In advance of the 2014 Stanford men’s golf season, The Daily’s Cameron Miller spoke with men’s golf head coach Conrad Ray to get perspective on events since the end of last season.
The Stanford Daily (TSD): Now that we’re a month removed from the team’s fall schedule, what are your biggest takeaways from the four tournaments your team played?
Conrad Ray (CR): I think we were all happy with the fall. 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 everyday at Stanford, so there’s a ton of positives after our fall campaign.
TSD: Was there a tournament or individual performance that was of particular note to you?
CR: I think tournament-wise, clearly our win at Erin Hills was a neat experience. I felt like our guys were on top of their game. We had a good game plan that week, so to pick up a win in that field — very competitive, beating UCLA, SMU and some good teams — was a positive.
On the individual side, finishes of note would include Cameron Wilson picking up his first individual win as a senior in one of the staunchest fields we’ll have all year at Olympia Fields. That really was a springboard for him all fall, and I felt like he played with a lot of confidence. He did some great things for our team.
TSD: It seems like the team’s big win at Erin Hills was the signature event of the fall. What are the big lessons the team can take from that tournament specifically?
CR: Our team, the group that we’ve put together — including the younger guys coming up behind — we rarely lack in offense. Our problems often lie in defense. What I mean by that is the bigger numbers. We did a good job that week, minus a weird bobble from Jim Liu on the last day, from keeping our ball out of trouble, eliminating the double bogeys and using our short games and scoring ability to keep it close to the center line.
TSD: What were your goals for the team in the fall season, given the NCAA Championships are more than six months away? What do you look for as a coach during this period?
CR: What comes out of the more tournaments you play and the trips you make is you start to realize the certain roles guys have on the team. I think that’s an important thing. Each guy is preparing to win the golf tournament, but as a coach you’re thinking: “Who are the five I can put out there that give us the best chance to win?” So that’s what helpful for me. I also think momentum is key. Obviously, winning momentum is a great thing, but there’s oftentimes when we’ll go play a tournament and even though the result may be a spot or two lower on the board, we’ll feel pretty good about what happened. Maybe we played a great final round or we overcame something. Looking at the team from the 10,000-foot level and saying, “Okay, what group can we put out there that creates the best momentum and gives us the best vibes when we’re on the road?”
TSD: Your squad is a mix of experience and youth. Let’s turn first to the veterans Cam Wilson and Patrick Rodgers. What did you think of their play this fall, and how have they stepped into bigger leadership roles?
CR: It’s fun to see that every year. Guys step up and become leaders, and they get in a position where they’re playing with confidence. They know the courses oftentimes that we’re going to, they know what to expect, how to lay out their schedules for peak performance. So both those guys have done a great job with that. Both of them picked up an individual win, so that’s great momentum. I would say with Cameron, out of all of the guys, was on top of his game the most. That doesn’t necessarily mean he’s shooting the best scores — he and Patrick, they’re kind of hand in hand there in terms of scoring. Rodgers made up for maybe a little bit of a downturn in his ball striking with a great short game and mental approach, some great final rounds. I think they’re both in great position to be All-Americans and lead us as we move through this spring. It was neat to see.
TSD: For these two especially, the 2012-13 season certainly did not end how they wanted it to. How have you seen the disappointing finish to last year motivate Cam and Patrick during the early portion of this season?
CR: I think after something like that that happens, the one thing you can’t ever do is take things for granted. Not to say we did last year, but I think every year college golf gets deeper. So I think now our guys — especially those two leading us — there is more of a sense of urgency maybe, and I think that’s a healthy thing. There’s a lot of intrinsic motivation with this group, and I don’t have to bug them to practice a whole lot. These guys work hard; I think that’s driven by the older guys but also by the younger guys.
TSD: You also played three freshmen in your lineup this fall. In what ways did you see them grow during the four tournaments, and do you see them playing a big role during the spring?
CR: I do. I think as much as they played, all three of them can play better, which is great. I think as far as golf experience goes, Viraat Badhwar and Jim Liu have played as much golf, if not more, than a lot of guys on the team. They might be freshmen in age, but especially Jim and Viraat — coming in as highly touted recruits — and Maverick McNealy too, it’s just that he hadn’t had the same exposure to national golf as those other guys. I think those two guys we’re going to lean on and expect big things from this spring. It’s good to have some young guys who are pushing. They know that one day they’ll maybe be in the spot that Rodgers and Cam are right now.
