First, the headline. The California Golden Bears mens golf team is the number one team in the nation, as the NCAA finals begin at Georgia Tech's home course this week. By itself, to non-golfers, that headline would be totally unremarkable. But it is without any doubt in my mind the most amazing collegiate sports story of the year. If the Golden Bears win the tournament (no sure thing), they'd doubtless be the story of the year, ahead of even Michigan's youth-movement run for the NCAA basketball title in March.
There are two equally amazing things about Cal golf right now. First, is the way that they have dominated competitions that were supposed to be close. Unlike a lot of big-time golf programs (Oklahoma State, Stanford, Texas, Alabama, Georgia Tech, UCLA, USC, etc.) Cal doesn't win with two or three stud recruits. Cal puts out a team where four or five guys play with unbelievable balance. They are all playing some very good golf. And they have been destroying some of the best competition in the nation. The Pac 12 (with golf powers Stanford, Washington, UCLA, USC and Oregon) is always loaded. They are more "the SEC of golf" than even the SEC is the SEC of golf.
The second amazing thing about Cal is that they don't have any stud recruits at all. Because the golf team was, uh, cut by the Cal athletic department. That's right; they don't get any funding. None. Zero. They have a bare-bones budget, and they have to scrounge all of their funds themselves, privately.
Imagine, say, that Michigan's hockey team was cut due to budget constraints. And that with no funding, the players determined that they wanted to play anyway, and had to raise the funds to pay Red Berenson, and support a team. And that even while doing that, they made it to the NCAAs as the number one team in the country.
So now the NCAA tournament finals begin this week in Atlanta, and it will be a very tough haul for the Cal Golden Bears, because of the new (since 2009) tournament format. What used to be a gigantic accumulated-total stroke play event (Cal would be heavily favored if that were the format) is now a team match play event. Imagine the Ryder Cup, only as an event over six days with 16 teams playing.
The new tournament format makes for one of the most exciting golf tournaments I know of. I saw the last day in 2009 when it was at Inverness in Toledo. And the Michigan team led by Lion Kim had made an unlikely run to the semi-finals losing the day before. The whole thing in '09 was decided on the last day, in the last match of the day, on the last hole, by the last approach shot from out of the right rough on 18. Producing Texas A&M's first national championship in anything. Unbelievable. The new team-matchplay format also creates an environment for massive upset potential through the week, given what can happen in match play. Sort of like the NCAA basketball tournament, but squeezed into six days instead of two weeks.
Texas A&M winning in '09. This is funny video to me, because I was standing next to the guy who hit the last shot and saw the whole thing right in front of me:
The tournament is apparently being shown only on NCAA.com. Maybe that's good; anybody can stream it I think. Unlike something like ESPN6 or NBCObscureSportsNetwork. The Golf Channel is really missing the boat by not broadcasting this one live.
If you live in Atlanta, by all means try to take this one in.
Div. I Championship page is here:
The amazing story of Cal golf is here:
FAQ's on why Cal got into its sports budget bind, complete with obligatory mention of how Title IX always screws things up: