A bettor could have earned a substantial amount of money wagering that the UCLA men's golf team would qualify for the 1997 NCAA Tournament last May. Entering the season, the Bruins were unranked in their district, let alone the nation. Their lineup was unsettled. They had no proven leader, no hotshot recruits. And, before the season began, they had cut a three-year letterman. As late as April they finished ninth in the conference tournament and the odds were easily stacked against their chances.
Fortunately, their Pac-10 finish did not count toward Regional qualification. UCLA squeaked into the Regionals on the strength of its third place finish at the U.S. Intercollegiates. Then the Bruins made the most of their precious opportunity, placing sixth at the Regionals and earning their first berth to the NCAA Tournament since 1993.
Every season, the Bruins have raised their national standing. In Brad Sherfy's first year --1995 -- the Bruins began the season unranked among the top 50 schools. They finished the season ranked 50th. Last season they raised that ranking to 35th. In 1997-98 with eight lettermen returning, they'll be banging on the door of the Top 20.
The Bruins' best finish during the 1996 Fall season was a sixth place at the Olympic Club, hosted by the University of San Francisco. The tournament began poorly when the Bruins posted three first round scores in the 80s, but ended on a positive note when they fired the second best score of the final round. Sophomore Brandon DiTullio recorded a strong 7th place finish, playing the final 36 holes in three over par. Senior Darren Humphrey also played well, placing in a tie for 16th.
In the other Fall tournaments, the Bruins did not place among the top 10. However, a fine individual performance was recorded by B.J. Schlagenhauf, who tied for sixth at the Herb Wimberly Classic.
Nineteen ninety-seven began impressively for the Bruins when freshman Jason Semelsberger won the UCLA-hosted Pioneer Electronics/Corey Pavin Classic. Semelsberger's finish propelled the Bruins to a third place finish, one of their best of the season. Finally, his victory, which featured one of two even par 71s shot over the entire 54 holes, proved to be a preview to an even bigger prize later in the Spring.
In seven of their next nine tournaments, the Bruins finished among the top 10, including fifth place finishes at the UCI Anteater and the Southwestern Inter-collegiates. At the Anteater, freshman Steve Wagner's second round 68 vaulted him into a tie for 12th place, a finish he duplicated the following week at North Ranch Country Club. At North Ranch, Wagner's second round 69 tied for the low score of the day.
At the U.S. Inter-collegiates, hosted at Stanford, the Bruins' strong third place finish was highlighted by four under par rounds, including two by DiTullio, who was tied for the lead at three-under entering the final round. Semelsberger, who began the final round at one under, took team honors by tying for sixth.
Although the conference tournament was a forgettable team finish, fine individual performances were posted by DiTullio (67), Wagner (70) and Semelsberger (71) in the second round.
At the Regionals, the Bruins raced out to a season best six-under par 282 in the first round which tied them for second place. The strength of that round propelled them through the tournament and the into the NCAAs. Schlagenhauf finished in a tie for sixth at five-under par and junior Ben Bost tied for 27th at two over.
The same group travelled to the NCAA's and although they failed to make the 36-hole cut, the experience gained was invaluable.
"We had the youngest team in the country," said Sherfy. "But the experience they gained will be a big boost for us in 1997-98."
A few days after the NCAA Tournament, Semelsberger qualified for the U.S. Open by earning co-medalist honors at El Caballero Country Club.
"The experience there was the opportunity of a lifetime," said Sherfy. "It should boost his confidence and give him an edge this season."