Being a college golf coach is akin to being the pilot of a small airplane. In other words, you’re usually flying under the radar. Unless, of course, your team is playing really well. Or, really poor.
No one knows that better than Arizona State’s Randy Lein, who enters his 11th season as coach of the men’s program. It was only a year ago that Lein’s job was on the line. Amazing, when you compare his status to this season, which brings a twinkle to his eye.
“Yeah, I was feeling (some pressure last season),’’ Lein freely admits. “That was because of the year before.’’
Ah, yes, that fateful 2001-2002 season, when Lein’s team became the first Sun Devils squad in 20 years to miss the NCAA Championships after an embarrassing cut at the regional tournament.
Even though Lein’s team had won the NCAAs in 1996, ASU is no place to rest on your laurels when it comes to golf. The Sun Devils are expected to make the NCAA finals each and every year. And, like last year when they rallied to claim sixth place, finish no worse than in the top 10.
They’ll do that this season. Who knows? Maybe better.
That’s because ASU returns the NCAA medalist in sophomore flash Alejandro Canizares of Spain. They also have a super-solid senior in former Dobson High School standout Chez Reavie, the 2001 U.S. Public Links champion. And in college golf, there is nothing quite like a 1-2 punch.
Unless it’s a 1-2-3 knockout, which is why Lein is playing it coy these days. Yep, that smug smile is the direct result of the new kid on the block, Sweden’s Niklas Lemke. He is, as they used to say of former Devils Phil Mickelson and Paul Casey, a “franchise player.’’
“Niklas is confident without being cocky,’’ Lein said of his freshman phenom, who played a leading role in the past on the Swedish National team. “He reminds me of (former ASU star) Todd Demsey, in that he’s kind of shy and not really comfortable in the limelight, yet he’s a heck of a player.’’
Of course, it’s hard to stay out of the headlines when you consistently bomb it 300 yards off the tee, and you’ve got a short game to match. How good is this Swedish import? The first time Lemke saw the Karsten Course, he shot 66.
“I love it here, especially the weather,’’ says Lemke of coming in from the cold. “But school is hard, because there are so many words. It’s probably going to take a year before I really feel comfortable with the language.’’
Good thing you don’t have to speak good English as the prerequisite to making the team. No, “fluent golf’’ is the strength of Lemke’s vocabulary, and in that regard he will do just fine.
For those trying to figure out who will be playing the fourth and fifth spots, junior Jesse Mueller, formerly of Red Mountain High School, should get one of those. Lein also has four seasoned seniors to choose from in Mike Derminio, Ben Flam, Brett Johnson and Nick Manthey. Or, there always is the “other’’ freshman from Sweden, Fredrik Andersson.
The Sun Devils are ranked sixth in the preseason polls, but chances are they are better than that. The first clue comes Friday, when they open the season at the Tucker Intercollegiate in Albuquerque, N.M.
They’ll know a lot more Sept. 21-23, when they travel to Hot Springs, Va., to compete in the NCAA/PING Preview. The latter is the same location where the NCAA Championship will conclude, May 30-June 4.
It should be a fun season, albeit a rugged one. The Pac-10, with UCLA, Arizona and Washington as the chief challengers, is loaded. And, nationally, defending champ Clemson, Florida, Oklahoma State and Georgia all boast brick houses.
“Even though the Pac-10 might be the strongest it’s been in 25 years, and the overall depth in college golf never better,’’ said Lein, pausing for effect, “I think we’ll be very good.’’
Yes, the twinkle is back, a sign that Lein’s boys are once again flying high.