CORVALLIS, Ore. - The University of Colorado men's golf team arrived here late Wednesday, excited about the school's first conference championship as a member of the Pac-12 even though it will be one of the toughest fields in college golf's 240-plus events this season.
Six league schools in the consensus top 13 in the nation highlight the tournament, which begins this Friday with 36 holes and single rounds on Saturday and Sunday. The teams will compete on the 7,030-yard, par-72 Trysting Tree Golf Club layout, a Scottish links-style course that caters to long hitters off the tee, is fairly wide open and uses mounds and swales to vary its flat Willamette River flood-plain location.
The Buffaloes opened the 2011-12 season with a pair of victories, in their own Mark Simpson Invitational followed by the Air Force Falcon Invitational. They bookended it with a second place finish in the final tune-up to the league meet at the Wyoming Cowboy Classic two weeks ago. Colorado was ranked as high as No. 10 early in the season thanks to those wins, but will enter the league title meet ranked No. 72. But CU head coach Roy Edwards is not disappointed in his team's triumphs and travails in this, his sixth season at the reins of the program.
"We feel good about it," Edwards said. "When the team has played well, we've played exceptionally well. We had a slow start to the spring but have really picked things up in the last month or so. We've beaten a lot of really good teams this year. It's been a good season and our expectation is to continue to play well."
The team has returned to playing nearly as well as it did at the onset of the season. Though no one has used it as an excuse, the Buffaloes did have to overcome the departure of senior Sebastian Heisele, who graduated in December and turned professional, returning to the United Arab Emirates to work on making the Asian Tour. Heisele was battling fellow senior Kevin Kring for the No. 1 spot on the team and had a 72.1 stroke average last fall.
Kring has secured his No. 1 position with a solid spring and is the team leader with a 72.6 stroke norm. The Pac-12 tournament calls for six golfers to play with the five best scores counting toward the team total, the first time this year CU will play in a 6-for-5 format. Kring will be joined by juniors Derek Fribbs (No. 2 spot), Beau Schoolcraft (No. 3), Jason Burstyn (No. 4) and Johnny Widmer (No. 6), along with true freshman David Oraee (No. 5).
All are eager to see what the Buffaloes can do in a conference that boasts six teams in Golfweek's Top 12: No. 3 UCLA, No. 5 USC, No. 6 Stanford, No. 7 Oregon, No. 8 California and No. 12 Washington.
"It's exciting. It is by far the most competitive goof conference in the country," Edwards said. "It's exciting for us as a 'Northern' school to be competitive with the 'warm-weather' schools. You want to compete against the best, and with six of the top 12 teams in the nation in the conference that's exactly what you get. At the end of the day, those teams can beat you, yet you are still a very good team. I know the guys are really excited about seeing where they stand. There's a collection of great coaches in this league, so it will be exciting to begin a new chapter in our history this year."
When asked what would be a good tournament for the Buffs, Edwards simply noted that, "We have high expectations every time we play. What we always try to do is simply go out there and worry about what we have control over, and with this group, that's going out, having a good time and playing confidently. If we can do that, we've shown that we can be competitive with any team in our league at any given time.
"It's about attitude, confidence, course management and enjoying the moment, all those things," he added. "For us to finish fifth, we would have to beat the three schools ranked behind us, Oregon State on its home course, Arizona and then two teams ranked in the top 12. That's a tall order, but if accomplished, that means we will have played pretty good. But that's not say we're not gunning to finish higher than that."
Schoolcraft, who transferred back home to Colorado after playing two seasons at UCLA, is the only Buff familiar with the Pac-12 format, having played in the Pac-12 tournament when he was a freshman for the Bruins in 2009. Kring played in three Big 12 Championships, while Burstyn appeared in two and Fribbs and Widmer one; Kring owns the best finish in a league by any of this year's participants, tying for 12th (78-71-77-70-296) at Prairie Dunes in 2009 when he was a true freshman. His final round 70, along with a second round 70 by Burstyn in 2010 were the best by a CU freshman in a league meet since Steve Jones shot 70 in the last round of the 1978 Big 8 Championship; those are the low rounds by a rookie Buff in a league meet.
The 6-for 5 scoring format will be a challenge for the Buffaloes, but they appear to embrace the experience.
"We only have seven eligible players (two on the roster are redshirting), and Johnny Widmer (six rounds total this year) will be our sixth guy. This team, we're starting to realize how good each guy could be. This is where depth shows up and pays off when you have to go one roster spot deeper. But Johnny is fired up, and we're going to get the best Johnny Widmer possible this weekend."
Colorado's overall team stroke average is 73.61, which if holds, would stand to be the school's historic best; the 2003-04 squad posted a final 73.77 figure. That number is also seventh-best in the Pac-12, which has seen its member schools win 21 tournaments across the nation this season.
The Buffaloes also rank high in fairways hit, 15th nationally with a 69.6 percent figure, and are 14th in greens in regulation (66.0).
NOTES: Colorado is 91-66-3 against Division I competition, clinching a better than .500 record and thus has met the first criteria for selection into the NCAA Regionals (May 17-19) ... Colorado is 10-24 versus Pac-12 schools so far in 2011-12, participating in tournaments with all 11 other league members on at least one occasion ... USC is the defending champion; how competitive was the 2011 Pac-10 meet? Only 49 strokes separated first and 10th, and that's with a scoring format that includes five players ... Opening pairings are by a random draw (sans the defending champ, which opens in the first groups on No. 1); Colorado is paired with Stanford and Washington State and will tee off on No. 1 at from 10-10:50 a.m. MDT (Round 1) and from 3-3:50 p.m. (Round 2) ... The Pac-12 has embraced the challenge of speeding up play. "The Pac-12 has been a leader in improving the pace of play in college golf, and we've really done a lot of work on it," Edwards said. "What we're trying to do is to establish some standards that when every school hosts a tournament, there are guidelines to communicate to the coaches regarding the awareness of how to play faster instead of to stop playing slow. College golf gets blamed for slow play by other levels, the pros, the juniors. What we're trying to do is to make playing fast the new, cool way to do it, and hopefully it will trickle down to the junior golf programs. That is one of our goals." ... Edwards did not travel with the team Wednesday, as he remained in Boulder with his wife Shelly; the couple is expecting their second child at any hour. Assistant coach Jonathan Levy escorted the team to Oregon and will coach in Edwards' absence until his arrival.