‘Four Please!’ Current Stanford Team Making Splash at LACC

By David Shefter, USGA

| Jun 12, 2023 | Los Angeles, Calif.

‘Four Please!’ Current Stanford Team Making Splash at LACC

Conrad Ray, the longtime men’s coach at national power Stanford University, was preparing for his weekly college golf program on Sirius/XM Radio on June 5 when his lead topic for the evening became crystal clear.

Four players from his 2022-23 team had just qualified for the 123rd U.S. Open Championship – at four different sites.

Stanford had already become the epicenter of the game a day earlier, when two-time USGA champion Rose Zhang became the first golfer since 1951 to win her professional debut on the LPGA Tour, at the Mizuho Americas Open in New Jersey. Zhang’s historic two-year stay on The Farm featured a school-record 12 individual victories, including consecutive NCAA titles.

More history had unfolded for the school’s golf programs as Barclay Brown, Michael Thorbjornsen, Karl Vilips and Alexander Yang all punched tickets to The Los Angeles Country Club. It is believed to be the first time four current college teammates have qualified for the U.S. Open. In 2013 at Merion Golf Club, the University of California-Berkeley had three players in the field: then-reigning U.S. Amateur runner-up Michael Weaver; Max Homa, who has gone on to win six times on the PGA Tour; and Michael Kim, who was the low amateur that week (T-17) at Merion. All three went on to play on that year’s victorious USA Walker Cup Team.

Five years later, LSU also had three players: 2015 U.S. Junior Amateur champion Philip Barbaree, Jacob Bergeron and Luis Gagne. Sam Burns also played in that championship but had turned professional a year earlier.

“I wanted to have some material to talk about [that night],” said Ray, himself a past U.S. Open qualifier (2005). “I could have talked about it all night.”

Proud alums such as NBC/Golf Channel analyst Notah Begay III and Jerry Chang, an LACC member who played with Begay and Tiger Woods at Stanford, reached out to Ray, who also had program alum Patrick Rodgers qualify that day in Columbus, Ohio. Yang was the only one of the five Cardinal to survive both qualifying stages, but they approached it from different parts of the country.

Thorbjornsen, a rising junior from the Boston area, had reached his second U.S. Open in 2022 via a sectional in the Metropolitan New York area. He was given the honor of hitting the first tee shot of the 122nd U.S. Open at The Country Club in Brookline, Mass., just a short drive from his Wellesley home. He earned medalist honors on June 5 at Canoe Brook Country Club, in Summit, N.J.

Vilips chose Woodmont Country Club in Rockville, Md., because it wasn’t far from Laurel Valley Country Club in Ligonier, Pa., site of the 2023 Palmer Cup later that week. A native Australian, he was a member of the International side, but had to withdraw before the three-day event (June 8-10) with a minor back problem that won’t prevent him from playing at LACC. Brown and Yang stayed on the West Coast, though Yang was in Lakewood, Wash., because the Los Angeles site (Hillcrest C.C.) where Brown qualified was full.

That the 21-year-old Thorbjornsen, No. 2 in the World Amateur Golf Ranking®, qualified wasn’t a surprise, as he is making his third start in the championship. The 2023 Pacific-12 Conference champion and Player of the Year made the cut in his debut in 2019 at Pebble Beach, 11 months removed from earning an exemption with his victory in the U.S. Junior Amateur.

He has also shown he can compete against the best players. A week after missing the cut at Brookline last year, he finished fourth in the PGA Tour’s Travelers Championship in Cromwell, Conn. He also finished T-20 in the Dubai Desert Classic on the DP World Tour earlier this year.

Likewise Brown, a rising fifth-year senior from England who tied for fourth in the individual portion of the NCAA Championship and made the cut in the historic 150th Open Championship last July on the Old Course at St. Andrews, wasn’t a big surprise. He also was a member of the 2021 Great Britain & Ireland Walker Cup Team that came up just short at Seminole Golf Club.

