Counting Down The Days
It's been a long time since Stanford Men's Golf was able to complete a normal season. In fact, the last time that occurred, the Cardinal were walking off the course at Blessings Golf Course in Fayetteville, Ark. as 2019 National Champions.
The 2019-20 season was cut short due to the onset of the COVID-19 global pandemic, the 2020-21 season did not have a fall schedule and ended at NCAA Regionals with two Cardinal regulars on the shelf due to COVID.
"I think we had some high goals last year, but I also feel like we had to take some lumps, too," Knowles Family Director of Men's Golf Conrad Ray said. "I think that maturity is paying off and showing up with our results in the fall. Some guys had really good summers of golf and that seemed to carry over."
Stanford Men's Golf begins the spring schedule on Thursday, Feb. 3 at the Amer Ari Invitational in Hawaii. The Cardinal is ranked No. 7 nationally after four Top 5s in the fall, including a win at the Colonial Collegiate Invitational.
The Cardinal's deep roster is led by sixth-year senior Henry Shimp. Shimp, who was a junior on the 2019 national champion team, continues to be a strong presence both on and off the course.
"We call him Professor Shimp," Ray said. "He's been here a while and it's super cool to see him take advantage of the co-term program at Stanford in MS&E. He really epitomizes what student-athlete means. He has a calm presence – he's been playing great too – and he's looked upon as a leader on the team. He's in great physical shape, and pushes guys off the course as well as on. He's awesome to have on the team."
Shimp started the season with a T12th finish at the OFCC/Fighting Illini Invitational before a T3rd at the Colonial Collegiate Invitational where he helped lead the Cardinal to a victory. He finished the fall with a 71.17 scoring average, playing in all 12 rounds for Stanford.
When looking at the Stanford roster, one's eyes immediately go to the sophomore class and highly touted second-year players Michael Thorbjornsen and Karl Vilips. That class also includes Jake Beber-Frankel, whom Ray says has every bit the physical ability of the other two.
"That's our diesel engine right there," Ray said of the sophomore class. "If all three guys get it going, we're going to be awesome. Even though they're sophomores, they still kind of feel like freshmen."
The trio was ranked as the No. 1 recruiting class in the Fall of 2020 when they signed, but were obviously impacted by the oddity of their freshman year and the effects COVID had on college golf. Coming off a strong summer, Thorbjornsen carried his play into the fall with two Top-10 finishes to begin the schedule, including tying for second at Colonial. Vilips was a steady force all fall, finishing in the Top 20 at all four tournaments, including third- and fifth-place finishes to round out the schedule at the Golf Club of Georgia Collegiate and Saint Mary's Invitational, respectively.
Vilips finished the fall with a 70.00 scoring average in 12 rounds, while Thorbjornsen was right behind him at 70.25. The duo played 16 of their 24 combined rounds in the fall at even-par or better. Beber-Frankel played as an individual in one tournament during the fall, finishing tied for ninth at the Saint Mary's Invitational with a career-best 2-under 211.
"I think the big transition for them is that they're getting better physically," Ray said. "They're putting in time in the weight room and turning into men. They're just getting better at being their own CEOs, too. They're calling the shots instead of having other people externally tell them what to do, how much to practice, etc. I try to teach them to be their own people, and I think they're realizing the work that they have to put in and it's showing more and more. They're more organized with their practice and more thoughtful with their approach. That's what great players do."
Coming off a trip to the Walker Cup and a strong summer of play, junior Barclay Brown finished the fall on a high note with a third-place finish at the Saint Mary's Invitational. Coming off the successful summer of play, Brown found his groove as the fall schedule played out.
"When his ball striking is in order, he's really good," Ray said. "Because his short game and putting is some of the best we've had. He came off a great experience at the Walker Cup and had a really strong summer. You saw a glimpse of what he's able to do. Now he seems a little more focused than he has been in the past. His habits and work ethic are really pointing in the right direction. I think those things will lead to results. His physical tools are starting to become an asset with hard work in the gym. I would expect big things out of him this spring."
The Cardinal roster features four players who are either fourth- or fifth-year seniors. Three of them – Freddie Lee, Nate Menon and Daulet Tuleubayev – did not compete during the fall.
Menon battled injury throughout the fall, but has looked great in qualifying according to Ray. Senior Ethan Ng played in three events during the fall, finishing with a T17th at the Saint Mary's Invitational. At that event at Poppy Hills, Ng opened with a 6-under 65, totaling a 1-under 212 at the event.
"Ethan is just rock solid," Ray said. "He is one of the best and most consistent ball strikers on the team, but he's looking for more consistency when the gun goes off in tournaments. He's had some really nice low rounds, but then he's also had some ones he'd like to get rid of. Part of it is just being in that position enough, learning how to manage your emotions and all the stuff going on when you're in the tournament like that. I think he will continue to knock on the door and be a huge part of our success this spring."
Rounding out the roster is freshman Alex Yang from Carlsbad, Calif. Yang played in two events during the fall had three rounds at even-par or better.
"Alex is a sleeper," Ray said. "He's super experienced. He went off and played in the Asian Pacific Am this fall and had a really nice week. He hits hard and has a great short game. Don't be surprised if he works in the top five somewhere, too. Every week he gets a little bit more experience and watches the older guys do it, and I think he'll be really solid."
The start of the Cardinal's spring schedule is a sprint, as Stanford plays three events in a 28-day stretch. After the Amer Ari Intercollegiate (Feb. 3-5), the Cardinal plays at The Prestige at PGA West (Feb. 21-23) and The Cabo Collegiate (Feb. 28-March 2) to round out the winter quarter.
"We have the goal on the wall, but I think it's the art of focusing on the day to day," Ray said. "All the guys are fighting hard to make the starting five…if you can focus on what's right in front of you, that internal competition will be a key driver for that success.
"There's a lot of accountability; guys are working hard in the gym, they did a good job in the classroom in the fall, so there's a lot going on that the guys should be proud of. All boats start to rise when they look around at their teammates and they're all pushing each other."
After a break for final exams, Stanford hosts The Goodwin March 24-26 at Stanford Golf Course.
"We're going to organize a celebration of life for Coach Goodwin during the event," Ray said. "I think it's going to be a great tournament and weekend. The tournament has some great history and it's kind of (Coach Goodwin's) legacy in college golf. I think it will be a great chance for us to turn up, play well and honor him. The Stanford Golf Course continues to be a great backdrop – it's going to be in perfect condition – and I'm excited to see what happens when we get there."
The regular season finishes with The Western Intercollegiate at Pasatiempo (April 11-13) before Stanford turns its attention to the postseason. The Pac-12 Championships are April 25-27, NCAA Regionals May 16-18 and NCAA Championships May 27-June 1.
"I feel like the guys know that if they can start to all put it together at the same time, there's some power in that. It's going to be interesting to see what our final roster is, but my experience tells me that the best teams in the country are the deepest teams. We're going to continue building depth and hopefully have what it takes at the end. If we put it together at the right time, we really have a team that's going to be hard to beat."