MARANA, Ariz. — The University of Colorado men’s golf team arrived here Wednesday and got two solid days of practice in ahead of the 55th annual Pac-12 Conference Championships, which start Friday as the Buffaloes are out to post their best finish in their third year as a member of the nation’s premier college golf league.
The Gallery Golf Club in this Tucson suburb is serving as host of the tournament, which features 36 holes on Friday and then 18 each on the weekend; the club’s challenging desert layout will play to 7,349-yards and to par-72.
California, ranked No. 3, enters as the league’s two-time defending champion; once again, the Pac-12 is one of if not the nation’s premier golf conference, as the league boasts five schools in the top 20 and eight in the top 53. The Buffaloes finished eighth in their inaugural Pac-12 appearance in 2012, and dipped to 10th last year, though were just eight shots out of seventh.
"We’re excited to head to Tucson,” head coach Roy Edwards said. “The team has really grown and developed throughout the year and it’s been enjoyable to watch. We‘re really excited to get to this part of the schedule.
“We’ve been pleased with the season so far, and in particular knowing that we were going to have a young team and it was going to take some time to come together and gel,” he continued. “We’re really looking forward to what lies ahead and we’re optimistic for what we can achieve. I do look at this as the start of our postseason. We’re playing for championships from here on out and everyone looks at it that way; these are our playoffs. It’s an exciting time of year, another level up from the regular season.”
The Buffaloes are currently ranked No. 53 in the nation by GolfStat (No. 57 in the Golfweek ratings, both out of 302 schools), having won one tournament and finished second in three others; CU has tied a school best with seven top five major tournament finishes this season, with all of those actually having been in the top four. Colorado has enjoyed one of its finest spring seasons on record, and it has showed in the rankings as the Buffaloes have climbed from where they ended the fall in the mid-80s.
Colorado will be represented by one of its youngest teams it has ever taken to a conference championship; in fact, the Buffaloes will have three freshmen competing for just the second time in its history (and no senior for the first time since 2005). One junior and two sophomores have accompanied the three true frosh to the Arizona desert, with those “elder statesmen” having played in four previous Pac-12 championship events.
Junior David Oraee, sophomores Philip Juel-Berg and Drew Trujillo, and freshmen Ethan Freeman and identical twins Jeremy and Yannik Paul are in Arizona to compete for the Buffaloes, equaling in experience the youngest CU team ever in a league title meet with those in 2003 (three freshmen, one junior and one senior) and 2010 (two freshmen, two sophomores, one senior); all three groups earned a collective 10 letters, though this time those 10 are spread over six players instead of five.
Jeremy Paul is CU’s No. 1 man here, and he enters as the Buffs’ top performer with a 72.03 stroke average, well on pace to set a school freshman record; he is two shy of the Colorado record for subpar rounds in a season as he has 16 to date. Yannik Paul has the next best stroke norm at 72.63 and he’s playing at the No. 3 spot; Oraee is in the No. 2 position, as he owns a 73.0 mark for the year with a 72.13 spring average.
Oraee tied for 27th as a freshman in the 2012 Pac-12 Championship, CU’s first as a member of the league; he turned in a 5-over 293 in Corvallis; he tied for 42nd last year at Los Angeles Country Club (19-over 299); Juel-Berg tied for 24th to lead all CU players last year (292, or 12-over) while Trujillo finished 63rd (a 28-over 308, though he settled down after a first round 81).
Edwards has no worries about taking such a young team to the conference meet.
“I’m really confident about it, there are no nerves or butterflies,” he said. “These guys are very good players, they haven’t been freshmen since September because they have so many rounds under their belt. If they can play with confidence and make good decisions strategically, they’re going to play well because when they’ve done that over the course of the season, that’s what they have done. In general, I’m not nervous that we’re taking three freshmen; I believe they’re ready to go out there and perform.
“Really, they’re freshman in name only. We’ve been through a lot this year, they’ve played in a lot tournaments, they’ve already proven they can compete with and beat anybody.”
Of the 72 players in the field, there are just 14 freshmen set to compete; Colorado and Stanford each have three frosh, and GolfStat has the Buffalo youngsters ranked as the top performing freshman class in the nation with the Cardinal ranked ninth. Arizona State and Oregon each have two freshmen entered, and four others one apiece.
The Buffaloes took three frosh to the 2003 Big 12 Championships and tied for sixth, though turning in the third best score of the final round. Edward McGlasson tied for 19th to turn in the best performance of the three, which included Blake Moore and Derek O’Neill. The best finish by a CU freshman in a conference meet came in 1979, when Rick Cramer finished runner-up in the Big 8 Championship to Bob Tway.
The Pac-12 has long instituted a 6-for 5 scoring format for its title meet, obviously a reward for those schools with greater depth and a challenge for those without it. This will be the second straight year that it will the first such meet with that format for the Buffs, who have enjoyed their most consistent play from both the fourth (74.7 scoring average in tournaments) and fifth (77.5) positions in quite some time.
“We have good depth, and we’ve proven that we can take advantage of an opportunity and I see this as another one,” Edwards said. “We’ve had pretty good fourth- and fifth-man scoring averages most of the season, so all this (format) does is just moves the bar down a notch. Drew (Trujillo, CU’s No. 6 here) played in a lot of tournaments last year and he’s really excited to get out there and compete, and I’m excited to watch him go out there and do just that. Depth is something we focus on throughout the year which is why we play a lot of individuals in tournaments.”
Colorado’s overall team stroke average is 73.41, which if holds, would stand to be the school’s best in its long history, with the spring number of 72.48 well over a stroke better than any previous mark.
“We don’t know a whole lot about the course,” Edwards noted about the Gallery, which opened in late 1999. “There are some gradual elevation changes, it’s about 2800 feet, it’s not overly long but I know you have to hit it straight. Luke Symons (former CU golfer) is a member there, and he’ll be at the tournament, so we’ll gain a little knowledge from him because he’s played a couple of hundred rounds on it and he’ll pass some info on to me.”
Edwards has high expectations on what would be a good tournament for the Buffs.
“Our focus is always playing as good as we can, and if we do that, we can be competitive with anybody in our league,” he said. “We just need to take care of business by playing smart and with confidence, managing our games with calculated risks, and when we do that, we have played at a high level. And if we do that in Arizona, things can fall right and we can be competitive for the title. If for some reason we fall short of that, the Pac-12 is still so good that we can still beat a lot of really good teams in our league.”
NOTES: Colorado is 113-39-7 against Division I competition, clinching a better than .500 record and thus has met the first criteria for selection into the NCAA Regionals (May 15-17); CU qualified last year for the postseason but was left out two years ago despite owning a winning record, so nothing is ever a sure thing … Colorado is 11-15-2 versus Pac-12 schools so far in 2013-14, participating in tournaments with all 11 other league members on at least one occasion; the Buffs are 1-13-1 against the seven schools ranked ahead of them in tournaments, but are 14-30-1 in head-to-head individual rounds … CU is thus 102-24-5 against non-Pac-12 competition … Opening pairings are by a random draw (sans the defending champ, California, which opens in the first group on No. 1); Colorado got that draw and will be paired with No. 4 Cal and No. 20 Southern California and will tee off on No. 1 from 8:30-9:20 a.m. MDT (Round 1) and from 1:30-2:20 p.m. (Round 2).