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Season in review: Stanford men’s golf

For the Stanford men’s golf team, the 2013-14 campaign seemed like one of destiny. After failing to advance to the NCAA finals a season ago with a roster loaded with experience and talent, the Cardinal were undoubtedly on a mission to reverse the program’s recent trend of underperformance when the stakes were at their highest.

(HECTOR GARCIA-MOLINA/StanfordPhoto)

This season, junior Patrick Rodgers (above) tied Tiger Woods for the most individual titles won by a Stanford golfer. Rodgers will be forgoing his senior year to join the professional circuit. (HECTOR GARCIA-MOLINA/stanfordphoto.com )

By early March, everything seemed to be coalescing: Senior Cameron Wilson was establishing himself as one of college golf’s best, junior Patrick Rodgers was ready to go out on a high note after announcing his intention to turn professional and the squad’s depth was filling out nicely. Head coach Conrad Ray had it all in his squad of exceptional frontrunners and strong players to fill the 3-4 slots in good form. It felt as though this would be the time, the year when veteran prowess would intersect with youthful exuberance and create a winning formula. And win it did.

Stanford notched the first of its program-high six tournament victories in October at the Erin Hills Intercollegiate, dominating the 14-team field en route to an eight-shot win over UCLA. Rodgers collected individual medalist honors in what was then the sixth victory of his collegiate career, prevailing by three strokes in rounds of 68-72-69. Wilson and sophomore David Boote also flexed their muscles at the Marquette-hosted event, finishing T-6th at 2-under. Highly touted freshman Jim Liu gave the Card a fourth golfer in the top 10, coming in at T-10th despite beginning his final round with a 10 on the par-5 first hole. Classmate Maverick McNealy also squeezed into the top 25. This was this type of depth the unit would rely on for much of its season.

“Our guys did a nice job in their preparation and practice gearing up to the event, and I think that served us well at the tournament,” Ray said after the event. “It was neat to see the team win and play well with the lead [Tuesday]. They hit some smart shots, avoided trouble and double bogeys, which is something we’ve been talking a lot about and they’ve been working on.”

After failing to maintain its momentum at the U.S. Collegiate Championships later in October, Stanford ended the month and its four-event fall schedule on a stronger note at the Royal Oaks Intercollegiate. Held at the Royal Oaks Country Club in Dallas, Texas, the tournament featured an Oklahoma State squad with which the Cardinal would become very familiar. The Cowboys easily outpaced the field, finishing with a cumulative 36-under score en route to a 16-stroke win over the Card. Amazingly, OSU put four in front of Rodgers and Wilson, who turned-in T-8th, 7-under performances to wrap up their fall slates. Once again, Boote showed signs that perhaps he could be a rock in the third position for Stanford with his 5-under, T-13th finish.

I think we were all happy with the fall,” Ray said in early December. “I think that at this point in the year, we’re in the position where we’re working on things — landmines, roadblocks, whatever you might say — that are in our way of being at our best in the spring. That’s what our fall schedule provided us: a great data sample and getting a bunch of guys experience. Eight out of our 10 players on the team saw some action in tournament play. We played some very good competition on some difficult golf courses and in different conditions than we might see every day at Stanford, so there’s a ton of positives after our fall campaign.”

The team translated those positives into spring success, taking team medalist honors in five of its seven tournaments leading up to the NCAA championships. From the middle of February to the middle of May, the Card were nearly unstoppable. It was a memorable stretch of play that is not likely to be surpassed by another Stanford squad for some time.

The run began at The Prestige at PGA West in the California desert, where the picturesque course designed by legend Greg Norman was said to be “challenging but fair.” But Stanford took most of the challenge out of the team race after the first frame, which saw the Cardinal post a 15-under 269 score to give them an insurmountable 11-shot lead. Even a wild rally from Washington on the event’s final day could not supplant the Cardinal from the top of the team leaderboard. Rodgers notched his seventh individual win on the strength of his first round 65 to tie Joel Kribel ‘99 for the second-most individual wins in program history.

