May 26, 2009
By Tod Leonard
Union-Tribune Staff Writer
Tim Mickelson has been talking about a national golf championship for the USD men's team since he arrived on campus six years ago. It has always seemed over-the-top optimistic, given the Toreros' track record.
Before Mickelson got there, USD was mired in mediocrity. It just didn't seem like the program was trying very hard to get to the next level.
The Toreros never had won a West Coast Conference championship, despite being in the middle of a golf hotbed for junior players. They never had been to the NCAA regionals, which made it impossible to fathom a national title.
The tournaments they entered had to be close enough to get to by van, because they didn't have the budget to fly.
Enter Mickelson, who, after serving as an assistant coach at San Diego State, took the job knowing full well it was all on his shoulders to put the program on the map in recruiting, fundraising and results on the golf course.
"When I got here, we did not have the ingredients to be successful in men's golf," Mickelson said. "When I told everybody what my vision was, most people looked at me and said it couldn't be done."
The San Diego native has enjoyed proving them wrong.
In an impressive rise, USD has reached this week's NCAA Division I Championship for the first time. When they begin play today in the 30-team field at Inverness Club in Toledo, Ohio, the 63rd-ranked Toreros will be an extreme long shot, up against established, talent-and money-rich powerhouses such as Oklahoma State, Georgia and USC.
Being there, though, is another step forward in the Mickelson plan.
"Personally, this means a lot," Mickelson said. "I wanted to build a team that had a chance to win the national championship, and you can't do that unless you're in the tournament. I think this validates the type of program we're building here."
Three of Mickelson's starters for the NCAA finals are underclassmen, including WCC Freshman of the Year Alex Ching. Mickelson got senior Blake Trimble as a transfer from UNLV last year, and the Torrey Pines High alum has been a big contributor. The coach also took an instinctual chance on walk-on graduate student Ian Coffman (St. Augustine), and the former college soccer player led the Toreros to a fourth-place finish in the West Regional.
"We are seeing the fruits of Tim's labor," said USD Athletic Director Ky Snyder. "He's got high energy. He's got lofty goals. He takes responsibility for getting things done. He epitomizes a head coach."
These days, that means you have to be a success off the course before you can consider winning. Mickelson is up against schools that have large endowments for their golf programs and fly to tournaments in their own private jets.
Playing catch-up, Mickelson has hustled to raise money. For the past three years, he has staged a golf tournament at Del Mar Country Club that has raised more than $100,000. Phil Mickelson, his brother and the No. 2 golfer in the world, pitches in by giving rare one-on-one lessons to participants. Callaway contributes valuable tee prizes.
"It's become a family affair with the Mickelsons," Snyder said.
Tim Mickelson played the first three years in college at Arizona State before transferring to Oregon State, where he finished second in the Pac-10 Championships as a senior. Still, he sometimes acts and talks as if he is a USD alum.
Near the campus, you might see a guy driving a huge Ford Excursion with a massive Toreros logo on the side. That's Tim Mickelson in the team "bus" a booster bought for the team. The vehicle is rather conspicuous in a country club parking lot when Mickelson takes it to tournaments.
"We're certainly not ashamed to be Toreros, even though most people don't know what that is," Mickelson said.
Mickelson said he feels a close association to USD because he went to high school across the street at USDHS and his sister, Tina, graduated from USD in 1991.
"I've been in that library more times than some of my players," he said.