April 22, 2009
By WILL PERRY
The University of San Francisco had not won a conference title in 19 years. After the first round of the West Coast Conference Championship on April 13 at Hiddenbrooke Golf Club in Vallejo, Calif., that streak appeared likely to be extended.
Coach Gary Nelson, in his fourth season, had seen enough.
At lunch before the start of the second round, Nelson told his players their mission: four under-par rounds in the afternoon.
Senior captain Kurt Nino got off to a furious start, making birdie on five of his first seven holes en route to an 8-under 64. Senior Kyle Prolo made four birdies over the same stretch and would shoot 70.
Word quickly spread, fueling the rest of the team as each player - Domingo Jojola (67), Chris Cunningham (70) and Ji Hwan Park (70) - went on to shoot under par. The Dons soared to the top of the leader board with a 17-under 271 in the second round.
"It was great for our guys to step up when we really needed them to," said Jojola, a junior from Albuquerque, N.M., who won the Saint Mary's Tournament in the fall.
They made their move, but their work was not yet done. USF led Loyola Marymount by four shots heading into the final round.
Jojola, playing with tournament medalist Greg Moss of Loyola Marymount, birdied two of the last three holes to shoot 73 for a 6-under 210 total and second place as the Dons held off LMU by one stroke. Moss shot 74-209 total, but he missed a 3-foot birdie putt on the 560-yard, par-5 18th hole that would have forced a playoff for the team title.
"It's something that we've wanted for a long time,'' Jojola said, "and it was one of our main goals from the beginning of the year. Our team has constantly gotten better, and we've grown to expect more out of ourselves."
Before Nelson took over in fall 2005, USF ranked No. 221 out of 292 teams in the Golfweek/Sagarin College Rankings.
"The university didn't understand what college golf had become and they didn't support it in a way that ensured success," Nelson said.
That's not to say that USF doesn't appreciate the role of athletics. The school, founded in 1855 by the Jesuit order of Catholic priests, has a rich basketball tradition dating to the days of Bill Russell and K.C. Jones.
Nelson, who played at USF in 1963-64, said he had turned down the job offer three times before gaining the support from the school that he thought he needed.
"He was just so passionate about golf," said Bill Hogan, USF's former athletic director. "When he would talk about golf, you could see it in his eyes that he just loved golf and he did for all the right reasons."
Nelson said he inherited a team lacking top-tier talent, no tournament of its own, many winless seasons and lacking the facilities needed to compete. His vision included much change in a short period of time.
"I remember what the associate AD said to me the first year when I was in his office,'' Nelson recalled. "He said, `Gary I know the type of program you want to put together, and I'm telling you it's probably not possible at USF.' "
Nelson replied, "If it weren't possible, I wouldn't be here."
The possibilities are beginning to emerge:
>> USF hosts two regular-season tournaments, one at The Olympic Club in San Francisco and another at Pauma Valley Country Club.
>> The program has added an indoor putting green and a diagnostic center to help players with their swings.
>> Nelson has secured donations from alumni, former players and local foundations and businesses.
>> The Dons have risen to No. 110 in the Golfweek/Sagarin College Rankings.
With a conference title under their belt, the Dons will aim to qualify for the NCAA tournament. USF hosts the NCAA West Regional on May 14-16 at Lake Merced (Calif.) Country Club.
"We've come a long way," Jojola said. "The program is really moving in the right direction."