It was more of the same at the Southern Highlands Collegiate Masters for Rodgers, who just days before the event had announced his intention to make the jump to the professional ranks after the spring season concluded. The decision seemed to lift a huge weight from his shoulders as he went on to notch his seventh NCAA win and second consecutive win with rounds of 74-69-74 in Las Vegas. The Cardinal lost to host UNLV by the same margin for their only tournament loss from Feb. 17 through May 27.

“It was great, like a small weight lifted off my shoulders,” remarked the well-spoken Rodgers after making his professional intentions known. “And I think it’s really showed with the way I’ve played. I was able to focus on playing my best golf and helping my team win. I’ve been really comfortable and at peace with the decision.”

Stanford kept its momentum rolling at its only home event of the season, easily outrunning the field at The Goodwin on the Stanford Golf Course. Ray’s group defeated second-place USC and UCLA by twenty ticks, with Rodgers once again taking individual medalist honors. His 14-under 196 put the outgoing junior six strokes clear of his nearest opponents and gave him his third straight event victory. It was a good win for both Rodgers and his teammates.

Cameron Wilson’s turn was next, as the Cardinal’s senior leader used clutch final round putting to take gold at April’s Western Intercollegiate, spurring his team to its third win in four starts. This strong ending to its regular season that gave Stanford the confidence it so effortlessly exuded going into the championship portion of its schedule.

“This was a big win for me,” Wilson said at the time. “I’ve been in contention a lot this year and haven’t played poorly but haven’t played well at the end of the final rounds. To do that this week felt great.”

Rodgers, Wilson, Ray and company made history at the Pac-12 Championships a few weeks later, winning the program’s first conference title since 1994 in the most dominating of fashions. Stanford led from the start and placed all five of its players in the individual top 20, annihilating its Pac-12 foes: Washington was second, 15 strokes off the pace, with two-time defending conference champion Cal 29 shots back. Predictably, Rodgers finished atop the individual leaderboard, and was now just one behind Tiger Woods’ program record.

The Card displayed the same type of dominance at the Eugene Regional, breezing through the event without ever surrendering the team lead. It was an important step for the Cardinal, finally bringing some closure to their heart-wrenching seventh-place position at the 2013 Columbus Regional. Rodgers won again, not that his victory came as any surprise. But it was a significant victory, as it tied him with Woods for the program lead in victories.

While Rodgers aimed to break the deadlock at the NCAA Championships, it was his teammate Wilson who finished on top at Prairie Dunes, ending his collegiate career by winning Stanford’s third individual national championship by defeating rival Ollie Schniederjans in a third-round playoff. Also of note was Boote, who made an impressive run up the leaderboard in the final round, placing T-3rd in the particularly competitive field.

“I was a little nervous, but more than anything I was really excited,” Wilson told the media after the playoff. “I was really excited for the opportunity, and I made it a point to just enjoy the day and everything that came with it.

“More than anything, I was just really loving the chance to win and loving being here with my guys,” Wilson continued. “Once I knew from coach that we were doing well in the team portion, I really didn’t feel that much pressure to win.”

But the sort of depth the Cardinal exhibited in the stroke play portion of NCAAs did not carry over into the match play rounds, where they were dispatched by Oklahoma State in the semifinals, 3-2. It was a tough break for a team that will have a tough time reaching the NCAA finals next year, in large part because of Wilson and Rodgers’ departures.

Ray will now turn to Boote and rising sophomores Liu, McNealy and Viraat Badhwar to carry the load in the 2014-15 campaign. Returnees Patrick Grimes and Dominick Francks will also have ample opportunity to prove their worth, as will the three freshmen the program will welcome. Next year will be a telling one for Stanford, as the squad will try to show it was and is more than just its two frontrunners.

But the bottom line is that the consistently great production from Rodgers and Wilson — 14 collegiate wins between the two — simply cannot be replaced. All in all, repeating their historic 2014 spring season figures to be an exceedingly tough task for the Card — not impossible, but certainly challenging.

Contact Cameron Miller at cmiller6 ‘at’ stanford.edu.

About Cameron Miller

Cameron Miller is a sports desk editor for The Stanford Daily's Vol. 245 and is the men's and women's golf writer. Cameron is also a Stanford student-athlete, competing on the cross country and track and field teams. He is originally from Bakersfield, California, but spends most of his time away from the Farm on the state's Central Coast. Contact him at cmiller6@stanford.edu.