Both of ASU’s golf programs are gearing up for the postseason as the Pac-12 men’s and women’s championships begin April 25.
The men’s team is coming off sixth- and third-place finishes in its last two tournaments of the regular season after winning the ASU Thunderbird Invitational on its home course.
Men’s coach Tim Mickelson said his team has seen contributions from all of his players as they head into the postseason.
“The biggest thing I like from our team this year is maturity,” Mickelson said. “This is a very young team overall, and I’m starting to see the freshmen do a good job of giving us some good performances.”
ASU has needed top play from all of its players, because as Mickelson notes, the Pac-12 is the toughest conference in the nation.
“The Pac-12 is the best conference in the country for college golf. We are 25th in the country, but we are the fifth seed in our conference tournament,” Mickelson said. “Nine of the 12 conference schools will make the postseason, which is a testament to the strength of our conference. Winning the Pac-12 conference is usually tougher than advancing through regionals for the NCAA national championship.”
If the Sun Devils hope to make a run for the Pac-12 or NCAA championship, they will have to rely on sophomore Jon Rahm. Rahm followed up his Pac-12 Freshman of the Year campaign with an equally impressive sophomore season, the zenith of which was shooting a school record 21-under par at the ASU Thunderbird Invitational.
Tournament mainstays in junior Austin Quick and sophomore Max Rottluff will also figure to have very important roles in the postseason.
Quick has played in 11 tournaments this season, his best finish coming from the Redhawk Invitational in early April, when he had the sixth-best individual score. Rottluff has been a regular starter since The Amer Ari Invitational in early February, and in the tournament afterward, The Prestige, he had the second-best individual score.
Mickelson said he will know what to expect from his team in the Pac-12 tournament when it hits the practice round.
“Once we play our practice round, we will be able to game plan how we will attack the golf course,” Mickelson said. “I highly doubt that we will play conservatively, though. Our guys like the risk-reward challenge.”
Mickelson, who received his first team win as ASU head coach at the ASU Thunderbird Invitational, was a four-time West Coast Conference Coach of the Year while at the University of San Diego. Mickelson was hired at ASU in 2011, succeeding Randy Lein, who coached the team for 19 years.
The good news for ASU and its fans is that the Pac-12 men’s golf championships will be played fewer than two hours away from Tempe, in Marana, Ariz.
The women’s team does not have the same luxury of playing in its own backyard, as the Pac-12 women’s golf championships will be played in Corvallis, Ore.
However, it has been proven this year that ASU can play outstanding golf no matter where it is. In nine tournaments this season, the Sun Devils have finished in the top five seven times. They finished in second place in their most recent tournament, the ASU/PING Invitational which was played at ASU Karsten Golf Course.
The ASU women’s team finished the regular season ranked fourth in the country. Two of the three teams ranked ahead of ASU are in the Pac-12, further proving the point of which conference is the strongest.
Despite the consistent top finishes, the women’s team has yet to win a tournament this season and has had to settle for second place three times.
The player to watch on the Sun Devil squad will be junior Noemi Jimenez, who has played in every tournament for ASU this year. Jimenez has been on a tear all season, finishing in the top 10 of individual scoring in all but one of ASU’s regular season tournaments and finishing in the top five in the last five.
Senior Justine Lee has also given the Sun Devils strong performances as of late. In ASU’s last two tournaments, Lee ended with the second- and third-best scores among the five starters.
The women’s team began the year with a seventh-place finish at the Dale McNamara Fall Preview. Determined not to let that set the tone for the rest of the year, the Sun Devils went on to place in the top five in their next five tournaments.
These Sun Devils are experienced, and they don’t let much bother them. None of the players that finished in sixth place at the Pac-12 tournament last year is removed from the team this year, and they all hope to improve upon their prior performance.
ASU has three players this year that made the Pac-12 All-Conference team last year in Jimenez, who was first-team, and second-team seniors Laura Blanco and Daniela Ordonez. Coach Melissa Luellen has been named the conference coach of the year three times since 2006 and won the NCAA tournament in 2009.
ASU has always had storied golf programs. The men’s team has won two national championships, most recently in 1996, and the women’s team has an unprecedented seven titles.
ASU also has a host of notable golf alumni including Phil Mickelson, Heather Farr, Alejandro Cañizares and Anna Nordqvist.
History aside, Mikelson knows his team will have to play smart if it wants to win.
“The most important part of the postseason is staying in the moment and taking every shot one at a time,” Mickelson said. “If you start thinking ahead, it can be very dangerous. ‘Stay in the present’ will be a common theme for us this postseason.”
Reach the reporter at email@example.com or follow him on Twitter @HKossodo