BERKELEY (AP) — The top-ranked California men’s golf team has no home course to call its own, typically shuttling among seven or eight local spots. Most of the Golden Bears were passed on by the elite college golf programs.
Still, Cal is favored to win the NCAA championships beginning today in Georgia — quite an accomplishment for the record-setting program that operates without any financial help from the university. The golf team has an annual budget of about $600,000.
“There’s no story like this in intercollegiate athletics,” coach Steve Desimone said.
Cal sophomore Michael Kim, the nation’s No. 1-ranked player, and Desimone walked across campus last week in their golf shirts when they encountered the business school’s graduation festivities. A bystander asked aloud, “Is he the next Tiger Woods?”
“Please, not the next Tiger Woods in Cal territory,” Desimone responded, no joke about it.
Woods starred at Stanford. The South Korean-born Kim, all of 19, has helped bring national respectability to the golf being played in Berkeley.
The Bears set an NCAA modern-era single-season record with 11 wins in their first 13 tournaments.
“It would have been 12 if (Michael) Weaver wouldn’t have played the Masters,” Desimone quipped.
Now, they want to add to all those accomplishments.
When the Bears tee off Tuesday at Capital City Club’s Crabapple Course in Milton, Ga., they will chase the second men’s golf championship to join the 2004 title trophy on display in Desimone’s office.
“The school record was three wins when (senior) Max (Homa) got here,” said Kim, a national player of the year candidate and Cal’s third player this season to be ranked No. 1. “Since I got here, we’ve had wins in bunches. And nowadays it’s almost like we’re supposed to win. The expectations have changed. I’m hoping the junior golfers see what we’re doing and want to come to Cal.”
All five players competing this week have won tournaments, a school record — with Kim’s four victories also an individual school mark.
It’s been quite a journey for Desimone, the Pac-12 Coach of the Year the last two seasons now in his 34th year.
Desimone began on a part-time basis with all of $2,500 in his budget, for a sport that had been dropped by Cal to club status in the spring of 1979. Golf was reinstated as an intercollegiate sport in summer 1982 thanks in large part to the tireless work of Desimone and a few pals.
It wasn’t until 1988 that Desimone became full-time after he spent eight years working two jobs and regular days of 16-18 hours. His other position was at The College Preparatory School in Oakland.
When offered the Cal job initially by golfing buddy and university colleague Bill Manning, Desimone took a week to decide. His immediate answer: No way.
“The first three or four days, I thought, ‘This is the dumbest idea ever.’ By the fifth or sixth day, I thought, ‘What do you have to lose?’” he recalled. “And now we’re at the top of college golf in the country. We’re set in history one way or the other in ways that no other team has succeeded. Now, we have to take the last step, and if we can, we will be in a position that no other school in the history of college golf has been. When you consider the self-funding aspect of it, it makes it even better.”
A couple of weeks into the job more than three decades ago, Desimone reached out to longtime Stanford coach Bud Finger and made a trip to visit the rivals.
“I told him what I wanted to do,” Desimone said. “He laughed and said, ‘There’s no reason Cal shouldn’t have a nationally competitive golf program, and it should be one of the best in the country.’ My jaw dropped. But he said, ‘I don’t know if you’re the right guy to do it.’”
Frank Brunk, best known for his 102-yard kickoff return against USC in October 1949 that helped lead Cal to the Rose Bowl, got behind the efforts. Brunk’s help was a big deal for Desimone, who spent a couple of seasons on the Cal basketball team but rarely got off the bench.
Cal’s first major fundraiser in the reinstatement effort was a 53-player golf tournament — with three foursomes of women — at nearby Orinda Country Club that generated $5,500. The event featured four unique prizes — 25-pound refrigerated boxes of produce.
The Cal Golf Committee formed in 1980, and the Bears survive today through fundraisers, an endowment and donors.
“I’m essentially running a business running a golf team,” Desimone said. “The fundraising never stops.”
Desimone never wanted “a golf factory” but rather a well-rounded experience for his players. While the NCAA allows 4.5 scholarships, Cal is currently at about 2.75.
Laura Hazlett, Cal’s associate athletic director and chief financial officer, credits Desimone for the atmosphere around the team.
“He is passionate. He believes in it,” she said. “One of the things is that Steve has a great time doing it. He has fun with people, and those kids don’t come off the course without a smile because he’ll say something that makes them smile — after the round even if it wasn’t what he hoped for, which is great. These kids really have a relationship with him.”
The self-sufficient program is on solid footing now. Cal placed 19th in the NCAA championship two years ago, then tied for third last season.
Not once did the 64-year-old Desimone consider walking away.
“It’s never been my nature,” he said. “I’ve been fortunate to be a part of it. Anybody could have packed up and said, ‘We’re beating our heads against the wall,’ but there were people at crucial times, when this thing was teetering in the balance, when something — call it divine intervention, if you want, call it luck of the Irish, call it luck of whatever — but somehow, some way, there was a purpose in this and we kept going.”