where Stanford Men's Golf missed the NCAA Tournament, the Cardinal embarked on a team mission of winning a tournament in the 2006-07 season.
My how things have changed since September. Before the two freshmen on the team had even started their first fall quarter classes on The Farm, Stanford had met its season goal. The Cardinal won their first tournament, The Gopher Invitational, and have been on a tear ever since. Stanford has won six tournaments this year and twice finished second. Like a beautiful bat out of hell, the team has exploded onto the national scene and been ranked #1 or #2 all season. Today they are starting the four-day NCAA Championship as the #2 team in the nation.
It started with Stanford radically recalculating its team goals back in September.
"I think that happened on the van ride back from the first tournament, frankly," says head coach Conrad Ray, a Stanford Class of '97 graduate and member of the 1994 National Championship team. "These guys realized when we're on how good we can be. Every time that we hit one of our goals or achieve something else, we talk a lot about that. I think that's the biggest thing for these guys. We get around and say, 'This is what we want to do,' and everyone holds each other accountable to that. We've definitely had many discussions about where we want to set the bar. That's been exciting to see that process unfold."
The collegiate golf season is broken into two halves. Teams play from September through early November in the fall season, before the second session runs February through May. Stanford finished first, second, first, fifth and first in its five fall tournaments, earning the attention and respect of the rest of the country. But fall performances can fade as the true contenders hit their stride in the spring. Plenty of competitors hoped or expected Stanford's fall success to be just that and nothing more, but the Cardinal carried its momentum into the New Year by winning the Hawaii-Hilo Invitational in February.
Surprising Stanford has been steady throughout the year, which Ray credits to a consistent approach to the game that has not wavered with successes or failures.
"I think that we've really stuck to our gameplan in terms of our preparation, how we approach the golf courses we play, our understanding that there are percentage plays out there and just really playing our own game for each guy individually," the coach explains. "We're not the flashiest team you will see, but I think we're pretty consistent in terms of ball striking and the short game. We've really focused on that short game in our practice, and that's been helpful."
"I think the other thing that has helped us continue and given us a chance here at the end is our depth," Ray adds. "We have eight guys on the team, and all eight of those guys have played on a winning team this year. For example, our eighth guy going into the Stanford tournament, Matt Shin, shoots a six-under in the qualifying for two rounds and gets to go to the following event. When you have your eighth guy on the team shooting under par and qualifying, that doesn't happen very often anywhere else in the country. That depth has helped us, and it's pushed the guys up in front, too, to keep working hard and do what they need to do."
No different from the foursome you might play on Saturdays, the members of the Stanford team fiercely compete ever time they practice. Scores are always kept, and it is a constant battle to see who will make that group of five to play in the next big tournament.
That depth has been critical as individual players have had their ups and downs during this long season. In the fall, it was senior Zack Miller who soared. He won three of five tournaments, as compared to two Top-10 finishes his entire junior year. Miller has not finished better than 10th since the fall, but freshman Joseph Bramlett opened the spring with three straight Top-10 finishes. Then he was outside the Top 25 two of the next three tournaments. Junior Rob Grube helped pick up some slack with two Top-10's in April. Those three players have combined for six individual wins this year, but steady senior Matt Savage has been just as good for the team with his consistency finishing in the Top 20 in his first nine tournaments of the year, five of which were in the Top 10.
The team has had a few pitfalls as well. The famous quirk in this Cardinal season is that the only place where Stanford failed to finish first or second in a tournament, prior to the NCAA West Regional, was in the state of Oregon. Stanford finished fifth at the Big 10/Pac-10 Challenge in October at Bandon Dunes, and they were fifth and fourth at the Eugene Country Club for the Duck Invitational in March and the Pac-10 Championship in April, respectively.
Bandon Dunes had highly windy conditions and gusts up to 30 mph, which were difficult for a team that calls the tranquil Stanford Golf Course its home. Eugene twice fooled the team with its own weather issues, as well as a problematic course.
