Gophers finish four shots from NCAA title

C.J. Spang

Out of 30 teams and 156 golfers, after four days and 16 rounds of golf, the difference between Minnesota’s men’s golf team and a national championship was just four strokes.

The Gophers shot a 5-under par 1,147 to finish in a tie for third place with Wake Forest at this weekend’s 2006 NCAA Championships in Sunriver, Ore.

Oklahoma State won the tournament with a nine-under par 1,143 and Florida followed with a 6-under par 1,146.

“We were delighted with a third-place finish,” junior Niall Turner said. “But everyone afterwards was just thinking Ö ‘My God, four shots out of all that is absolutely nothing.’ “

Minnesota was further back after the first two rounds but started gaining ground on the leaders during the third and fourth rounds.

After the first day, the Gophers were tied for 11th, 10 strokes behind Wake Forest.

That deficit was the same after the second day, but Minnesota moved into eighth place behind new leader Washington.

Poor weather conditions plagued the entire field in the third round as only two teams carded rounds under par.

The Gophers finished 4-over par on the day thanks to Turner’s 3-under par 69.

“Niall’s round the third day was extremely good because the conditions were just horrendous,” coach Brad James said. “To shoot that 69 in those conditions was a wonderful score when the rest of the guys struggled a little bit.”

The field was cut to 15 teams after the third round, with Minnesota tied for fifth place, eight strokes behind Washington.

In the final round, the Gophers made a run at the crown, firing the second-best round of the day, a 6-under par 282, good enough for third.

And that third-place finish means a lot to a team that will lose just one golfer of the five that competed at this year’s NCAA Championships.

“The hard thing with these guys is they look at Oklahoma State’s and the Arizona’s (teams) and they put them up on a pedestal,” James said. “I feel like it took this tournament for them to realize, ‘You know what, we’re better than them,’ Ö and as soon as they realize that, they’ll be better players.”

Junior Bronson La’Cassie was one of the better players at the tournament this year, leading Minnesota with a 4-under par 284 to finish tied for sixth in the tournament. Oklahoma State redshirt freshman Jonathan Moore won the event with a 12-under par 276.

La’Cassie had four birdies and an eagle for a final round 4-under par 68 to help get his team in contention.

“I felt pretty good about my game,” he said of his final round. “I didn’t hole any putts at all so it’s kind of disappointing, could have been a few better. I’m happy with it though.”

Turner was the Gophers’ second-highest finisher, firing a 2-under par 286 to finish tied for 10th place.

“It’s exactly where I thought I could be,” Turner said of his 10th-place finish. “To be honest, I don’t even think I played my best golf this week Ö so it’s kind of comforting to know that I got something left in the tank and that I could finish 10th. But it’s a huge thrill to finished 10th at NCAAs.”

But despite the team’s strong performance and returning experience, James isn’t about to set any expectations. But goals are another thing.

“I don’t think you can really have any expectations,” James said. “I think the kids have just got to refocus on their individual goals and if those individual goals are higher, I think the team goals will take care of themselves, and that’s winning a Big Ten and national championship.”