by Adam Schupak, AmateurGolf.com
BRADENTON, Fla. – Senior Eric Sugimoto and sophomore teammate Rico Hoey haven’t forgotten the embarrassment they felt at finishing in last place of the stroke-play portion of the 2014 NCAA Men’s Golf Championship. Nor has their coach.
“We got our faces kicked in, and that stunk,” USC coach Chris Zambri said.
So it was only fitting that as the two remaining players from last year’s Trojans squad, Sugimoto and Hoey sparked a 3 ½ - 1 ½ come-from-behind victory over the No. 1-ranked Illinois in the semifinals of match play.
“Rico and I obviously have a chip on our shoulder after finishing last,” Sugimoto said. “It was pretty embarrassing.”
No. 13-ranked USC will face LSU in the final as it attempts to go from worst-to-first and win the school’s first national title in men’s golf in its 56th appearance in the championship.
Hoey said he came here this week to make history. He trailed 2 down early to Illini junior Charlie Danielson. He could have been deflated after a three-putt at the fifth cost him a hole, but he was undeterred. The match swung in his favor at the ninth hole. Wind in his face, Hoey chipped a 6-iron from 175 yards that landed short of the hole and took one hop into the cup for an eagle. Afterward, a fat smile washed across his face as he said of the shot, “That better make SportsCenter Top 10 Plays.”
If it doesn’t, it will be a bigger upset than the Trojans' improbable run to the final. Illinois coach Mike Small called Hoey a “momentum player,” and said the turning point in the match was his hole-out at 9.
"I think that was a big deal," Small said. "USC went out and won. When a guy makes it from the fairway on 9, and the word spreads, and then he makes two more birdies on the next three holes, my guy who had a 2-up lead is like ‘Whoa.’ That’s what match play does. More power to him. He did what he was supposed to do. Steady players in match play wear guys down, and USC was more steady than us."
With his heroics at 9, Hoey evened the match, and he won Nos. 11-13 en route to a 2-and-1 victory. He wasn’t the only one with a flair for the dramatic. Sugimoto led most of the way in his match against freshman Nick Hardy until he lost Nos. 12 and 13 to go 1 down. With the Illini’s Thomas Detry winning the first match, Bobby Gojuangco claiming a point for the Trojans, and the other two matches split, the Hardy-Sugimoto match looked to be the decider. This was a battle of contrasting styles. All day, Hardy bombed drives past Sugimoto, who never flinched.
“I’ve been outdriven all my life,” Sugimoto said. “I’m not the kind of player who overpowers a golf course. All I can do is keep it in play and hit as many shots as close as possible. I think I did a pretty good job of that.”
Indeed, he did. None prettier than a hybrid at the par-3 14th to 6 feet that squared the match and grabbed the momentum. Sugimoto won the next two holes and closed the match out with a 3-wood from 249 yards that his teammates will be talking about for years to come. He swung for the fences and the ball rocketed off the clubface, landed with a thud on the rain-softened green and stopped 12 feet right of the hole. Moments later, Hardy removed his hat and conceded the hole for a 3-and-1 victory as the USC celebration began.
“That was the purest shot I’ve ever seen in my life,” freshman Sean Crocker told Sugimoto in the clubhouse later. “You swung so hard at that. Your shoes were still on the ground, but your feet were 40 yards down the fairway.”
It had to feel like redemption. “Oh, yeah,” he said, “that’s what we came for.”
But the work isn’t done yet. One more daunting foe awaits, a school that hasn’t won a men’s golf title since 1955, or as LSU coach Chuck Winstead put it, “since the black-and-white television.”
What would it mean to USC? “It would just be monumental for us,” Zambri said.