A rock-solid junior season was a key factor in Stanford's Karl Vilips qualifying for his first U.S. Open on June 5. (USGA/Kathryn Riley)

A rock-solid junior season was a key factor in Stanford's Karl Vilips qualifying for his first U.S. Open on June 5. (USGA/Kathryn Riley)

That Vilips, who posted three top-10s for the Cardinal in the 2022-23 season and was one of the top recruits in the Class of 2020, qualified was also not a major surprise.

However, few expected Yang, a rising junior, to survive both stages of qualifying after finishing no better than a tie for 55th in four events for the Cardinal. While his teammates were preparing for the NCAAs, Yang, a native of Hong Kong China who has lived in Southern California for the past 12 years, didn’t make the postseason roster. He kept his game sharp by playing a mini-tour event in Nevada, then went to Tacoma Country & Golf Club and nabbed the second and final spot.

Thorbjornsen, who enjoyed a large gallery at Canoe Brook, kept abreast of Yang’s qualifier before boarding a plane to Canada to play in the RBC Canadian Open on a sponsor’s exemption. By the time he landed in Toronto, the news had become official.

“I just wanted to give all of them a hug,” said Thorbjornsen, who rooms with Brown and Vilips during the school year. “Our team is pretty deep. We’ve all developed and pushed each other to get better and it’s all paying off.”

Thorbjornsen had what he called the worst ball-striking week of his burgeoning career in Canada, where he missed the cut by five strokes, but that was just the start of a four-event stretch against top professionals. He’ll play next week’s Travelers and the upcoming John Deere Classic on sponsor’s exemptions.

“It’s a mental exercise for Michael,” said Ray. “He drives it better than anyone I have ever coached. He had a tough weekend in Canada … but I think he’s going to manage it. It will show him how tough it is to play consistently out there to make sure he is ready to go [pro] when he decides to turn.”

All of this success on “Golf’s Longest Day” came a week after the Cardinal suffered heartbreak on the final day of stroke play at the NCAAs. Stanford had tied conference rival Arizona State for eighth, but lost a playoff for the last spot in the team match-play draw.

At Hillcrest Country Club, Brown played 4-under-par golf over his final nine holes, including an eagle 2 on the 11th hole to share second at 10-under 132. Prior to the NCAAs, Brown hadn’t produced a top 10 all season, but everything clicked in his last two competitive events.

“I finally managed to put some rounds together,” said Brown, who has former Stanford assistant Cole Buck on his bag. Buck just left the school to become the associate head coach at TCU, his alma mater. “My golf was pretty similar. Sometimes the scores just don’t happen.”

Vilips, 21, also will have a familiar name on his bag at LACC: Colin Swatton, the former coach and caddie for major champion and fellow Aussie Jason Day. Vilips, a rising senior, and Swatton have known each other for nine years and recently began a coach/player relationship that has paid dividends.

His 4-under total of 138 on the challenging North Course at Woodmont C.C. earned a share of medalist honors and his first U.S. Open berth.

“Karl has just been rock-solid for us all year,” said Ray. “He’s been our consistent No. 2 or 3 guy. He’s hitting it really well.”

Yang is certainly no stranger to USGA championships. He competed in the 2018 and 2020 U.S. Amateurs at Pebble Beach and Bandon Dunes, respectively, and qualified for the 2021 U.S. Junior Amateur at The Country Club of North Carolina, losing to Luke Potter in the Round of 32.

Still, qualifying for a U.S. Open an hour from his home in Newport Beach was beyond his wildest dreams. With an aunt who lives in Venice, just 15 minutes from LACC, he has a place to call home for the week.

“If I wasn’t playing, I would have liked to come watch,” said Yang, who will play a practice round on Tuesday with his three teammates. “It’s so close to home. It feels like home.”

Tuesday’s practice round will probably feel like a typical day in Palo Alto.

David Shefter is a senior staff writer for the USGA. Email him at dshefter@usga.org.