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'It's an art': ASU men's golf scouts new fairways to find success

The Sun Devils have a challenging schedule with tournaments across the country, but their statistics-based preparation helps them compete


ASU graduate student golfer Ryggs Johnston scouts the course at Olympia Fields Country Club in Olympia Fields, Ill. on Saturday, Sept. 16, 2023. 

For the ASU men's golf team, scouting the greens is just as important as scouting for recruits.

The Sun Devils are competing at 12 regular season and two postseason tournaments this season. ASU’s lengthy schedule includes competitions in nine different states and Mexico, making it nearly impossible for golfers to play on similar greens consistently.

The Sun Devils have adapted to new courses across America each weekend. ASU head coach Matt Thurmond said his golfers have played in cold Pacific Northwest air, long Midwestern grass, windy Texas greens, and nasty Bermuda grass in North Carolina.

“We go wherever the best players are and wherever we're going to develop the most,” Thurmond said. “So it's pretty crazy to travel that much and play in those different conditions.”

The ASU men’s golf team succeeds at challenging courses across the country due to its statistics-based scouting that helps golfers adapt to unfamiliar greens. Before each tournament, Thurmond sits down with his golfers to critique courses hole-by-hole. He said he needs to analyze each course his Sun Devils tee-off at because of their uniquely challenging slate.

“There's a lot of teams that will play only within the region, like courses that they know, like courses that are similar,” Thurmond said. “If we were just trying to get the best results, we would definitely not schedule like we do.”

Thurmond begins preparing his golfers by bringing in an analyst to break down each tee, fairway and green. ASU spends hours scrutinizing satellite imagery, yardages from point to point on each hole, and slopes throughout an upcoming course. Thurmond and his analyst also assess round scores in past PGA TOUR events and college tournaments to choose how to play each hole best. 

Yet, the Sun Devils' preparation phase isn’t over when they arrive at a course. Just before the actual contest, Thurmond leads his players through practice rounds to discuss the course and perfect shots they’ll need to execute throughout the weekend. 

“It's an art to go and get one practice round and be ready to play,” Thurmond said. “We play a schedule that's going to push these guys to the max for their own development, and in the end, we will be better for it.”

ASU’s extensive preparation has helped players who’ve never played a course excel when they do.

 Freshman Connor Williams has only played in three collegiate tournaments but has made the most of his limited playing time, partially due to scouting efforts. In his latest outing, Williams played at the Oregon State Invitational and finished T17 with a five-over-par 218.

“That was definitely a course where you needed to have some information on and around the greens. It was really tough,” Williams said. “We got some information that we needed to be good with irons.”

Thurmond’s scouting efforts also help his veterans excel at new courses years into their careers. This year, the Sun Devils played in The Williams Cup in North Carolina on Oct. 9 and 10, the first time the team has teed off at Eagle Point Golf Club during Thurmond's tenure. Making the most of their first appearance, junior Josele Ballester finished ninth while junior Preston Summerhays finished T13.

Graduate Ryggs Johnston also played at The Williams Cup and finished T29 with an eight-over-par. Johnston said he can compete at new courses, thanks partly to the team’s scouting and his yardage book that helps him choose where to shoot.

“Seeing it on paper in numbers kind of helps it resonate in your mind,” Johnston said. “I can't miss long, I have to miss short because, statistically speaking, I have a better chance to score better if I do this.”

Currently, ASU is in the midst of its final fall tournament at The CPC Invitational in Pebble Beach, California. While they haven’t played Cypress Point Club, Thurmond is confident his players can succeed at the tournament and throughout the rest of the season.

“We're in a position where wherever we go, we'll be ready for it,” Thurmond said. “It doesn't mean that there's still going to be places where other people are more advantaged than us, but any place we go, we're going to be prepared for.”

Edited by Vinny DeAngelis, Sadie Buggle and Angelina Steel.

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