Weather conditions, lone senior key for golfers at NCAAs

C.J. Spang

In the past nine years only eight squads have made more appearances in the NCAA Championships than Minnesota’s men’s golf team.

But in that same span, only one of those schools -Georgia – has won more titles than the Gophers, winning in 1999 and 2005. Minnesota won it all in 2002.

The 2006 NCAA Championships begin today, and the Gophers will be making their seventh appearance since 1998 and first since 2003.

The 72-hole tournament is being held at the par-72, 7,630-yard Crosswater Golf Club at Sunriver Resort in Sunriver, Ore., and features 30 teams plus six individuals from squads that did not qualify at the three regional tournaments.

“The whole tournament just generates this huge excitement,” junior Niall Turner said. “Everyone can’t really wait to start playing.”

Some of that excitement comes from the fact that all the golfers believe this week is their chance to shine after a mediocre performance at the Central Regional nearly two weeks ago, Turner said.

Minnesota finished in sixth place at 22-over par, 29 shots behind tournament champion Oklahoma State – currently ranked second in the country.

“We didn’t play well at all last week,” coach Brad James said, “and we managed to finish sixth in a really strong field on a very tough golf course.”

Not only were the Gophers up against tough competition and a tough course, but tough weather conditions as well.

After the Central Regional, James spoke about the poor conditions but said they were nothing compared to what his team had to deal with at the Big Ten Championships.

Those experiences might reap big benefits for Minnesota if conditions are tough again this week – which James is actually hoping for.

“The conditions are definitely going to dictate who wins here,” he said. “If the conditions are easy, it’s going to be an absolute shootout because it’s not a hard golf course.”

Besides the weather conditions – which are calling for rain or thunderstorms all four days – the other critical element in a successful tournament for the Gophers is the play of senior Josh Persons.

“He’s been shooting high or low this year, and it’s either one or the other, and it’s never an in between,” James said. “If he shoots low this week, we’ve got a chance.”

Persons has struggled since leading the team with a tied-for-seventh finish at the Augusta State Invitational in early April, when he finished at one-under par for the tournament.

But Persons and James agree things seem to be coming around at the right time.

“I would definitely say I’ve struggled with my ball striking, and I haven’t been able to turn it around,” Persons said. “I’ve been working on a few things and it’s slowly getting better. And today (Tuesday) was the first time I think it all clicked.

“I really felt good over the ball today, and I couldn’t ask for a better time for it to be doing that.”

Persons isn’t the only Minnesota golfer feeling good about his game.

According to Turner, everyone on the team is confident in their game right now and is taking the attitude that they can win another national championship, even though everyone else seems to have written them off.

“Any team here can win it, and we’re definitely taking that attitude,” Turner said. “We’ve shown over the last two years, most tournaments, that we can compete against the best team on our day.”