Mickelson Has ASU Golf Team On Its Way to Top 50
Tim Mickelson looks back and laughs, while insisting that there never was a real defining moment of panic in his debut season as the Arizona State men’s golf coach. Indeed, if there were any doubts about the 2011-2012 campaign, a year of that saw the Sun Devils plunge to No. 83 in the country and miss the NCAA tournament, it didn’t come from the little brother of ASU icon Phil Mickelson.
“I always felt like we were on the right track,” said the younger Mickelson, who shook up his team last summer after his initial season by paring the roster almost in half and bringing in three freshmen and a transfer from East Tennessee State.
“I know that a few of our fans disagreed with that – us being on track. In fact, I even got an email from one of them in October, saying that I should be fired. It was like, ‘Whoa, dude, after just one year (on the job)?’ I just don’t think they really understood the state of the program.”
Imagine how that disgruntled fan(s) feels now after Mickelson pulled off what has to be the biggest resurgence in college golf for 2012-13. Ranked most of the season between No. 63 and 82, the Sun Devils made a late-season charge, entered the West NCAA Regional at No. 50 in the polls, and promptly qualified with a gutsy performance as one of 30 teams that will play this week (May 28-June 1) in the NCAA Championship in Atlanta.
That’s right, nobody came from farther down in the rankings to earn a spot in the six-day shootout that is set for the Crabapple Course at the Capital City Club.
“I’m proud to say that (this week) we’ll be representing ASU in the NCAA tournament for a 50th time, which is a really cool milestone,” said Mickelson, pointing out that only Oklahoma State (69), Texas (59) and USC (54) have been to the big dance more.
“It’s something we’re going to talk a little bit about when we get to Atlanta. I want the guys to know just how special this really is. Sure, the goal is to finish in the top eight and gain the match play (portion of the tournament). But they’re also going to get some wonderful experience out of it – they’ll know what it feels like — and that’s invaluable for such a young team going into next season.”
After dominating men’s college golf for most of this season, No. 1 California is the heavy favorite this week along with No. 2 Alabama, which has the experience factor. It’s certainly no easy feat that after three days of medal play (Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday), in which the individual champ will be crowned after 54 holes, and then the final eight schools will battle it out in a team vs. team format until one survives the match-play gauntlet to win the NCAA title.
Shoot, ASU came from similar depths at the regional, which was hosted at the ASU Karsten Course in Tempe, rallying on the final day to get the fifth and final spot over No. 9 Duke. That its top three players were all freshmen certainly bodes well, as Trey Ka’ahanui (tie for ninth), Max Rottluff (T20) and Jon Rahm (T23) led the way. And as Mickelson pointed out, Spencer Lawson (T25), his junior transfer, and Scottsdale sophomore Austin Quick (T41), also contributed.
Mickelson said he had expected strong performances from Rahm, the Pac-12 Freshman of the Year, and Rottluff, a highly recruited standout from Germany. But Ka’ahanui, a 19-year-old from Tempe McClintock, well, that was “my biggest surprise.”
“Trey had struggled off the tee in the fall, but when he got his chance this spring, he seized it,” Mickelson said. “I could see it coming after he realized he didn’t have to hit his driver off every tee. Hey, he hits his 3-wood farther than most guys hit their driver, and when he scaled it back, he actually became a better driver of the ball when he did use that club.
“That part of his game certainly showed in the final round of the regional, when he helped us pull away from (No. 9) Duke with a (career best) 65. And all the guys came through at one time or another, which is why we’re going to Atlanta.”
Mickelson called Ka’ahanui “a stud athlete who plays any sport well.” He wasn’t necessarily a standout his senior year at McClintock, but Mickelson knew that Ka’ahanui had won the AJGA Heather Farr Classic as an eighth-grader, and state 4-A high school titles his sophomore and junior years before he sort of bottomed out as a senior and failed to finish in the top 20 at state. Oh, yes, and there was one other factor that came into play — Ka’ahanui’s older brother, Trent, had played for Mickelson when Tim was the coach at the University of San Diego.
“I’ve always had a great relationship with Tim,” said Ka’ahunui, who moved here from Hawaii when he was just a small child and grew up playing Shalimar Golf Club, just a few miles south of ASU.
“Tim’s not really a disciplinarian, but we all know exactly what he expects. He’s a really, really good teacher, but he still lets us play our game. He kind of lets us figure it out on our own, and I think that’s probably the reason we kept getting better as the season went on.”
The name Mickelson always brings great expectations, that’s true. Phil Mickelson is probably the most well-known, former ASU athlete in history along with the late Pat Tillman. But Tim Mickelson just might be onto something, the way he’s bringing his Sun Devils along slowly but surely. Plus the good players are starting to multiply, which also is a good sign.
For instance, Mickelson already has another great freshman on the team in Alberto Sanchez from Nogales, who played most of the season before struggling this spring. And Mickelson’s got three solid incoming freshmen in Nicola Galletti, a Phoenix kid who moved here from California a year ago; Ki Taek Lee, a standout from Palm Springs, Calif.; and Scottsdale’s Blake Cannon.
“Two of those three (incoming freshman) will play next year, as will Alberto,” Mickelson predicted. “So I love the direction we’re heading, and getting to the (NCAA) tournament this year, well, that’s just a really big bonus.”
Let’s see, the current five plus three more equals eight players vying for a five-man team, a situation that ever coach wants to be in, especially those who arrived at one point to find the cupboard bare. No doubt Mickelson is savoring his future.
“What does this season mean to me, personally?” Mickelson asked rhetorically. “Well, I think we’re a little bit ahead of where I thought we might be, and that’s nice.
Then he added with a wink: ““And I think there’s a good chance I’ll have a job next year.”
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