"Our weakest stat all year is par-three scoring," Ray begins. "One of the big keys to playing the Eugene Country Club well, with some new tee boxes up there and added length, is playing the par-three's well. They're all over 200 yards, and two or three of them are over water. I think statistically we didn't match up well there. I think the other thing was that you look at Eugene and say, 'Man, a lot of this looks pretty tough because it's pretty tight off the tee and the greens are pretty slopey.' But because it was so soft and so wet, and it rained both weeks we were there, you really had to change your mindset and aim at a lot of flags and make a lot of birdies, as evidenced by what USC shot in the Pac-10. For our guys, that's a little different because all year we have talked about taking conservative lines off the tee and give ourselves a lot of birdie chances. If you have 18 birdie chances a round, then we're going to be okay. That was a little bit of a different mindset that we needed to have in those two events in Oregon. The results showed that, I think."
Playing a long season at so many different courses has provided a variety of results for Stanford. Their string of first- or second-place finishes in every non-Oregon tournament this year did end with a disappointing seventh-place finish in the NCAA West Regional played at Arizona State.
"I'm not worried about that," offers Ray. "If there is any tournament where there is pressure on these kids, it was probably the Regional. The expectation is that you have a chance to win the NCAA, and you know that, so you have to get past this little bump in the road. That's how I think the Regional is for some of the top teams. We went in there trying to win that tournament, and I think the guys were trying their darnedest. We shot 33 under, and it's not like we were blown out. I think 43 or 44 won. That's not a lot of distance between the first team and the seventh team in team golf. I think the mood is really good, and the guys are really positive about what we can do."
One top-performing veteran who had a particularly rough time in Tempe was Grube. After winning the U.S. Intercollegiate and finishing seventh at the Pac-10 Championship his previous two times out, the Chicagoland product tallied his worst performance of the year, tying for 71st at the West Regional. On the second day of the three-round event, Grube recorded a triple-bogey on the 18th hole (ninth hole of the day, starting on the back nine). That gaffe pushed him to two-over that day and just two-under for the tournament at Karsten Golf Course, which is known for very low scores.
"He was actually fighting a little bit of a sickness. He had a virus and sore throat. I don't know if he also got a little bit of sunstroke - it was really hot with the intense sun down in Arizona. Grube works so hard that he hit the wall, frankly," Ray explains. "He woke up in a sweat the next morning, not feeling very well, but gutted out a one-under final round, which helped us. I just think it was one of those weeks. Nothing specific to put your finger on, but he hit a wall the second day."
"A lot of people who observe golf think that you should just play at a certain level all year long, but it's a long season. There are a lot of peaks and valleys," the coach comments. "I think we definitely hit a peak at CordeValle, our last event of the fall. I think that we continued some good play in Hawaii. Then we had some time off, and school kind of gets on the guys a little bit. We had a couple weeks there where we weren't as happy with our play - we didn't live up to our expectation."
"After making it through the Regional, everyone is breathing a sigh of relief," Ray allows. "That's a pressure-packed week, knowing that you have to finish in the top 10 at a golf course where even par isn't good enough. I think everyone has wiped their brow and said, 'Okay, now everyone is on even standing, and we have one of the best teams in the country. Let's go see what happens.' Team-wise, I think we've had a couple dips this spring, but I think for the most part, it's been all positive stuff."
Ray is equally optimistic about the individual play of the five Stanford men who are competing this week at the NCAA Championship.
"Zack Miller is the guy who you could say was our lead horse in the fall. He hasn't played probably as well since the first of the year, but I think the last two or three weeks I have seen him strike the ball a lot more like he did in the fall," the coach shares. "Based on how he is playing right now, the guy who I hope - and he does too - will probably have a breakout tournament at Nationals is Rob Grube. He's really on top of his game right now, feeling good about his striking and putting well right now. Then guys like Joe Bramlett and Matt Savage, they have been steady rocks all year. They have been in every tournament and with just steady production. What's fun about this is that you get a guy like Daniel Lim, who has been our fifth or sixth guy all year, and he shoots 66 in the final round at ASU. That's what's fun. You can take the guy who has a hot hand like Lim, and plug him in there. He goes on a two- or three-week run, and all of a sudden he's that missing part that you need to win a championship."
The three upperclassmen on this team - Miller, Savage and Grube - all have one NCAA experience under their belt, playing in Owning Mills (Md.) two years ago. But that was a very different team from the current Cardinal squad. Today's team is a national title contender. Stanford in May 2005 dramatically surged on the last day of the West Regional to surprisingly advance to the NCAAs. They finished 18th after the third day and missed the cut of 15 teams to play on the final day. That celebratory result two years ago would classify as a failure this week.
