Pat Burke, the No. 1 golfer for Cal State Dominguez Hills, may be teeing up up his last ball for the Toros when this season ends with a match against Chapman College on Friday.
Burke, a second-team Division II All-American as a sophomore last year, plans to transfer to Cal Poly Pomona, which doesn't have a men's golf team, to earn a degree in hotel and restaurant management. Dominguez Hills doesn't offer such a degree.
The 24-year-old New Jersey native, who lives in West Covina, said the move is contingent only upon course availability and credit transfer, not on golf.
"School is more important than one more year of eligibility," said Burke, who has a 3.1 grade-point average and was nominated for academic All-American honors.
Brother Is Better
He said his older brother, Michael Sr., left Miami of Ohio after three years to pursue a golf career, but that venture lasted only a year.
"He still beats me like a drum and he didn't make that much money," Burke said. "That's when I decided I better get a degree."
John Johnson, the Dominguez Hills golf coach since the program's inception 18 years ago, said he believes Burke, "the best golfer we've ever had," needs to get on with his life and career goals.
"Naturally, as a coach, I'd like to tell him to stay and play. But as an educator, my advice is to transfer and get the degree."
Burke said the disappointment of not earning a berth in the NCAA Division II national championship May 19-22 won't affect his decision o forgoing his final year of eligibility.
Disaster in Regional
Less than a month ago, the Toros were ranked eighth nationally and an automatic bid to the nationals seemed assured. But they finished third behind Cal State Northridge and Sacramento State at the Region 8 championship at Weed on May 3 and 4, ending hope for post-season play.
Two teams and one individual from the region receive automatic berths to the nationals. Burke said he figured he would have gotten the individual berth if he had outplayed Greg Downey of Portland State and Jason Brown of UC Davis.
But he didn't. He trailed Downey, who finished third, by 11 strokes and Brown by 10. Brown was selected for the at-large berth in the nationals.
Burke, who had been averaging about a 75 per round, shot a 79 in the first round and followed with an 85. Even a final round of 70, one shot off the course record, couldn't undo the damage.
"I knew what I had to do when I got up there," Burke said. "I just didn't play worth a lick in the first two rounds and shot myself right out of the water."
Wind Hurt Swing
He blamed his downfall on two practice rounds he played Thursday and Friday in 30 m.p.h. winds, which hurt his swing. When the tournament began on Saturday with only a cool breeze, he said he arrived "without a swing" and sprayed balls "all over the place."
"I did the same thing in the Junior College State Championship," said Burke, who attended Citrus College. "I played 36 holes of practice in the wind and it took me a day to get back my swing. I don't think I'll do that again."
Burke said he has nothing left to prove in college golf and will have no regrets if he transfers.
In 1985 he won the Gary Sanders Memorial Tournament and the Region 8 championship and finished 24th at the nationals.
Burke defended his title at the Gary Sanders in February with a 3-under-par to become the first player to win the tournament in successive years, but he said the victory was mostly luck and perhaps signaled the beginning of the end of his collegiate career.
Course 'Good to Me'
"I wasn't playing well and I was still leading. That's because the course (Los Angeles Royal Vista) has always been good to me. But it was the first time I was nervous for an entire tournament.
"I couldn't eat afterward, and if you look at me, you know that's usually not a problem," said Burke, stocky at 5-6 and 165 pounds. "That kind of reinforced my wanting to get an education."
If that tournament didn't convince him of the need for something to fall back on should he not succeed at golf, then the final hole of the Sacramento State Invitational a week later did.
He shot a 10 and finished with an 84.
"Last year I had a lot of fun. I just teed it up and had fun. But this year I tried too hard and beat myself into the ground."
He said golf had become frustrating. And the frustration was compounded when he aggravated a back injury that sidelined him for a month last year.
Hurt in Auto Accident
Two years ago, he said, his car was rear-ended while stopped at a traffic light. That was the beginning of back troubles and he visited a chiropractor three times a week.
Although he had back spasms so painful that he couldn't bend over to line up a shot, he said he thought he was close to 100% recovered last summer. But shortly before the Gary Sanders, he was rear-ended again. And the trips to the doctor resumed.
His average dropped to just under a 74 after the Sanders triumph, but it has since risen steadily. Still, Burke refused to use the back trouble as an excuse.
"I know that the back has bothered him some, but he's the kind of player who won't tell you," Johnson said. "He just won't use that as an alibi."
Burke admitted his back bothered him at the Region 8 tournament, but he said it didn't become uncomfortable until the final hole, in which he missed a three-foot putt that would have tied the course record.
"I was really down after the regionals. But I realized the world is still spinning and I'm not going to go crazy over it. My top priority is getting my degree."