'Conference of Champions' nickname appropriate for Pac-12 golf

2014-04-25T00:00:00Z 2014-04-28T12:18:48Z 'Conference of Champions' nickname appropriate for Pac-12 golfGreg Hansen Arizona Daily Star Arizona Daily Star

Show up at the Pac-12 men’s golf championships and you are sure to bump into someone about to become famous. Such as:

Al Geiberger of USC, the first to shoot 59 on the PGA Tour.

Tiger Woods of Stanford.

Corey Pavin of UCLA, who won the 1995 U.S. Open.

Phil Mickelson of Arizona State.

Hunter Mahan of USC, who won the 2012 WGC-Accenture Match Play Championship.

Jim Furyk of Arizona.

Scott Simpson of USC, who won the 1987 U.S. Open.

You are apt to see future famous fathers, such as USC’s Craig Stadler, winner of the 1982 Masters; and future famous sons, such as USC’s Kevin Stadler, winner of the 2014 Phoenix Open.

You will likely see future U.S. Amateur champs, such as Ricky Barnes and Erik Meeks of Arizona, Sam Randolph of USC, Billy Mayfair of ASU and Jeff Quinney of Oregon.

If you don’t go to the Gallery Golf Club to watch the Pac-12 championships today through Sunday, you can turn on Golf Channel and watch Jerry Foltz of Arizona, Notah Begay of Stanford and Peter Jacobsen of Oregon talk about the game that benefited from their Pac-12 presence.

For the next three days, the Gallery Golf Club’s North Course will be the Avenue of Future Stars.

“This is a ‘major’ in a college golf perspective,” Arizona coach Jim Anderson said Thursday. “It’s one of the reasons they call it the Conference of Champions.”

You may not yet recognize the names Patrick Rodgers of Stanford; Brandon Hagy of Cal and Rico Hoey of USC — or even Erik Oja of Arizona — but then who could have known that Arizona’s Rory Sabbatini and ASU’s Billy Mayfair would turn pro and combine to win 10 PGA Tour championships?

“This is as good as it gets,” said Arizona’s Oja, one of five Palmer Cup players in the field. The Palmer Cup? It’s college golf’s equivalent of the Ryder Cup.

Arizona’s place in Pac-12 golf isn’t what it used to be. How’s that for being nice?

On paper, the Wildcats are ranked 10th of the 12 teams that will tee off this morning at the Gallery’s North Course. Oja, who is ranked No. 54 nationally, is the only Wildcat among the NCAA’s Top 100.

Compare that to the early ’90s when UA All-Americans David Berganio and Manny Zerman both played in the Masters in back-to-back years, a period during which Robert Gamez was the NCAA Player of the Year and Furyk struggled to be the UA’s No. 4 player as the Wildcats won the 1992 national championship.

But things have begun to turn, subtly at first, and then more so this spring when Anderson, in his second season, watched Oja and junior Alex McMahon play at the level at which Arizona is accustomed.

“We still don’t have the depth we really need, and we had some pretty dark days in the fall,” said Anderson, “but I’m hopeful we can put ourselves in position to have a chance to win going into the final round.”

Stanford is ranked No. 3, Cal No. 4, Washington No. 11 and UCLA No. 14. Who isn’t good? Even snow-bound Colorado is ranked No. 53 nationally.

Oja, who is from Sandviken, Sweden, averages a shade over 71 strokes per round, which, if it holds, would put him in the top 10 in school history, a group that includes Sabbatini and UA assistant coach Chris Nallen, a consensus All-American in 2003 and 2004.

This is Oja’s last best chance and he knows it.

“I’m still missing that one big win,” he said Thursday. “This would be the perfect place to get it.”

Arizona plays host to the league championships in a decade-to-decade rotation. The Wildcats were third in 1984, second in 1994 and first in 2004. A home-course advantage is an intangible thing, but Anderson knows that four variables — elevation, temperature, wind and knowledge of pin positions — all favor the Wildcats.

McMahon, who helped Ironwood Ridge win the state championship in 2009, spent much of his boyhood playing golf on Dove Mountain. He knows that home-course advantage is a hammer that only his team has.

“When you think of what Cal has done the last two years (two league titles) and how good Stanford and UCLA and USC are, there’s no real margin for error,” he said. “The top half of the conference is absolutely the best.”

Upon winning the Pac-10 title in 2004, also played at The Gallery, the Wildcats have gone into a 10-year spin that no one could have imagined. Arizona hasn’t finished higher than sixth in the conference since 2006.

Its slow climb back to prominence is more likely to make news in 2015 or even 2016, but when you’ve got company for the weekend, why not now?

Copyright 2014 Arizona Daily Star. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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