ORANGE — Earlier this school year, Yasu Tanaka was perusing the Chapman University course schedule, trying to pick a physical education class.
Not a momentous decision; Tanaka only needed a half-unit class to graduate. Anything would have worked--Ultimate Frisbee, beginning tennis, folk dancing--but something else caught his eye: "Golf Team."
"I thought, 'I play golf, maybe I can do it,' " Tanaka said.
He never expected the answer to be so overwhelmingly positive. Not only did he make the team, he was one of its strongest players. Starting today, he will represent the Panthers in the NCAA Division III championships at the Hulman Links golf course in Terre Haute, Ind.
Even for someone who joined his team on a whim, Tanaka is an unlikely collegiate golf standout.
He taught himself to play about four years ago and still has never had a formal lesson. At 25, he's Chapman's oldest player by several years, but he's also the least experienced, never having played in competition before the season started in January.
Tanaka is the first to admit that he's not an orthodox golfer.
"I have a very, very weird swing," he said. "It's unique. All the teaching professionals tell you to take the club back slowly, but my philosophy is to just take it back quick and swing even quicker."
The important thing, however, is that the swing produces results. Tanaka's 77.8-stroke average (on courses with an average slope rating of 131) was second on the team to sophomore Joel DelGiorgio's 77.7. For some reason, Tanaka got the bid, one of only five individuals invited to the tournament by the selection committee.
"I thought Joel was going to be picked," Tanaka said. "In my opinion, he played a little better than me. I think they only picked me because I'm a senior."
This isn't what Tanaka expected to get out of college when he came to California from Kobe, Japan, in 1990. (His family was unscathed by the devastating earthquake that hit the city in January.)
Tanaka's father, Ichryu, , had been less than impressed by his son's academic performance during 1 1/2 years at a university in Japan, so he decided to challenge him by sending him to school in the United States.
So Tanaka landed at UC Irvine, where he took "English as a second language" courses, and then Orange Coast College. He had a rough time.
"I didn't like it when I first got here," Tanaka said. "I didn't like the food or anything."
Then one day, a roommate took Tanaka to a golf course. Soon, the game was the thing he most looked forward to.
"I couldn't sleep Friday nights, because I was going to go play golf on Saturday," he said.
Tanaka continued playing any chance he got after transferring to Chapman. When he approached Coach Greg Schammel, who was putting together Chapman's first golf team, Tanaka hadn't even established a handicap.
Schammel says Tanaka is remarkably consistent and hasn't begun to tap his potential. "I really think if he ever gets his putting going, he could really shoot some low numbers," Schammel said.
Tanaka said he doesn't feel any extra pressure this week.
"I'm just going to have fun; it's just a game after all," he said, adding with a laugh, "I'm trying to sound like Lee Trevino or somebody."