Sixteen of America's leading college golf teams arrived at The Ritz-Carlton, Dove Mountain, over the weekend, and they must have thought they had discovered paradise (desert division).
Until Tuesday, the weather was golf-perfect, they got reduced rates to bunk at a glamorous hotel, the Ritz catered their lunches and, better yet, they spent four days playing the same course that as recently as a month ago played host to 62 of the world's 64 top golfers.
"Pretty sweet," said New Mexico coach Glen Millican, whose 47th-ranked Lobos knocked off defending NCAA champion Texas A&M, winning the Callaway Collegiate Match Play title over nine teams ranked in the Top 25.
The college kids aren't much different than the pros. They can blast it more than 300 yards off the tee, many have their own private teaching guru, and breaking par is an expectation, not an exception.
"You have to be really good to play college golf in this generation," said Arizona Hall of Fame golf coach Rick LaRose, whose team finished 10th overall. "If you don't shoot par, you get beat."
The other striking similarity to the PGA Tour is that college golf has become a game of great foreign influence. Pac-10 powerhouses Stanford, Washington, Arizona State and UCLA - all ranked in the top 11 - showed up at the Ritz-Carlton with foreign-heavy rosters that included players from Singapore, the Netherlands, Norway, Sweden, Scotland, Canada, South Korea and Portugal.
The leading player from last year's national champ, Texas A&M's Andrea Pavan, is from Italy. Arizona's No. 1 golfer is Australian Tarquin MacManus.
"There are so many good foreign players, on virtually every team, that it has created a lot of parity in college golf," said UA junior Jonathan Khan, a Salpointe Catholic grad. "I mean, we have players from Australia, Mexico and Northern Ireland. Everybody's good."
At a school that has produced NCAA individual champions Annika Sorenstam of Sweden and Marisa Baena of Colombia, and NCAA runner-ups Lorena Ochoa, from Mexico, and Rory Sabbatini, from South Africa, LaRose has kept the necessary pace in foreign recruiting.
His incoming freshman class for 2010-11 is expected to include Swedish junior champion Erik Oja and Chinese native Eric Hsu, who now lives in Southern California. Two years ago, Arizona's No. 1 player was Spain's Pedro Oriol, who spent one year in Tucson, then turned pro.
LaRose's roots with foreign golf are so deep that at last month's WGC-Accenture Match Play Championship, he had breakfast with Colombia's Camilo Villegas and Spain's Sergio Garcia.
"One of our former players, Gary Matthews of South Africa, is Sergio's caddie," LaRose said. "And I've known Camilo since he played college golf for Florida."
No one can afford to recruit foreign golfers on a whim. Men's golf teams are allowed 4 1/2 scholarships to split over an entire squad of eight or nine players. Full scholarships are uncommon and usually awarded only when a player is deemed a difference-maker, or when one school out-bids another.
All of LaRose's All-Americans, including Jim Furyk and Ricky Barnes, arrived at Arizona on partial scholarships.
"It doesn't mean you have to have foreign golfers to win," said LaRose, who once got a commitment from South Africa's Ernie Els, who later decided not to play collegiately. "But that's the way the game has gone. They've figured out that this is the best training grounds for the pro tour.
"If you're going to get a kid from Sweden or South Africa, he'll probably be your top player. They're often better than the top 20 or so American kids. But it's a tough racket. Sometimes I don't have enough (scholarship aid) to pursue a top foreign player. So you have to develop other kids, and we've been fortunate in that area."
In the last five years, Tucson walk-ons Brian Prouty of Salpointe and Tyler Neal of Sahuaro became standout Pac-10 players. Both won individual tournaments. Sabino grads Nate Tyler and Josh Wilks, two more walk-ons, became productive Pac-10 regulars.
"Brian Prouty was shooting in the 80s when I first saw him," LaRose said. "Now he's having a good pro career. He made a difference for us. He's the perfect example that you've got to develop players as much as you've got to recruit them from overseas."
Now comes Khan, whose stroke average of 72.70 is the second lowest among Arizona golfers.
"I'm just a local," he said with a laugh. "In college golf, there aren't many local guys out there."