Seventeen years after national title, Gophers look to reclaim greatness

After getting a new indoor facility this year, the men’s golf team hopes to hang another banner.

Junior Thomas Longbella lines up a shot on the putting green in the new indoor golf training facility on Monday, April 1. The facility borders the Les Bolstad Golf Course and allows for practice throughout winter months.

Jack Rodgers

Junior Thomas Longbella lines up a shot on the putting green in the new indoor golf training facility on Monday, April 1. The facility borders the Les Bolstad Golf Course and allows for practice throughout winter months.

Nick Jungheim

In April 2002, the University of Minnesota announced plans to cut the school’s golf and gymnastics programs in an effort to offset the athletic department’s $21 million deficit. 

Over the following months, the men’s golf program completed one of the most improbable championship runs in Minnesota history.

The Gophers went on to win their first Big Ten Championship since 1972 and finished fourth at the Western Regional Championships to qualify for the NCAA Championships. There, they surged up the leader board from 16th place after the second round to win the national title.

In that tournament, sophomore Justin Smith led Minnesota in scoring, propelling the team to the championship. Seventeen years later, Smith is again leading the program, now as associate head coach. During that improbable title run, the team had to block out an uncertain future and focus on taking things one step at a time, something Smith believes his current team can learn from.

“Sometimes as a coach, it’s easy to put a lot of emphasis on one tournament or one situation,” Smith said. “So we try to bring the same energy and same effort as much as we can every day and then those big situations just kind of take care of themselves.”

Following the national title, private donors raised over $2.8 million dollars to save the programs the University originally intended to discontinue. The golf programs’ new training facility opened in early 2019, which is also largely funded by private donations. The new complex proves that support for the golf programs is strong and showcases the team’s history for the next generation of Minnesota golfers.

“Recruits, they love the banners in the facility, they can see the tradition of Gophers golf,” said director of men’s golf John Carlson. “They can also see our commitment from our administration to make Gopher golf as strong as it’s ever been.”

With the regular season now completed, it seems as though having a facility to call their own has provided tremendous benefits, as both the men’s and women’s teams showed signs of improvement this spring. The men have placed top six in three consecutive tournaments. Sophomore Angus Flanagan said the facility has made a big difference in his development as a player.

“I hadn’t spent a winter indoors practicing before,” said Flanagan, a native of Woking, England. “I spent basically 365 days of the year outside back home, so I didn’t really know what it was like. I learned a lot from last year and especially having a facility this year, it’s helped me a lot to get to where I am right now with my game. It’s 100 times better than it was last year, I’ll put it that way.”

Like when Smith led the team to a national title as a sophomore in 2002, it’s once again underclassmen like Flanagan who are leading the program toward a bright future. The next order of business is hanging another banner at the facility, something they’ll have a chance to do for the first time this weekend.

“I think it’s, as I said, easy at times to put too much pressure on some of these big tournaments,” Smith said. “But it is the Big Ten Championships, it’s as prideful as anything knowing the history and tradition our program has had. I know we have a bunch of banners in our facility — these guys want to raise another one.”