Mendez impresses in first year

Jose Mendez has taken the Big Ten by storm in his first season on campus.

David Nelson

As the sun shone high on a windy Friday afternoon, Jose Mendez reset his feet and took aim.

As he lowered his eyes to the golf ball, the freshman reeled back the head of his driver and powered a shot that flew over the fence of the driving range, disappearing into the distance.

“You’re going to hit someone,” junior Tyler Lowenstein said.

That swing has become more and more feared around the Big Ten in Mendez’s first year on campus. And his success this season remains unparalleled in comparison to anyone head coach John Carlson has coached.

“He’s the most talented [guy we’ve ever recruited],” Carlson said. “There isn’t a facet of his game that is underdeveloped.”

A hometown hero

In Mendez’s home country of Costa Rica, most people on the street recognize his name.

“It’s a small country, so basically if you’re good at a sport, everybody’s going to know you,” Mendez said. “I know the kids that are playing golf know who I am and they think I’m a role model.”

Mendez has drawn people from his home country in with his uncanny ability to maneuver around a golf course.

“He’s got fans there at the age of 4 years old to 85 years old,” Carlson said. “He signs autographs when he goes back to Costa Rica. And everyone in Costa Rica absolutely adores him.”

Mendez picked up the sport as an 8-year-old, and by the time he was 12, his talent placed him in his first international competition in Columbia. He made his way to the prestigious Polo Junior Classic in the United States three years later.

That’s where the Gophers first got a look at the young prodigy on the golf course.

Carlson said all he had to do was listen to the sound of Mendez’s swing and he knew he could be great.

“I listened to him hit a couple of shots, then I watched him play nine holes and immediately I knew that he had to be our target,” Carlson said. “We recruited him really hard for three straight years.”

When the Costa Rican arrived on campus, his first competition didn’t go as planned, as he tied for 39th in the first tournament of the year.

“In the fall season, I didn’t play that well,” he said.

But Mendez recovered nicely, producing four top-20 finishes down the stretch of the fall season.

Still, after that, he needed a break. Mendez sat out the Patriot All-America last December due to tendonitis in his wrist.

Mendez said it was nice to heal up, but he said the relief from the mental strain of golf was crucial for him.

As soon as he returned to action, he went to Nicaragua, where he took home first-place honors at the Central America Inter-Golf Tournament in January.

Spring fever

Since that first-place finish in Nicaragua, the freshman has produced four top-20 finishes and has placed first in two tournaments.

“We’ve never had a freshman here that has made the type of strides that he has already in the first year,” Carlson said. “He’s won twice as a collegiate. Some people never win as a collegiate.”

Mendez, who has consistently been paired against top golfers on opposing teams, has been asked to perform above the normal workload this season.

“We’ve put him through the grinder,” Carlson said. “He has been the No. 1 player on a team with two seniors for the entire year. That’s a lot of pressure.”

Still, the talented golfer has broad enough shoulders, literally, to carry that burden. And his teammates recognize that.

“He’s understands his game,” senior Jon Trasamar said. “And to be able to see somebody with that maturity and experience on the golf course … is great.”

His low scores may appear imposing to opponents, but perhaps the most menacing number for opponents is four — the number of years Mendez will play with the Gophers.

His talent could take him to the pros early, but Mendez said he has no plans on leaving Minnesota early.

“We think about what we can do to make him better,” Carlson said, “and it’s a challenge for us as coaches.”

That’s a good problem for the Gophers.