One year ago, the USC men’s golf team entered the national championship as one of the favorites to win the title, with a talented and experienced lineup featuring three All-Americans.
Fast forward to this week, where the No. 10 Trojans are fielding the second youngest squad among the competitors and are regarded as underdogs to challenge for the championship at the Honors Course in Chattanooga, Tenn.
“This year is a different dynamic compared to my first couple years,” junior Matt Giles said. “It’s a very young team with three freshmen in the starting lineup.”
The young Trojans have begun to mature in the second half of the season, finishing in the top three in five of their last six tournaments, including a second place result at last week’s NCAA West Regional in Bremerton, Wash.
USC did, however, finish 29 strokes behind No. 4 Washington last week, one of this year’s title favorites along with No. 1 Oklahoma State, defending NCAA champion No. 2 Texas A&M and No. 4 Stanford.
USC coach Chris Zambri said the Trojans didn’t take Washington’s large margin of victory as a sign that they couldn’t compete with the Huskies and other top teams.
“One thing is that we’re not going to be in Washington, we’re going to be down in Tennessee,” Zambri said. “The other is the way the tournament is formatted. [Washington] could play like that again but go up against a team in match play that is hot and we wouldn’t have to play them.”
The new NCAA championships format, used for the first time last year, calls for three rounds of stroke play from Tuesday to Thursday to determine the top eight teams out of the 30 squad field.
The eight advancing teams are then seeded for three days of single elimination match play from Friday to Sunday to determine a national champion.
“I think we have the ability to play with a team like [Washington], but we don’t necessarily have to,” Zambri said about the format.
Last season, USC finished third in the stroke play and lost to Michigan in the first round of the match play, 3-2.
Giles, a two-time All-American, and sophomore Steve Lim are the only two starters back from last year’s quarterfinalists.
For much of this season, Giles couldn’t replicate the form that made him the nation’s top-ranked player for a long stretch last year. Still, Giles posted three top-10 finishes on the season.
Lim, second on the team in scoring average, has finished in the top 15 four times this year.
Freshman T.J. Vogel led USC with a 72.16 scoring average and grabbed two second place results on the season.
Fellow freshman Martin Trainer was a fixture in the lineup for the Trojans all season and placed in the top 25 six times.
Sam Smith, the third freshman starter for USC, earned the final spot in the starting lineup.
His breakout performances this year were a tie for 20th at the Pac-10 championships and a tie for 24th at the NCAA West Regional.
“Looking back on his record for us throughout the season, whenever he’s teed it up for us, he’s contributed quite a bit by putting in scoring rounds,” Zambri said of Smith.
With the young team, the Trojans are embracing their status as underdogs.
“It doesn’t really matter what’s happened to this point in time,” Giles said. “This is where we are and we need to go out and play well.”
“We’ve all gotten so much better,” Smith added. “We want to bring a ring back to ’SC.”