One More Time

by Jim Schortemeyer

The NCAA tournament presents a pair of story lines that weave together and apart: the obvious and the overlooked.
The obvious story is that of a certain Minnesota sophomore from Australia. Everybody wants to know if James McLean can repeat as NCAA champion at Hazeltine National Golf Club. Only Ben Crenshaw (1971-72) and Phil Mickelson (1989-90) have won back-to-back titles.
Although he may not be quite ready to join that group, the sixth-ranked McLean has won or finished in the top six of every tournament he’s played this spring. But there have been inconsistencies.
At the Big Ten tournament — played at Les Bolstad University Golf Course — McLean was off his game, to the disappointment of a gallery with 150 or more spectators. McLean finished sixth.
“I wasn’t hitting the ball well all weekend, and just when I started hitting the ball a bit better, I couldn’t hit a putt,” McLean said. “I had been putting the spots off the ball.”
The weekend after the problematic Big Ten tournament, McLean’s prodigious length off the tee helped subdue the 7,100-yard NCAA regional course at Ohio State. And the liberal use of the longball will be necessary to conquer the nearly 7,200-yard Hazeltine.
Last year it was McLean’s prowess off the tee that enabled him to tear up a wide-open New Mexico course for his win. This year, even teammate Adam Dooley is wondering whether McLean will fare as well.
“It was such a good course for him because he could bomb it over everything and there was no wind to make the course hard,” Dooley said.
With the wind whipping for Monday’s practice round in Chaska, Minn., Hazeltine looks and plays nothing like last year’s course. Which leads to the often overlooked story — Minnesota’s realistic chance of winning the NCAA championship.
The Gophers finished sixth at last year’s championships and harbor hopes of winning the tournament this year.
“We’re not the favorite team for the NCAAs,” coach John Means said. “The home course will help. Since we’re not favorites, the guys will be able to freewheel it like they did at regionals.”
Minnesota coasted through its NCAA regional (in which McLean won medalist honors by a stroke) and improved its standing in the process.
The win bumped the Gophers up to No. 6 in the latest Golfstat poll. Of the teams ahead of Minnesota (Georgia, UNLV, Georgia Tech, Clemson and Arizona State), only two have consistently beaten the Gophers.
Georgia and Minnesota have met just twice, with the Bulldogs finishing well ahead both times. The Rebels, the defending national champions, have dealt the Gophers a few spankings this season as well; Minnesota hasn’t come within double digits of UNLV this spring.
But the Rebels’ game, which Means likened to former UNLV coach Jerry Tarkanian’s run-and-gun basketball teams, has been called into question. Means suggested Hazeltine might not be set up for the Rebels.
“If you held the NCAA championships at 10 different courses, UNLV would probably win seven times,” Means said. “But unless they change their game plan — and from what I’ve seen, they don’t change strategies — they’re going to have some trouble.”
Means’ criticism of UNLV is a stark contrast to the confident reply of the Rebels’ coach, Dwaine Knight.
“We’re probably a better hard-course team,” Knight said. “When we’ve won, it’s been on a hard course. We’ve been a consistent golf team.
“There’s a lot of teams that have a really good chance. There’s a lot of parity in college golf. I think it’s going to be a real dog race.”
While Knight talks of parity, UNLV has won five tournaments and finished second four times this season.
But the Gophers say they know Hazeltine better than any other team at the NCAA tournament.
“More than (Les Bolstad), Hazeltine is home to us,” Dooley said. “We only play out at the U when we have tournaments there. We’re always coming out here.”
The question is whether the home course will benefit McLean, who has struggled on Hazeltine. McLean finished two-over par at the NCAA preview last fall to finish seventh.
And if the Gophers are going to win their first NCAA championship ever, it might well depend on the young Australian.