Stanford foursome relishes major first at 2023 U.S. Open

Stanford foursome relishes major first at 2023 U.S. Open
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LOS ANGELES – As Stanford senior Barclay Brown struck some putts on Los Angeles Country Club’s ninth green on Tuesday afternoon, a familiar voice pierced the air.

“Hey, Barc!” said Cardinal head coach Conrad Ray as he rolled a ball toward Brown. The Englishman had just shanked the scuffed Titleist over near a grandstand and some trees right of the green, and Ray had dutifully retrieved it.

The job of a coach never stops.

But why would it? Especially considering Ray has four active players teeing it up in this week’s U.S. Open, a number that is believed to be a record for college programs at a major championship.

On Tuesday, all four Cardinal – Brown, rising seniors Michael Thorbjornsen and Karl Vilips, and junior Alexander Yang – spent a few hours together dissecting LACC’s front nine – and squaring off in a friendly match. Last week, the foursome had earned their U.S. Open tickets via four different final qualifiers across the country. Now, they were days away from making history.

Full-field tee times from U.S. Open

“It almost feels like a normal college event,” Thorbjornsen said. “Like we’re all practicing together, playing a quick nine. A big thing out here, whether you’re playing any professional tournament or PGA Tour event or major, it’s important to get comfortable, and when you’re playing with guys who you’ve played with for the past few years, it definitely eases you up.”

Thorbjornsen is the star Card, likely to rise to No. 2 in Wednesday’s updated World Amateur Golf Ranking. Not only did he win twice this season, at a loaded Olympia Fields event in the fall and the Pac-12 Championship this spring, but he also boasts quite the USGA pedigree, having won the 2018 U.S. Junior and qualified for two previous U.S. Opens, in 2019, when he made the cut at Pebble Beach, and last year at The Country Club. He medaled at his final qualifier a week ago in Summit, New Jersey. And then there was the solo-fourth performance last summer at the Travelers Championship, which he’ll return to next week, one of two upcoming sponsor exemptions (John Deere being the other).

With so much attention on him at Brookline, where he competed just miles from his hometown and drew countless comparisons to Francus Ouimet before missing the cut, Thorbjornsen was looking forward to keeping a lower profile heading into this year’s championship.

“Last year was a lot,” Thorbjornsen said. “We had that first tee time, did a lot of media. It feels good to come here and almost be a nobody again. But hopefully still make some noise, too.”

Vilips knows a thing or two about the spotlight. He arrived at Stanford with an impressive junior record and a massive YouTube following. But injuries and Thorbjornsen’s rise have seen Vilips shed a lot of that extra attention. He had an indifferent start to his college career, at one point even entering the transfer portal before deciding to remain at Cardinal two summers ago, but this past season, he enjoyed his most consistent campaign yet, notching six top-20s and notching a T-22 at the NCAA Championship.

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“I’ve been fortunate in a way to not have gotten off to such an awesome start coming out of junior golf and having to rebuild my game from the ground up a little bit,” Vilips said, “so it was definitely a little humbling first couple years. The expectation is probably still there a little bit, but I don’t think about it as much anymore.”

Added Ray: “Sometimes when you have a junior record like Karl did, it really does become about scores and rankings and stuff like that, and I think Karl has grown out of that.”

This is Vilips’ PGA Tour debut, but he feels more prepared than most likely would be in his position. Though he had to withdraw from last week’s Arnold Palmer Cup with a minor back issue, Vilips has a veteran presence on his bag, Colin Swatton, his instructor who used to caddie for Jason Day. Plus, he’s delivered in pressure-packed situations in recent months, from Stanford’s postseason to his U.S. Open qualifier in Rockville, Maryland, where he tied for medalist honors.

“This will obviously be the biggest,” Vilips said. “So, I’m really curious to see how I can handle it.”

Brown is the most seasoned Card, having already opted to return for a fifth year. By then, he’s also hoping to have represented Great Britain and Ireland in a third Walker Cup this September at St. Andrews. It wasn’t the greatest fourth year for Brown, though he is trending, going T-20 at Pac-12s, T-14 at regionals and a team-best T-4 at the NCAA Championship.

“I’ve finally managed to put some rounds together,” Brown said.

Yang can attest to that feeling. Unlike Brown, though, the former Junior President Cupper, who grew up in Newport Beach, about an hour from LACC, has struggled to take hold in the Stanford lineup since stepping on campus two falls ago. He made just four starts this past season and didn’t crack the top 50; in his most recent college event, he was T-117.

Asked to identify the culprit of his struggles, Yang replied, “Everything.”

But not making the postseason travel squad was a blessing in disguise for Yang, who hung back at Siebel, the team’s practice facility, to sharpen a few things up. He also got some reps in an Asher Tour event in Reno, Nevada, and with the Los Angeles qualifier that would Brown advance through full, Yang instead was shipped to Lakewood, Washington, where he earned one of just two U.S. Open tickets.

“We all know on a daily basis how many birdies he can go make and what a talent he is,” Ray said. “To me, it’s no surprise to our camp.”

Before Yang got to college, he received some advice from former Stanford great and current PGA Tour pro Maverick McNealy, who stressed to Yang that he should be keen to learn from each one of his teammates, regardless of their world rank. Sure, it also helped to have Rose Zhang across the hall, but when it comes to his three fellow U.S. Open competitors who currently rep Nerd Nation, Yang sees one major correlation.

“All three just possess this incredible confidence,” Yang said. “You have to have that belief in yourself, and even when things aren’t going right, you have to be able to maintain that belief.”

Case in point: Stanford flirted with a match-play berth at Grayhawk, but ultimately a slow start by Thorbjornsen (he didn’t count the first two rounds), some big numbers and a playoff loss to Arizona State left the Cardinal as the first team out of the knockout portion. Yet, Ray and Co. already talk of that experience as being proud of the fight displayed to even get into that position.

Thornbjornsen hasn’t been deterred, either.

“It hurt a lot,” Thorbjornsen said. “You could see it in our last picture. But it feels good that we can all bounce back, be together again, be happy again and enjoy this U.S. Open.”

And regardless of how they each perform, this much is known: The Cardinal will be the only ones able to post a team score.

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