The ASU men’s golf team has lived up to its No. 4 ranking by thriving at tough tournaments with a well-crafted mix of veterans and newcomers. The Sun Devils’ fall season gives hope to a program that hasn’t won an NCAA title this century.
ASU’s fall stretch included competitions in seven states that tested the team’s abilities on unique playing surfaces. The Sun Devils succeeded despite playing in different weather and unfamiliar courses by finishing in the top three as a team at four events.
ASU head coach Matt Thurmond believes the diverse lineup of courses will help his team down the road in NCAA play.
"It's really good for us developing our skills," Thurmond said. "You need something different in each course, in each climate and each elevation. You're going to have some that you're better suited for than others."
The Sun Devils teed off its fall stretch split at competitions in Washington and Arizona. Thurmond sent his veterans to the Sahalee Players Championship in Sammamish, Washington, and his freshmen to the Maui Jim Individual in Scottsdale. The two-front weekend was a hit as the freshmen got their feet wet in collegiate golf while the team placed second in Washington.
Junior Preston Summerhays won the Sahalee Players Championship by shooting 5-under 211. The bar was high for Summerhays after his sophomore season, in which he posted a 69.79 stroke average. So far, he’s not playing quite as well as last season but has a 72-stroke average and the hardware from Washington to back up his play.
That same weekend, freshman Fifa Laopakdee started his career at the Maui Jim Individual. Laopakdee shot a 15-under 201 at the tournament to win his first-ever collegiate event. His debut confirmed ASU’s hopes that the globe-trotting Thai golfer has the potential to be the next Ryggs Johnston or Summerhays.
Laopakdee did eventually come back down to Earth by shooting +4 at the Fighting Illini Invitational and +7 at The Williams Cup in Wilmington, North Carolina. Despite his slowdown, he’s still in the infancy of his collegiate career and has the unwavering support of his teammates.
"He's had a really good start to his freshman year," sophomore Luke Potter said. "I think he has a really good chance to be stable in the lineup this year. That's a really good ball striker with a very even-keel personality."
The fall stretch was also the first look at two other promising freshmen. Nick Prieto has played consistently with a 71-stroke average while finishing seven rounds at par or better. Connor Williams is right behind him with a 71.5 stroke average through his first three tournaments.
Diving right into competitive rounds on one of the most prestigious college golf teams in the country can be a daunting task. Luckily, the fall schedule has been filled with long weekends and rigorous practice routines that have helped build team chemistry.
"It's been fun to create a good bond," Williams said. "As a freshman, I was only close with a few guys on the team. But we've all come together pretty close over the first few months of the fall here."
The Sun Devils started playing even better in the latter half of the fall as their freshmen settled in. ASU flew across the country for another split weekend at the Oregon State Invitational and The Williams Cup, dominating the competition at both events.
The Sun Devils also excelled out East as Summerhays, Potter and junior Josele Ballester all placed in the top 15. Their sharp play propelled ASU to third place with a 12-over 876 team score. On the West Coast, Prieto earned his first college victory in Oregon by shooting 4-under 209.
ASU wrapped up its fall stretch at one of the most scenic courses in all of golf at the Cypress Point Classic in Pebble Beach, California. The Sun Devils had never played there before but were looking forward to tapping in putts next to crashing waves and sandy beaches.
"You'd be crazy if you weren't excited to go play Cypress Point,' graduate student Johnston said before the event. "It's kind of one of the coolest spots there is."
ASU overcame Stanford and Tennessee to advance to the picturesque final round. Veteran and rookie Sun Devils alike were crucial to the team’s championship win over Texas as Johnston, Potter, and Prieto all secured tight wins.
The Sun Devils’ high placings are thanks in part to consistency by golfers on the back nine of their careers. Ballester is as reliable as they come on the green. The Spaniard has placed in the top 15 at three of his four events this fall and has an impressive 71.4-stroke average.
Johnston leads Thurmond’s team and is one of his most trusted ball strikers. His stroke average has gone up, but Thurmond believes he’s playing better than he did last year, thanks to improved finishing. Johnston’s best performance was in California when he beat Texas’ Tommy Morrison by two strokes in the championship round.
Yet their terrific fall season isn’t enough for the championship-hungry Sun Devils. Thurmond emphasizes that this season isn’t championship or bust, but it's clear his golfers want to win more than ordinary tournaments.
"As far as the team’s season goes, we had a solid season, but none of us on the team are very happy with the fall we had," Johnston said. "So we're looking forward to working hard this offseason and coming out better in the spring."
At the head of the spring season, the Sun Devils will kick off at the Copper Cup in Maricopa before heading off to Waimea, Hawaii for The Amer Ari.
Edited by Alfred Smith III, Jasmine Kabiri and Grace Copperthite.