We pay a lot of attention to our short games and scoring shots, and I think especially Viraat and Maverick saw that come out in their scores. I think at the college level, it’s often not about hitting it better but scoring more. And how do you do that? Well, you chip and putt, scramble better and make your bad days better. I saw big growth in both of those guys’ short games. Jim Liu had a solid short game to begin with, and he’s continued to work on that. I think the other thing we worked on is shot value. And what I mean by that is controlling your trajectory, controlling your golf ball, leaving it in the right spot and understanding how to use those tools and take it to the new course you’re experiencing. It’s really just increasing odds of performance, and that’s what we focused on.
TSD: Will your guys play any tournaments this winter? How important is it for them to stay sharp when there are no NCAA events during this period?
CR: I think it’s a balance. I think for some of the guys that played a ton this fall — a guy like Patrick Rodgers — they came off of a very busy summer. So for him, maybe this time is spent better resting, recharging the battery. He’s testing some new equipment and some stuff that’s going to benefit him down the road. But for a guy like Patrick Grimes, for example, who kind of got a couple events in there as our fourth or fifth guy, he’s going to go play some local events. He also signed up for a big event down in Miami, the South Beach Amateur [and missed the cut]. Cameron Wilson has been asked to join a U.S. contingent down to Australia with Viraat Badhwar. They’re going to play in the Masters of the Amateurs, which is a big Australian amateur event [Wilson finished 4th, Badhwar finished T-32nd]. Viraat is actually the defending champion — that was a big one that he marked on his resume before he got to Stanford.
TSD: What has been the point of emphasis so far during your team’s offseason work? Is there one overarching theme you’ve been focusing on or is it very individual specific?
CR: In an offseason, as guys are digesting their tournament information after the fall, if every guy does their part to get one percent better in every area of their game and worry about their own business, that’s really going to feed up to the team experience. These guys really do have a great team dynamic, but that’s motivating them to go take care of their own business and be the guy that everyone can lean on when they need to.
We take a very strong statistical approach. We not only track rounds at school, but tournament rounds. So within those rounds in that data set, we have a very good understanding of what each guy needs to work on individually. So we give them practice plans based on that. It’s funny, though, because there are a lot of common points. I mentioned earlier that short game becomes an undercurrent theme: If you can have a short game as team, you’re going to do well. So we stress that as a group, but we also know that each guy very specific, individual things that he can work in to his practice routines.
TSD: Is there anyone on your team that we haven’t yet talked about that you believe could play a pivotal role in your team’s success in the coming months? How do you feel about your team’s depth at this point?
CR: That’s the beauty of the group we have. It’s hard to predict that. You get a guy like Dominick Francks, who came in hitting the ball better than he has his whole life. He qualified for our first event. Then he hit some roadblocks with his putting, but he’s started to shore that up. He’s a whale of a competitor and an athlete and a guy who’s had some experience, so he’s a guy that could bust in there. And then you got guys like Shane Lebow who’s a senior and hasn’t played a ton, but he’s in that mode where “Okay, my time at Stanford is ending, it’s winding down.” He’s relaxed and enjoying golf and enjoys being around the team. So you just never know, right? That’s the beauty of golf — it can change on a dime, for sure.
I’m excited about [the team’s depth]. I think that’s a huge key to successful college teams. You can have a lot of depth, but you also need one or two guys to break out of their current trends. I think if you look at the history of teams who are winning at the end of the year, they typically have one or two guys that are doing something different than they did in the fall, overachieving. So we’re looking for who that’s going to be — we don’t know yet.
TSD: The Pac-12 Conference has been ultra-competitive in men’s golf in recent memory. Do you expect much of the same this spring? What are the advantages and disadvantages of playing in such a stacked league?
CR: I think the league has never been stronger. I like our position in the league so far. I think we’re right near No. 2 on the list, nipping at Cal’s heels a little bit. We’re pushing them. I think we’ll see a lot of those schools in the spring, and that’s how it usually works. We stay more west with our schedule, and so it’s a challenge. One of the big goals we’ve talked about is seeing if we pull in that Pac-12 crown — that’s something that’s been a little bit elusive for us, even in my career actually.
TSD: Now looking even past the spring season, your program recently added three signees for the class of 2018. Talk about what Franklin, Bradley and Jeffrey will bring to the team in the coming years.
CR: They’re going to bring a bunch to the team. I think they’re all great student athletes, all really good guys. They have very diverse backgrounds, which I think is kind of neat. We have one local guy, one Midwestern guy and one SoCal guy. They all have won tournaments — they all have tremendous upside in our estimation. They don’t bring with them a top-10 ranking, but that’s okay. We like that, because we feel like they’ll play their way into that position. They’re open to joining a really good team and having great weather, great facilities at their disposal to see what can happen.
Contact Cameron Miller at cmiller6 ‘at’ stanford.edu.