PULLMAN, Wa. – The last time a Washington state men’s collegiate golf team hosted the conference championship, it won the team title.
That was six years ago, when the Washington Huskies captured the Pacific-10 team championship played on the Olympic Course at Gold Mountain Golf Club in Bremerton.
Now it’s Washington State’s turn to test the home-course advantage.
A program that’s showing signs of improvement – there was only way to go when former UW assistant coach Garrett Clegg took over the program as head coach four years ago – WSU takes center stage on Monday for the three-day Pac-12 Conference Championships at Palouse Ridge Golf Club, a 7,257-yard, par 70 layout.
This is the first time in school history the Cougars actually have a legitimate “home” course, having hosted previous conference championships in Clarkson (1973), Spokane (North Division in 1977), Richland (1995) and Walla Walla (1985 and 2005).
Palouse Ridge, developed on picturesque, hilly terrain, is within a long tee shot from campus and the degree of difficulty is measured largely by the direction and velocity of the wind that has been known to blow like the dickens at times.
“We can play this course as good as anyone,” Clegg said. “For me, if we do have wind, I would prefer it to be a prevailing wind, which mostly is out of the west. That’s the wind we play in most of the time and that would be best for us. When it changes around, it’s as hard for us as anyone. It makes the course play a lot tougher.”
The wind factor notwithstanding, Clegg believes his team is capable of winning it all this year — and that would be a shocker.
Since playing in their first conference championships in 1963, the Cougars have finished as high as seventh twice, (1991 and 2001), next-to-last 14 times, and in last place 27 times.
But some recent history gives Clegg reason to believe in his current team, which is led by four seniors, including fifth-year senior Sang Lee from Calgary.
“We had an event here in the fall (Sept. 29-30) with most of the Pac-12 teams here,” he said. “Oregon and USC tied for first and we weren’t far off the pace, five or six strokes out – and we had a real bad final round.”
Sang tied for the low individual score while the Cougars finished fourth in the 10-team tournament, four shots ahead of the then-11th ranked Huskies and five shots ahead of Arizona State, ranked 26th at the time. However, the red-hot Sun Devils enter the Pac-12 Championships as the second-ranked team in the country and favorites to win their 14th conference title the first since 2008.
Defending conference champion Stanford and UCLA didn’t participate in the September event at Palouse Ridge, but also are considered serious contenders for the title this year.
Of the 12 teams entered, six are ranked in the top 20 nationally. ASU (5), Stanford (9), UCLA (13), Oregon (14), Washington (15), and USC (16) are potential conference champions. Even Cal (25) enters the event with a team title on their minds.
As for the home team?
“We need Sang, Michael Anderson and Derek Bayley to be big for us,” Clegg said. “Derek is a freshman, but he plays this course about as good as anyone on our team. It just sets up for him. He hits it a really long way, hits it straight, and is a good putter.
“Sang has played the course probably a thousand times. There isn’t anything he hasn’t seen out here. If our seniors play well, it will be a tremendous advantage for us.”
The Cougars, not ranked in the top 60 nationally, probably need to finish no lower than third or fourth in the conference championships to get invited to the post-season regionals, which includes 80 teams.
Gold Mountain’s Olympic Course will host one of the regionals and UW is expected to be the host for that May 14-16 event. WSU probably would be sent elsewhere, but anywhere would be a program bonanza.
Palouse Ridge, which opened in 2008, features a blind tee shot on the 379-yard par 4 second hole, a 628-yard, par 5 monster 10th hole and back-to-back par 5s totaling 1,078 yards to finish the inward nine.
Lee pointed out during a back-nine journey with four journalists last Monday that “there are subtle breaks on the greens.”
Each Pac-12 team consists of six players and the five lowest scores each round count toward the individual and team scores.
The field includes some of the highest-ranked amateur players in the world – including No. 1 Jon Rahm of Arizona State.
Rahm, a junior, captured the prestigious World Amateur championship last September in Japan with a record-setting performance.
His 23-under 263 (70-64-62-67) smashed the record of 269 set by Jack Nicklaus (66-67-68-68) at Merion G.C. (east Course), in Ardmore, Pa., in 1960.
Other world-ranked players in the Pac-12 Championships field include No. 5 Chang-tsung Pan from Washington and Stanford’s Maverick McNealy, currently ranked No. 9. All three of the Pac-12 stars are among the 10 semifinalists for the Ben Hogan Award – college golf’s version of the Heisman Award.
During Monday’s 36-hole opening day marathon, the Cougars are grouped with the Huskies and University of Utah.
Lee, the Cougars’ most experienced player with three conference championship appearances under his belt, is the 534th-ranked amateur in the world, but this is his territory and he’s ready.
“It’s about the same field as in the fall and I was able to beat some of them,” he said, “so I look forward to that. I’m not playing guys I haven’t beaten before and that’s a confidence booster.
“But I am more looking forward to our team doing well. Playing well as a team, and getting into the postseason, would be bigger (than an individual title).”
Although history indicates that the home-course advantage isn’t that substantial – only five host teams have won the team title since 1985 – Lee believes familiarity could be critical this time around.
“I think the harder it plays the bigger advantage it will be for us,” he said. “The rough is higher (than usual) and that also will help us. We know the bounces, even off the fairways and onto the greens. Sometimes you can hit the ball where you want and still end up somewhere where you don’t want to be.
“That’s the kind of advantage we need to use in our favor.”
And if that happens?
“Realistically, I think we can win this,” he said. “We have played this course so many times that if the wind picks up, or even if it doesn’t, I feel we have a good chance.”