Gophers perennially tough despite playing in the northland

Minnesota's 2002 national title was the first for a Big Ten team since 1978.

C.J. Spang

Weather is a perpetual curse that plagues many teams at the University.

One team that has been able to overcome the weather’s obstacles is Minnesota’s men’s golf team.

The success the Gophers have had in recent years far surpasses any other northern schools and rivals many national contenders as well – which generally are southern schools.

“The results speak for themselves,” coach Brad James said. “But the hard point is selling that.”

It seems unrealistic that it would be hard to sell the 2002 NCAA Championship that Minnesota won. That was the first national title for the Big Ten conference since Ohio State won the title in 1979.

That one championship is the same number that Stanford has won in the past 50 years. And it had Tiger Woods for three years.

The Gophers also have one of the Big Ten’s three NCAA individual champions of the past 45 years.

Australian James McLean won the 1998 individual crown as a freshman, joining Ohio State’s Clark Burroughs, who won it in 1985, and the “Golden Bear” – Jack Nicklaus – who won it for the Buckeyes in 1961.

Minnesota appeared in six straight NCAA Championships from 1998 to 2003, and the team is tied for third in the country for the most NCAA Championship appearances since 1998.

The Gophers also won a pair of Big Ten titles in 2002 and 2003 – their first since 1972 – with Matt Anderson winning the individual crown in 2003.

Individually, the Gophers produced a string of All-Americans starting in 1993 as 11 different golfers were honored 17 times, the latest being junior Bronson La’Cassie, who was honorable mention as a freshman in 2004 and third-team in 2005.

That run snapped a stretch of zero All-Americans at Minnesota since former British Open champion Tom Lehman was named an All-American for the third-straight year in 1981.

But all that success isn’t enough to solve the twofold problem that inclement weather brings.

First, Minnesota golfers have to deal with practicing indoors for much of the season and then adjusting to the move outdoors once the weather permits.

“It’s always hard,” La’Cassie said. “Those first few events are tough, just getting back in the swing of things.”

Even the practices make things difficult as the team travels to the Goodrich Golf Dome in Maplewood – 15 miles from campus.

Big Ten competitors Purdue, Illinois and Northwestern all have indoor golf facilities, and it’s not just the northern schools that have indoor facilities either.

Just this year, Texas built a $6 million indoor facility and Florida State spent $3.5 million on its indoor facility.

“We’re the furthest northern program in the country,” James said, “and we don’t even have (an indoor facility).”

Minnesota only practiced outside one time before spring break. The rest was done in the golf dome or at tournaments.

“We’re in the golf dome for a few days and then they have go back out and just have one practice round to kind of get their touch and feel back,” assistant coach Andrew Tank said.

According to James, 70 percent of lost recruits say weather is the biggest factor in their decisions to go elsewhere.

“We lost a kid from Wales and he went on two recruiting trips, Minnesota and Memphis,” James said. “He said, ‘Coach, if the University of Minnesota was in Memphis I would come to Minnesota.’ “

The only thing James can point to when trying to combat the weather during recruiting is what he calls, “the big picture.”

That includes the benefits of the University and the benefits after the golfer finishes his collegiate career.

From traveling to the best tournaments in the country, to playing the 135 golf courses around the Twin Cities or advancing to the professional tour, James said he thinks the Gophers have a lot to offer.

One golfer who did see the big picture was La’Cassie, who, fortunately for James, attended the same high school in Australia, which allowed him to get in contact with La’Cassie.

“To be honest, I didn’t really know what (the weather) was going to be like,” La’Cassie said. “Coach sort of said that it snowed, probably not as much as it does, but I didn’t really know that it was going to be like this.”

Despite the drawback, La’Cassie saw the success his fellow countrymen – McLean in particular – had at Minnesota and decided it was the right place for him.

“You sort of look at how they do back home and how they do here and you sort of compare the competition,” La’Cassie said. “Looking at those guys doing well, it makes you realize you can come over here and do well.”