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Having completed his round already, Justin De Los Santos stood on the 18th green of the San Luis Obispo Country Club watching UC Irvine senior Pete Fernandez line up his birdie putt.
If this were a typical round, De Los Santos, the Cal Poly men’s golf team’s top individual this season in terms of scoring average, would have been in the clubhouse eating his post-round snack, waiting for the other golfers to finish their 18. But this was different.
The sophomore had to stay loose in the event of a playoff with Fernandez. De Los Santos entered the final round of the 2015 Big West Conference Men’s Golf Championship two shots off Fernandez’s lead in third place, but a double-bogey on the 14th hole and a bogey on the 16th by the Anteaters’ top man opened the door for him.
De Los Santos, who had been in the clubhouse with a one-under 69 for nearly an hour before Fernandez’s group came to the final hole, made sure to watch as his closest competitor on the weekend tried to hole the potentially match-tying putt.
Fernandez’s stumbles on the back nine necessitated he sink a 40-foot downhill putt for birdie to at least force a playoff with De Los Santos. A miss would give the latter the win.
It didn’t go in.
It took three rounds and all 54 holes to decide a winner. But with that, De Los Santos earned the victory, besting the rest of the Big West field with a two-over 212 throughout the championships held on April 26-28.
He didn’t know he’d won the conference title until “literally it was official,” De Los Santos said. “It was after (Fernandez) missed his birdie putt on 18 is the only time I knew. I was preparing for a playoff.”
What a time to get his first career collegiate victory.
“It was almost surreal,” De Los Santos said. “I didn’t know how to react. It didn’t really hit me, honestly.”
De Los Santos clinched the conference’s automatic individual berth to the NCAA Regional competition, to be held May 14-16, and became just the second Cal Poly golfer to win a conference championship. Former three-time conference Athlete of the Year Travis Bertoni took home the title in 2005.
As the lone individual qualifier from Cal Poly (the Mustangs finished sixth as a team in the Big West championships), he will be placed in the regional hosted by the University of San Diego at The Farms Golf Club in Rancho Santa Fe, California, starting on Thursday. The low five teams and the low individual not on those teams from each of six regionals advance to the NCAA Division I Men’s Golf Championship, held at The Concession Golf Club in Bradenton, Florida, later this month.
De Los Santos will attempt to become the second Cal Poly men’s golfer to move on from regional play after former standout Geoff Gonzales placed fourth in the Colorado Regional in 2011 to advance to the NCAA Finals.
He’s already joining elite Cal Poly golf company by simply reaching the postseason. Bertoni (PGA’s Web.com Tour) and Gonzalez (PGA Tour Canada) both turned pro following their Mustang careers.
“He was recruited to take Geoff’s place,” head golf coach Scott Cartwright said of De Los Santos’ potential. “Last year he was Freshman of the Year in the Big West, this year he won the Big West, so we anticipate that we’ll get a full, solid season out of him where he may not win the Big West, but he should advance to the regionals every year.”
Should he advance every year? That’s some supreme confidence, not to mention pressure, in a young golfer. But in talking to De Los Santos, expectations such as that don’t faze him.
“He’s pretty mentally stable,” Cartwright said. “He doesn’t get too high or too low.”
That’s an important quality in someone who plays arguably the toughest mental sport on the planet. In fact, he says once he saw Fernandez’s putt miss at the Big West championships, his teammates showed more emotion than he did.
“I was just smiling, my teammates were the ones going crazy,” De Los Santos said. “It wasn’t even me that was jumping up and down.”
Make no mistake, though, winning the Big West title was the biggest accomplishment of his career, he said.
He’ll have a chance to make more history at The Farms this week. The top five teams, consisting of five players each, will advance to the NCAA championships in Florida. He’ll have to be lowest scorer of all the remaining players who don’t qualify by virtue of their team advancing to move on.
“It’s really difficult to advance,” Cartwright said. “He’s got to be lowest of the next (50) guys (that don’t advance with a team). And these are all the guys that are the No. 1s and 2s of their teams.”
The competition at The Farms will include five teams ranked in the top 25, according to Golfweek.com. Cody Blick of San Jose State is the top-ranked individual not on those teams, as he’s tabbed at No. 49 in Golfweek’s rankings, while De Los Santos sits at No. 389. The tournament will also have an added twist, as wet weather is supposed to come through the area on Friday.
The goal is simple for De Los Santos, though.
“I want to be there going into the last round, the last nine holes,” he said. “I at least want to have a chance at being the top individual.”