Stanford failed to reach the NCAAs last year, which adds an air of uncertainty for this tournament. Ray knows that this team has to be mentally prepared for how to handle playing on the biggest stage. To wit, he has taken to heart a quote from legendary Oklahoma State coach Mike Holder.
"The NCAAs are the easiest tournament to win in his estimation. Half the teams are just happy to the be there, and the other half want it so bad that they forget to play their own games," Ray paraphrases. "That's pretty deep. When I've approached the guys this week, I've told them, 'Look, this is another tournament. You guys have prepared well for this. You should have a lot of confidence. Don't make it anything more than it is, but also understand that it's a great opportunity.'"
The focus of that opportunity has been visually displayed for the Stanford team since the fall, when one of the program's donors gave them a GPS system for the team van. The one destination programmed into the device when it was given to the team was Golden Horseshoe in Williamsburg (Va.), host to the NCAAs. More than half a year later, the Cardinal are driving for a National Championship.
"With success comes confidence. If you have confidence, you understand that you have to put all those things away," Rayy says of Stanford's season. "Realize that expectations are out there, but there are little things before that which you have to do - baby steps which add up to the whole. We've just tried to keep doing everything the same. Stick to our routine: practice, workout or whatever it is. Let's not do anything different just because it's the National Championship or another tournament we have a chance to win. I think that's paid off. I think the guys also realize how special a group this is. An opportunity to take a shot at the big tournament at the NCAAs doesn't come around that often, having a legitimate team that can win."
One disadvantage for the Cardinal is their lack of familiarity with the course this week. Prior to their pair of practice rounds on Monday and Tuesday, no player or coach on the Stanford team had laid eyes on the par-70 Gold Course, much less played it.
"From what I gather, I think it's a lot like the Arizona State course, but with a lot of rough and treeline," Ray offers. "There is more of a premium on hitting the fairway. It's not very long, so there is going to be a lot of short clubs into the greens. The greens are pretty fast and slopey, so it sounds like the team that drives it in the fairway and keeps it in play is going to have one of the better chances to have success."
Stanford will also be playing on Bermuda grass, which is a surface familiar to many teams in the East but a stranger to the Cardinal out west. Golden Horseshoe is a Robert Trent Jones course, however, which offers a classic design and not a lot of surprises. Ray admits that he and his team have a "lot of learning to do" this week.
The team prepared by playing the Olympic Club and San Francisco courses last week.
"Those are two great old-style classic courses that are tough and a challenge," the coach comments. "I think we're really prepared. The biggest thing actually is probably the rust. We've been really light with the guys this time of year. It's such a long year, and we've been traveling a lot. Right now it's coming down to crunch time, end of the spring quarter and everything. We've been trying to get them to sleep and rest whenever we can."
"We've continued to preach short game, short game, short game," Ray says. "You have to make putts and have to get up and down when you have a chance. Our practice really had been focused on that."
With a strong finish this week, Stanford could help itself better scout the 2008 NCAAs. Each fall, there is a "preview" tournament played at the site of the NCAA Championship. Success engenders opportunity, as the top finishers the previous spring receive invitations to the fall tournament. With Grube returning and a talented young cast who will join him next year, Stanford expects to play twice at the Birck Boilermaker Golf Complex/Kampen Course in West Lafayette (Ind.).
Today their focus remains winning what is in front of them.
"It'll be interesting to see. We have guys who cover the gamut," Ray says of his #2-ranked Cardinal. "We have a couple guys who really bomb it and a couple guys who hit a lot of fairways but aren't so long off the tee. I hope you'll see a lot of red numbers. It's a positive, too, that all yearlong we are a team that has not made a lot of big numbers - a lot of doubles and triples. Hopefully we can keep that going."
Ray is speaking of this 2006-07 season, but he could make that last statement globally for the Stanford program. On top of the Cardinal's heralded 2006 signing class of Bramlett and Jordan Cox, both Top 10 players in the nation, the Cardinal inked another blockbuster haul set arrive this fall on The Farm. Sihwan Kim and Steve Ziegler are currently ranked #3 and #5, respectively, in the Class of 2007 according to the Golfweek/Sagarin junior rankings.
"We have a strong class in '08 that we're working on, and then the guys who we signed in '07 are both having a lot of success and excited to get here," Ray smiles. "We're definitely in the minds of a lot of juniors out there, which is really helpful in recruiting."
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