In the wake of Cal golf success in the last month, with former Golden Bear golfer Collin Morikawa taking home the PGA Championship, and other former Bears in Max Homa, Ben An, Brandon Hagy, and Michael Kim on the tour. With Morikawa’s win, I spoke to Cal men’s golf coach Walter Chun, who has been at Cal for the past 23 years as a player, assistant, and now head coach (since 2016).
TT: Let’s start with the big one, a few weeks ago, Collin Morikawa won the PGA Championship, what have you seen in the aftermath, as far as the effect on your program from that win?
WC: I think the obvious answer is that it has gotten a lot of publicity, not only in the Bay Area, but across the globe. A gentleman from France is doing an article on Collin, so I spoke with him, ESPN Chicago reached out to do an interview, so I think that’s the obvious answer.
In terms of a deeper level, I think it has brought a lot of the Cal golf community, even the Cal athletics community, much closer. I’ve gotten calls from someone doing a Cal baseball fundraiser, he wanted to touch base with some different ideas, another Cal alum who graduated in 1960 wanted to get one of those yardage books for her son.
I’ve shared with others that it has been a tough time, whether it’s COVID or the spring season getting cancelled or this fall semester getting cancelled (college golf plays tournaments in both the spring and the fall). Collin’s performance, I feel it has brought a lot of people together, a lot of joy, a lot of pride in Cal, in the university, in the athletic department.
TT: Within your program, has Collin’s win brought some of that hope/pride/joy to the current golfers as well?
WC: I think a lot of people have seen Collin’s success, and with his success, he’s had to work hard for it, but he’s also faced a lot of difficulty and adversity. I know in college golf playoffs, he was, I think 0-3. There were a lot of disappointments Collin faced, he lost in Vegas, he lost in a playoff in Santa Cruz, he was the Ben Hogan Award runner-up two years in a row, never won the US Amateur, there were some shortcomings that he faced. He missed the short putt at the Charles Schwab when the PGA tour restarted, he missed his first cut at Travelers’, then he goes on to win at Workday, then goes on to win the PGA Championship.
I think I’ve shared with my team that this is a tough time for them, but it’s also a time for them to learn patience, for them to learn to overcome adversity, because Collin has clearly overcome a lot of adversity, that not many people really pay attention to have paid attention to it because it’s a good learning lesson for me to try and teach the players.
You know, when you’re young, when you’re 18-22, 23 years old, patience doesn’t even exist, you know, there’s no such thing as patience. And, you know, because this fall season got canceled, there’s nothing we can do about it. It is what it is. But it is an opportunity for them to learn to be patient, it’s an opportunity for them to work on weaknesses that they have in their game, either physically or mentally. I learned from calling that the glass is always half full. And so I’ve got to try and preach that to the current team and younger guys or recruits.
TT: When did you know that Collin could have this level of success?
WC: I’ve shared with a lot of people, it’s becoming my phrase with Collin, Collin makes the unbelievable, believable. As you get older, you know more of the statistical numbers against you, you know it’s less than 1% chance to make it on the PGA Tour. It’s less than 1% chance to make it into the NBA but with younger guys, they don’t look at those numbers. They think they’re the exception to the norm and, and Collin always believed he is going to be the number one player in the world. He is very genuine in that. He told me that. He works for it. And, you never know how someone’s going to transition from from high school to college, college to the professional ranks, even NBA guys that you know, get drafted number one, there are no guarantees, right? Obviously the 49ers passed on Aaron Rodgers, right?
You never know what’s going to transpire. But I do know that Collin has had a lot of self confidence and a lot of self belief. I do know that Collin has been very consistent. He was very consistent in college, he was a four time all-American, he probably finished in the top 10 in more than 50% of his tournaments, that’s quite an accomplishment. It’s those things you look in hindsight, you could say, ‘Oh, yeah, you know, Collin was a superstar in the making,’ but you can say that for a lot of other young kids coming out of college going in the professional ranks, you just don’t know how they’re going to acclimate to being alone. You don’t know how they’re going to acclimate to the pressure, the expectations. In hindsight, yes, Collin looked like he was ready for the professional ranks, but you never know how that transition is.
TT: It seems like now, with Collin, Max Homa, Ben An, and others, that there’s more former Cal golfers on the PGA Tour than there have been in recent memory, how has that affected your program?
WC: It’s definitely put us on the map. I’d say nationally, I think. Let’s just say you ask a kid, ask someone from Georgia or Tennessee, ‘do you know where UC Berkeley is?’ And they’re like, ‘I don’t know, is it LA, is that the same thing as UCLA?’ No, I’m like ‘UC Berkeley is the same thing as Cal’ and they’re like, ‘Oh, okay.’
I think more people have put the connection that UC Berkeley, University of California Berkeley is the same thing as Cal. I just don’t know if that’s as well known outside of the West Coast, outside of Pac 12 footprint, as it is nationally. And so I think having those guys do well on the PGA Tour has opened a lot of people’s eyes that, you know, Cal is a good place to get an education, you can make it as a professional at Cal. But you know, there’s countless other programs that have developed tremendous players, Arizona State, Oklahoma State (among others). We’re just trying to get our names up there with some of those golf school powerhouses.
TT: As far as recruiting goes, you guys have a bunch of courses around the Bay Area that you play at, as well as a short-game site at the Oakland Metropolitan course, but not necessarily a home base on campus, how much does having that sort of setup affect recruiting?
