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Are the Cal men a lock to win NCAAs?

By Ryan Herrington

EN ROUTE TO MILTON, GA.—
As the first groups tee off tomorrow morning at the Crabapple Course at Capital City Club for the NCAA Championship, you're probably thinking the same thing I am.

Why are we even here?

I mean really … hasn't it be preordained that California, winners of 11 of 13 tournaments this season, will be the last team standing come Sunday, the inevitable finish to a historic campaign for the Golden Bears?

Of course, that's what we were saying in 2010 about Oklahoma State when the Cowboys arrived at the Honors Course as the heavy favorite, only to be upset in the finals by a Cinderella, Augusta State. And again in 2011 when OSU, this time with the additional advantage of competing on its home course, couldn't get out of the semifinals, the Jaguars determined to prove the previous year was no fluke en route to a repeat title.

It wasn't until last year, when Texas hung on to take the crown at Riviera CC, that the clear favorite emerged as the victor for the first time since Clemson in 2003.

There is an easy explanation for all this, at least in the recent past. The addition of match play in 2009 changed the dynamic of the championship, making it more difficult for the favorites to run the table because of the vagaries of the individual matches rather than the play-five, count-four "predictability" of stroke play.

So it is that while the boys from Berkeley could prove to truly be a team of destiny this week outside of Atlanta, they also could find that the bullseye is simply too large and heavy to lug around in the Georgia sun.

When I chatted with Cal coach Steve Desimone last week before the team traveled east, he was quick to note there are plenty of other schools in the field this week that are also hungry for a title.

"If you don't think we kept an eye on Alabama and UCLA and Texas and Georgia Tech … we are taking nothing for granted," Desimone said. "Every one of those teams is a great team."

Indeed, if there's been a downside to Cal's dominance in 2012-13 it has been that it has minimized the impressive performances from several other schools.

Alabama, a heartbreaking 3-2 loser in the finals to Texas a year ago, has won six of seven starts this spring, with a trio of U.S. Walker Cup candidates in Justin Thomas, Cory Whitsett and Bobby Wyatt just as motivated as anyone wearing blue and gold to avenge last year's disappointment.

While not quite as impressive as they were a year ago—an understandable outcome with the departure of senior Dylan Frittelli and sophomore Jordan Spieth to the pro ranks—the Longhorns aren't to be taken lightly as they look to defend their title. Freshman Brandon Stone is among the contenders for the individual title, and returning starters Cody Gribble, Julio Vegas and Toni Hakula aren't likely to give up their title without a fight.

Then there's Washington and UCLA, Pac-12 foes who have seen up close the impressive play from Cal and would love nothing better than to be the team that upsets the big bad Bears. Plus both schools have gotten through the 54-hole stroke-play qualifying process to reach match play at nationals in recent years, making them more comfortable with the task at hand.

And don't count out New Mexico and Illinois, teams that have become accustom to winning this season, or Georgia Tech, the host school whose local knowledge of the Crabapple Course could be a key intangible.

The moral of this story? Cal might be the obvious choice to take it all this week. I never thought I'd see a fivesome like Michael Kim, Michael Weaver, Joel Stalter, Brandon Hagy and Max Homa put together a collective season in the way these men have, each having a 71.0 average or better and having won an individual title.

Yet this is golf, and the game isn't easy … or predictable.

Oh and one more thing before we go through the motions here over the next six days. If some how, some way, Cal doesn't walk off with the first-place trophy, lets not be too quick to claim that the actual winner isn't a deserving champion. "Well, Cal was really the best team and should have won" sounds rather whinny, doesn't it? It's almost as bad as "match play isn't the way to crown a true champion."

This is the championship that's being play. Everybody knows it and is competing by the same rules. If Cal plays up to its capabilities, the team should be the winners come Sunday. But, if the Bears rely instead on past success to get them through the week—and leave the door open for another squad—somebody will step in. Somebody who will be just as deserving … maybe more.

Bottom line: This is Cal's championship to lose. But that doesn't mean another school isn't ready to make it their championship to win. 

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July 28, 2014

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