California's self-funded men's golf team is favorite to win NCAA championship

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BERKELEY, Calif. — 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.

The University of California's Michael Kim, the nation's top-ranked player, helped the Bears win 11 tournaments in their first 13 events this season, a modern-era record.  BEN MARGOT/ASSOCIATED PRESS
BEN MARGOT/ASSOCIATED PRESS
The University of California's Michael Kim, the nation's top-ranked player, helped the Bears win 11 tournaments in their first 13 events this season, a modern-era record.

Still, Cal is favored to win the NCAA championships beginning today in Georgia.

The record-setting program operates without any financial help from the university. The team has an annual budget of about $600,000.

“There’s no story like this in intercollegiate athletics,” coach Steve Desimone said.

Led by sophomore Mi­chael Kim, the nation’s No. 1-ranked player, 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.

When the Bears tee off today at Capital City Club’s Crabapple Course in Milton, Ga., they will chase a second men’s golf championship to join the 2004 trophy on display in Desimone’s office.

“The school record was three wins when (senior) Max (Homa) got here,” said Kim, at 19 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.

Desimone, the Pac-12 Coach of the Year the past two seasons now in his 34th year, began on a part-time basis with only $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 to 18 hours.

Cal’s first major fundraiser in the reinstatement effort was a 53-player golf tournament – with three foursomes of women – 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 at about 2.75.

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.”

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.


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