The Stanford campus appears plenty big enough for two national-title contenders in college golf.
Two weeks after the reigning NCAA champion Cardinal women opened their fall by winning the Carmel Cup at Pebble Beach, the Stanford men followed suit Sunday south of Chicago. Led by junior Michael Thorbjornsen’s first college individual win, the Cardinal won the Olympia Fields/Fighting Illini Invitational by 12 shots over Florida and host Illinois.
Stanford was the only team in the loaded field to finish under par at 9 under, and it placed four of five players inside the top 12. The statement victory marks the first team win since last fall when the Cardinal topped a similarly stout field at Colonial.
Here are five observations from Olympia Fields following the conclusion of one of the premier regular-season events on the men’s calendar:
1. Thor drops hammer – finally
Michael Thorbjornsen has become a fixture on the summer amateur circuit, winning last year’s Western Amateur and even making noise in pro events this past June by qualifying for the U.S. Open and finishing fourth at the PGA Tour’s Travelers Championship. But the fifth-ranked player in the World Amateur Golf Ranking also has failed to dominate at the same clip on the collegiate level his first two years in Palo Alto, California. He didn’t notch a top-10 as a freshman and while he was a second-team All-American last season and posted six top-10s, he didn’t win.
Now, after rounds of 67-70-66 on a major-championship venue – his final round included four birdies in his last eight holes – Thorbjornsen has finally broken through into the college winner’s circle.
So, what’s next? More wins likely. And with Thor collecting trophies, this Stanford lineup looks like a squad capable of making some serious postseason noise.
Karl Vilips tied for sixth and seems to have recovered from that chunked tee shot in last month’s U.S. Amateur playoff. Barclay Brown shared 12th and again showed why he was a Walker Cupper last year. Finally, fifth-year senior Ethan Ng notched just the second top-10 of his college career, a T-9.
If Stanford head coach Conrad Ray can get at least one performance like that outside of his top 3 each tournament, they can beat anybody like they did this week in besting 11 teams in my top 30 preseason rankings, including six top-10 teams.
2. Gators are the real deal
J.C. Deacon has had some talented squads as Florida’s head coach. This is his best.
Fresh off a season-opening win at Notre Dame, the Gators played Olympia Fields’ difficult final six holes in even par as they climbed two spots on Sunday into a share of second with Illinois. Senior Ricky Castillo, who has fought off bouts of inconsistency these past two years, was his vintage self, making just six bogeys the entire tournament and tying for second individually at 6 under, a shot behind Thorbjornsen.
Castillo’s performance shouldn’t be a huge surprise, as he tends to play well on really hard golf courses, but as his T-48 showing at Notre Dame proved, he still has some work to do on the mental side to get the most out of days when he doesn’t have his best stuff.
If Florida gets this week’s Castillo the rest of the way, sign them up for match play already as Fred Biondi and Yuxin Lin are stalwarts, John Dubois has shown major flashes and Quentin Debove is quickly distancing himself from the rest of the Gators chasing a spot in this talented lineup.
3. Post-Puig Sun Devils just fine
After losing its star player, David Puig, to LIV Golf before the start of the fall, Arizona State could’ve easily struggled out of the gates. But the Sun Devils have done the opposite. Sure, this is a program coming off a national runner-up and, at least before Puig turned pro, was expected to win nearly every time it teed it up. But starting the new season second-fourth is impressive considering the fields.
While I was expecting more than zero top-10s from the trio of Preston Summerhays, Luke Potter and Jose Ballester, I have no doubt those guys will find their grooves soon.
What I wasn’t anticipating is the player-of-the-year-type start by senior Ryggs Johnston, who has back-to-back top-5s following a nightmare junior campaign in which he notched just one top-20 and was left off the Sun Devils’ six-man postseason lineup.
If Johnston maintains this resurgence, there’s a lot to like about Arizona State entering the third and final NCAA Championship at Grayhawk.
4. Bama answering the bell
Coming into the fall, I was high on Alabama, a program that finished last season ranked No. 49 and didn’t qualify for regionals because of the .500 rule. So much so that I bumped the Tide all the way up to No. 22 to start the season. But I did qualify that such confidence was predicated on the junior trio of Canon Claycomb, Thomas Ponder and J.P. Cave playing better golf than they did collectively a season ago.
I think they were paying attention.
While Cave hasn’t cracked the lineup, Claycomb won the team’s fall opener, the Rod Myers Invitational, and through two events he and Ponder have almost as many top-10s (four) as the threesome did all of last season (five). And as a team, Alabama has gone win-fifth, the latter finish, at least in my opinion, being more impressive in that it came at Olympia Fields.
5. Most cause for concern?
Defending NCAA champion Texas kicked off its season with a 10th-place finish. The Longhorns were one shot better than preseason No. 1 North Carolina, which placed 11th. Two spots behind them was Pepperdine, which shot 34 over, 43 shots worse than Stanford.
So, which of these three preseason top-15 teams am I worried about the most at this point?
Well, let’s start with the Tar Heels. They finished third to Florida at Notre Dame without Austin Greaser. Greaser returned at Olympia Fields and led the team with a T-20. Unfortunately, David Ford, after losing in a playoff two weeks ago, was T-50, one of three UNC players at T-43 or worse. I think expectations are getting to this team early, but they are too good not to figure it out in time for the important part of the season.
Texas was led by its standout freshman, Christiaan Maas, who tied for 20th. Everyone else, for the most part, didn’t have their best stuff. I don’t see Travis Vick posting another T-31 again and the other freshmen are gaining valuable experience right now. This bunch will be a top-10 team by April.
That leaves us with Pepperdine. I was a tad concerned about the back end of the Waves’ lineup before this week and I continue to be as transfers Luke Gifford and Roberto Nieves combined to shoot better than 75 just twice in six total rounds. Sam Choi will be at least a third-team All-American this season, but I’m not so sure about William Mouw now after his T-60.
Mouw has all the talent in the world, he just fails to consistently show us. Pepperdine needs the William Mouw from last spring (six straight top-13s to cap the season) if it wants to get back to match play. Otherwise, the Waves could find it difficult just punching a return ticket to Grayhawk.