Williams, Pan Seek Husky Golf's 1st NCAA Team Title
May 27, 2012
By Gregg Bell
SEATTLE - This -- the chance to win a national championship at fabled Riviera Country Club in plush Pacific Palisades, Calif. -- is part of what lured Cheng-Tsung Pan from Taiwan to Washington.
It's why the world's 13th-ranked amateur was inside the Husky Golf Center Monday working on putting less than 48 hours after helping the Huskies to their third-ever NCAA regional title in Oklahoma.
"Getting better," he said, after another series of putts on the indoor green at Alaska Airlines Arena.
Next week's six-day opportunity for UW's first team NCAA title is partly why Chris Williams said "no thanks" to all those perfect-climate golf schools that wanted the Idaho prodigy in Southern California.
And it's completely why the wondrous Williams, ranked fourth in the world, was finishing practice rounds in downpours Monday and Tuesday at the Seattle Golf Club, immediately after his school-record sixth first-place finish at the regionals last Saturday.
"Actually, I took Sunday off," Williams said, almost apologetically.
Master tactician and motivator Matt Thurmond, who is entering his ninth NCAA championships in 11 seasons as the Huskies' coach, just chuckles at that.
"At midnight at SeaTac on Saturday I told him he had to take day off," Thurmond said. "He was planning to go practice all day Sunday."
As accomplished and indefatigable as the junior already is - he is UW's only winner of the conference's freshman-of-the-year award, and he and Brock Mackenzie are the only Huskies to play in the prestigious Palmer Cup competition between collegians from the United States and Europe - Williams says helping the Huskies to the national team championship would be his grandest feat.
"Oh, it'd be everything," he says. "That'd probably be the highest. College golf is so much fun. To win the national title would mean the world. It would mean we really got to come together as a team, five guys coming together for such a great accomplishment."
He still thinks about the 2010 NCAA championships outside Chattanooga, Tenn., when he was the national freshman of the year, Huskies teammate Nick Taylor was the Ben Hogan Award winner as the country's top college golfer - but Oregon edged Washington 3-2 in the quarterfinals of match play to deny the Huskies that first NCAA team title.
"We had a good chance in 2010," Williams says, "but I think this year we have an even better chance.
"It'd go down in history. People would be talking about it for a long time."
People in Taiwan have been talking about Pan and his new Huskies team all season. A couple of writers from his native nation's largest newspapers have been in regular contact with Pan during his freshman year, writing articles chronicling his and UW's season from across the world.
Last weekend was the latest feature, following Pan's fourth-place finish behind Williams as the Huskies won the NCAA regional at the University of Oklahoma (click here to check it out.
Pan, who a few years ago at age 15 became the youngest U.S. Amateur quarterfinalist since the legendary Bobby Jones in 1916, says he came to UW primarily because of Thurmond's personality and skill as a teacher.
The coach sent the coveted prospect a recruiting e-mail in 2009 that he wasn't convinced would get a reply. But Thurmond didn't know Pan, the youngest of six children raised in Miaoli County, Taiwan, also had a strong link to Seattle -- through Ellen Wang.
Wang hosted Pan in her home on Seattle's east side when the teen played at the 2009 Sahalee Championships in suburban Sammamish. Through her, he loved his time here so much he wanted to live in Seattle.
"She's like my godmother right now," Pan said this week. "She went back to Taiwan with me (the last time Pan went home from UW)."
The bond was the trump card in Washington's recruiting competition with currently top-ranked Texas, which the Huskies beat at the regional last weekend, plus Texas A&M, Florida, USC and UCLA.
Pan will be trying to win that national championship on the home course of the Trojans and Bruins, beginning Tuesday.
UW is the No. 8 seed in the 30-team, five-players-count-four-scores format at renowned Riviera - a course that opened in 1926 and Thurmond calls "awesome, a classic."
The Huskies played Riviera in late February before the Del Walker Match Play Championships at nearby Long Beach, right after the course hosted its annual PGA tour week. They still remember Riviera's massive, 578-yard, par-5 hole at 17 - all uphill.
"It's really hard," Williams said. "It's really long course, at sea level. The greens are ridiculous, really small. There is nowhere to hide on that course. If you are struggling, it will show."
Williams, who missed the cut by three strokes at the 2011 U.S. Open at Congressional Country Club in Maryland, is known as perhaps the purest ball striker in college golf. His low, laser-like line drives usually bisect fairways of any size.
"It certainly will help to hit fairways, which I do," he says.
The Huskies are playing with seventh-seeded Oregon and ninth-seeded Stanford in the first two-of-three rounds of stroke play through Thursday. The teams with the eight lowest scores advance to the anything-can-happen match play that runs Friday through Sunday's final.
Is it a good thing for these Huskies to be paired with the Pac-12 rival Ducks and Cardinal?
"I think so," Thurmond said. "We've beaten both those teams a lot, played with them a lot, so we'll be comfortable."
And as Pan said, "We beat the number-one seed, Texas. So obviously we can beat anybody.
"Obviously, we will have a chance."
Yet Thurmond sees the Huskies as underDawgs still. Texas remains top-ranked. Cal just won the Pac-12 then its regional and is seeded third at Riviera. No one knows the extremely difficult course better than No.-5 seed UCLA and sixth-seeded USC. Second-seeded Alabama is hot as the Southeastern Conference champion and another regional winner.
"So we are under the radar. And that's fine," Thurmond said. "I think it's deserved. We haven't been as good as those teams, or at least we haven't been.
"But that doesn't mean we can't be there. We certainly were last week (at the windy regionals in Oklahoma). Maybe we will be next week."
But he says those teams didn't work as hard as Williams, Pan, Hughes and these Huskies have.
"These guys, they work as hard as any team I have ever had. They will do whatever they need to do. So I know they are going to be prepared. I know they are going to try hard," he says. "But do they have that swagger, that confidence that allows you to summon your best when it matters?"
Thurmond is bracing for his guys needing "six straight days of good golf, and that's a lot." He sees the key as being able to ride out the inevitable bad stretches.
The coach's signature off-course activities such as team games of Uno and going out to dinner in a pink polo over green running shorts - as Thurmond did last week in Oklahoma - are geared to keep his Huskies loose and resilient for when the pressure mounts on the course.
"I reference (Hall-of-Fame basketball coach John) Wooden's `competitive greatness,' being at the top of his pyramid. There is something to do that, right?" Thurmond said. "You can have everything right, but you still have to do it when it is most needed. That's what all the great, great performers have.
"I think over the years we've been known as a team that can summon something special when it is needed.
"And I've seen it this year."