Gophers upset by Northwestern

by Jim Schortemeyer

Half an hour after the Big Ten men’s golf tournament ended on Sunday, Minnesota senior Jeff Barney sat alone on the patio of Les Bolstad University golf course. He stared at his hands, then stared into space, replaying in his mind a round of golf that saw the Gophers fall from first to second.
Barney and Minnesota fell just short in their bid for the Big Ten championship this weekend, finishing three strokes behind Northwestern.
“We’re very disappointed, obviously,” sophomore James McLean said. “We were expecting to win, and in a way we were complacent and lackadaisical.”
The win was Northwestern’s first at the Big Ten tournament since 1948, but Wildcat coach Pat Goss was deferential to Minnesota after the win. The Gophers haven’t won a championship since 1972.
“It means a lot to us, as it would to Minnesota,” Goss said. “I feel bad for (Gophers coach John Means) and Minnesota.”
The 10th-ranked Gophers were shocked by the 13th-ranked Wildcats in a high-scoring slugfest. Northwestern finished 5-under par in conditions when just five players finished in red numbers for the tournament.
“Scores were terrible this weekend with the rain and with the rough,” Goss said. “You could be in worse position from two feet off the green than 20 feet out.”
Tournament co-winners Larry Nuger of Illinois and Michael Harris of Michigan finished at 6-under par.
But the weekend might as well have been a dual meet between Minnesota and Northwestern as far as team scores were concerned. The two were paired together for every round of the tournament — third place Illinois ended up 18 strokes behind the Wildcats.
The race was so tight that Minnesota and Northwestern were never separated by more than three strokes on the leaderboard. Means said missed putts early-on led to the Gophers’ demise.
“They were missing five- to six-footers,” Means said. “The more they missed, the harder they tried. They worked their butts off today.”
The difference in the tournament was simple. Minnesota always had a player with a low score to carry its day — until the final round. On Friday, sophomore James McLean carried the Gophers with a 66. Saturday, junior Martin LeMesurier (67) and senior Bill Thompson (69) led the team. But on Sunday, only one golfer, Adam Dooley (69), broke par.
Without a golfer of its own going low, Minnesota was at the mercy of Northwestern’s Luke Donald. Donald — who didn’t break par in the first three rounds — fired a 67 on Sunday to seal the Wildcats’ win.
“It’s the first time I’ve actually played up to my potential this weekend,” Donald said. “I worked on some things last night and felt that did some good.”
Northwestern’s coach realizes that without Donald’s 67, his team would have been in dire straits.
“That’s what really won the event,” Goss said. “I said all along we wouldn’t win if Luke didn’t play well.”
While Northwestern’s number-one player came through, McLean labored to a final-round 72. McLean’s short game was a saving grace in his 66 on Friday, but was an Achilles heel on the weekend.
“I just didn’t really have it today,” McLean said. “It puts a lot of pressure on the rest of your game when you can’t hit a putt.”
The loss comes as a huge letdown for Minnesota, which beat Northwestern four times prior to this weekend. While Means was disappointed with his team’s finish, he couldn’t help but look forward to the NCAA championships in June, which the Gophers will host at Hazeltine National Golf Club in Chaska, Minn.
“What we’ll see from today is if they play to win or play not to lose,” Means said. “We’re going to see what they’re made of now.”
The question with which Means and the Gophers were left was how they’ll react for the upcoming NCAA regional tournament.
“I’ll tell you after the team meeting,” Means said.