The catch was Steve Sugimoto’s time was up for handling pitches.
So he became a switch-hitter, ditching his baseball bat for golf clubs. He turned to scoring aces instead of working with them.
The change came when Sugimoto was a Rancho Bernardo High sophomore. Now the San Diego State senior is bound for the NCAA Championship, running Friday through Tuesday at the Grayhawk Golf Club in Scottsdale, Arizona.
The Aztecs advanced to golf’s version of the Big Dance and that means Sugimoto’s smile can finally go toe-to-toe with his father, Masao.
“My dad lit up when I told him I was going to return to golf,” Sugimoto said. “I had played a lot of baseball growing up, so I was a late bloomer and took a different path to get here.”
Sugimoto, whose brother, Eric, plays professionally in Japan, was a rare catcher who could read greens and depth charts. He eyed the stacked and tradition-rich Rancho Bernardo baseball program and decided he would rather tee off than be teed off about not playing.
“It’s a powerhouse with teams that look like college teams out there,” said Sugimoto, who has three top-20 finishes this season. “They have draft picks every year coming off their teams. Baseball was fun, but I just saw my window closing.”
When it slammed shut, the door opened to golf for someone who’s not a long driver but has the drive few can match.
“Steve is just a die-hard San Diego State guy, someone who really wanted to be here,” Aztecs golf coach Ryan Donovan said. “He’s just a great team guy.”
Waving pom-poms for the red-and-black is dandy. Donovan wondered if Sugimoto’s enthusiasm matched his game.
“We didn’t know what he was going to do in college,” Donovan said.
Luckily, Sugimoto did. He was determined to make the team, go low and keep his colleagues up.
“He’s just a super nice guy,” SDSU golfer Youssef Guezzale said. “He is all about team chemistry, all the time.”
It’s a 24/7 bonding experience for four of the Aztecs’ top five golfers, Sugimoto and Guezzale included. They share a place near campus, a true foursome on and off the course.
“The chemistry with this group is off the charts,” Poway’s Donovan said. “With four of them living together they kept everyone accountable and they pushed each other. During COVID, they didn’t have anything else to do but go practice and they did.”
Sugimoto is half of the tandem with Rancho Bernardo roots taking aim for the No. 25-ranked Aztecs. Zihao Jin played three years with Sugimoto as a Bronco before heading to SDSU, too.
“He was already on the RB golf team when we met and he was the best player,” Sugimoto said. “So I had a lot of work to do.”
The trick was earning an athletic scholarship to a Division I college. The treat was the pair of products coached by Richard Deem at Rancho Bernardo landed at SDSU.
“Isn’t that super cool?” Donovan said. “It’s crazy.”
Some thought Sugimoto was nuts to pivot to golf. But he stuck to his conviction and now he’s playing on college golf’s biggest stage with a savvy game that is built around precision and course management instead of brawn.
Off the tee, the 5-foot-5 Sugimoto, an All-Mountain West Conference selection, is usually behind his competitors. But when plucking the ball from the hole, Sugimoto’s scores are often better.
“I might be out of position or way far back, but I can still hit it closer than my opponent and make them feel a little uneasy,” Sugimoto said. “You might have it 50 yards past me, but I still make birdie and that’s fun in my head.”
Lo and behold, there’s that Sugimoto smile again. It’s the one that runs in the family.