A Lot to Live Up to at ASU
By RAY McCARTHYAssistant Editor
WINDERMERE, Fla. - The standards are high at Arizona State.
Two NCAA titles in 1990 and 1996, four first-place finishes at the NCAA West Regionals, and a who's-who of alumni that includes Phil Mickelson, Paul Casey and Billy Mayfair have left a lot for Arizona State's current roster to aspire to.
'When people see ASU on your shirt, they expect nothing except the best,' freshman Jed Dirksen said.
Whether the Sun Devils can live up to such a reputation this year is in question after losing two of the nation's best players in Niklas Lemke and Benjamin Alvarado.
Lemke, a first-team All-American as a senior last year, finished his career with the third-lowest single-season stroke average in ASU history (70.03) behind Casey and Mickelson. Alvarado was a second-team All-American as a sophomore after winning the West Regional and contending at the NCAA Championship.
Both Lemke and Alvarado turned pro after the season, leaving ASU coach Randy Lein with a talented squad lacking in experience.
'I think it's just a matter of them playing enough and getting comfortable,' Lein said.
Norwegian sophomore Knut Borsheim is coming off a strong freshman season and will most likely lead the Sun Devils in the No. 1 spot. Borsheim went 69-66 and was tied for seventh after two rounds at last year's West Regionals until faltering to a final-round 77.
A permanent starting five has not been set yet, Lein said. Most recently, the Sun Devils played three freshmen at the Isleworth-UCF Collegiate Invitational, and two of them - Dirksen and James Byrne - finished Nos. 2 and 3 on the team.
Dirksen had a share of the first-round lead until he was derailed by bogeys on Nos. 16 and 17 to finish the round at 2 under. Dirksen finished 76-76 to place T-40 on the week.
'I really haven't had much of a chance to prove myself,' Dirksen said after the first round. 'I've got to keep playing well to solidify a spot.'
How well ASU's freshmen progress will determine the Sun Devils' level of success this season. The rookies can shoot low scores if they worry less about making mistakes, Lein said.
'A lot of freshmen start out being overly careful because they don't want to hurt the team,' Lein said. 'So they're more conservative than they need to be or should be.'
As a team, the Sun Devils finished a disappointing 16th out of 18 teams at Isleworth, but their season has been marked by streaks of solid play.
A respectable sixth-place finish in the 15-team Ping/Golfweek Preview was highlighted by a sixth-place individual finish from freshman Jesper Kennegard in his college debut.
Kennegard, from Sweden, is one of four Europeans on ASU and is part of a European talent pool that Lein has dipped into when recruiting incoming freshmen. Sweden's Bjorn Akesson has made a verbal commitment to play for Arizona State next fall.
'I've had kind of a Swedish connection since I came to ASU, and Jesper falls right in there,' Lein said. 'He's a very good player, and I think he's only going to get better.'
A plethora of Swedes have come through ASU including Lemke, Per-Ulrik Johansson, and Chris Hanell, who was Golfweek's College Player of the Year in 1997.
Isleworth was the last tournament for the Sun Devils until February when they travel to Hawaii for the Big Island Invitational, and the off-season will be spent honing the Sun Devils' young talent.
Lein hopes to make a statement when his team returns to action.
'I'm hoping come conference time we'll be competitive with USC, UCLA, Stanford, and maybe shock some people,' he said.
Ray McCarthy is a Golfweek assistant editor. To reach him email firstname.lastname@example.org.