WC: The tough part is you know, being in the Bay Area, land is just so precious. It’s so expensive, right and, aside from Stanford, UCLA, SC, us, Pepperdine, St. Mary’s, we’re never going to have a facility like you do and the SEC or the ACC or the Big 12 or create some mega dome-like facility in the Big Ten. That’s just kind of the way it is. And so that I think recruiting it helps on the West Coast, because you know, most kids from the west coast want to stay on the west coast, but when if you’re not really from the west coast, if you have an opportunity to go to a school that the facilities are literally a five minute bike ride away from you, whether it’s in Florida, Texas, LSU. You know, it’s tough. It’s tough no matter how good our recruits are on the PGA Tour.
You have to understand if you’re going to come to the west coast, again, aside from Stanford, you’re going to have to get used to commuting to golf courses. Commuting to practice is just kind of the way it is on the west coast. We have to target our recruiting to guys that understand that and most of the kids from the west coast, kind of understand that. And so each school, each program, each conference has their own strengths and recruiting. And you just kind of have to focus in on those strengths because as much as I would love to have an 18 hole golf course in Berkeley, I don’t know if it’s going to weave around People’s Park or Telegraph Avenue.
TT: You did have a good chunk of the spring season prior to the cancellation, who are the upperclassmen on the roster that should be leaders for you going into whatever this year looks like?
WC: There are two seniors, Finnegan Tilly and Kaiwen Liu, they’ll take reign of the team so to speak. I’ve got a couple true freshmen who are from Florida that I believe are going to be impact players (Samson Zheng and Aaron Du), but I’d say Kaiwen Liu and Finnegan, you know they’ve been around for a while, they both played at high levels in various tournaments I want them (to be) their own leaders and their own players.
Some of the former players have set such a high bar, and Collin obviously that set up high bar but prior to Collin, Max Homa and Michael Kim set a high bar, because Max won Pac-12s and the NCAA championship, Michael was a Haskins Award (for most outstanding male collegiate golfer) winner, and then, Collin created his own legacy.
I don’t want to cast any shadows onto the players because I have a shadow to overcome and that’s coach Des (Steve Desimone, who spent 37 years as Cal’s head golf coach), I just, I want the players to make their own mark. I do want them to be able to handle their own expectations. expectations of the program because that’s how they inevitably have to grow. You can’t shy away from expectations. They just have to kind of handle it in their own way and be their own person and be their own leader, be their own golfer, and go with that. They’re not Collin, Collin isn’t Max, Max isn’t Ben An, they’ve all created their own legacy. I just want them to try to be comfortable in what they’re doing and what kind of legacy they’ll lead.
TT: What do you look for in recruiting a golfer most, aside from the academic side?
WC: For me, like the tangibles are, being a good student and a good golfer. I think the intangibles that I look for are, their desire to get better, their passion for the game. For example, there was a recruit who had just won a tournament in Marysville. And then he sent me a picture the next day, the tournament finished on Thursday. He sends me a picture the next day on Friday because he went to visit Metropolitan (where Cal has their short game facility). I was thankful that he’s a local kid, but I was thankful he took the time to go to Metropolitan and he was practicing after he had won a tournament. I thought that said a lot because he could have easily, I mean, he won by a lot, he could have taken a break. But he drove from San Jose to Oakland to look at our facilities, those are the little (intangibles) I look for, and you know how he had it.
He had a tournament won in San Diego the previous week, he was the leader, but he just didn’t perform very well down the stretch and he was really devastated a lot with a win. So, you know, things like that I try to look for character, a typical question I ask is like, ‘What’s a typical Saturday like for you?’ And, and I’ll be honest, some kids who say ‘I sleep in, you know, I might get to the golf course around 11 o’clock.’ I’m kind of looking for someone that’ll just say ‘I like to wake up early, breakfast at 7-7:30 and try and get to the golf course early,’ little things like that. They’re kind of like, interview questions. And I’m just looking for them to just see like, do they have that self motivation, do they have that on their own? How do they handle adversity and challenges, et cetera.
TT: What are you guys allowed to do right now with fall sports being postponed?
WC: I’ve deferred to the players on how they want to handle it. I’m not going to have any kind of voluntary practice, nor regular practice. You know, the conference canceled the fall season for a specific reason. And that’s the health and safety first, and I don’t even have voluntary practice because, if your boss said, ‘oh, let’s just have a voluntary meeting.’ I think if it’s not really voluntary, so I don’t want to, I don’t want the players to feel any pressure of any kind from me to meet up.
Yes, I would love to have practice and meet with them as a team, but again, the Pac-12 canceled the fall for a reason. The NCAA canceled their fall championship for a reason. So I want to respect that and just put the health and safety of the players, first and foremost. So, again, it’s also trying to be patient, but I want them to understand that this is a big deal. They shouldn’t take it lightly and school started today. And as you can read across (the country), in whether it’s Notre Dame or Michigan State, you know, when school starts (there have been outbreaks), part of my job is to try and teach the players to make mature decisions, to make adult decisions, to make good decisions. I just don’t want to be in a position where I say, let’s have voluntary practice. Let’s meet up. And then if one young man catches something at any point, you know, I feel like I’m the culprit because I’ve asked them to come back to campus for practice. I just want to respect the decision in the conference and the NCAA, move forward, and put their health and safety first.