U golfers stumble

by Jim Schortemeyer

CHASKA, Minn. — It’s safe to say the first hole of the NCAA men’s golf championships didn’t go exactly the way Minnesota had hoped. Off the first tee at Hazeltine National Golf Club, all five of the Gophers hit their drives deep into the rough.
“We were about 250 yards from the center of the fairway if you added our five guys together,” coach John Means said.
Things didn’t get much better for Minnesota. After Wednesday’s first round, the Gophers stand tied for 16th place, 14 strokes behind Oklahoma State’s 1-over par.
Defending national champion James McLean fired a 76, his worst round of the year.
While Minnesota’s opening round looks like a disaster, the team actually showed signs of life for at least half of the round. After nine holes, the Gophers stood at 17-over par.
Then they woke up.
“We shot a two-under on the back nine,” Means said. “They could have put the tent down, put their tails between their legs, gone home to the hotel and cried about it. But I’m proud of them. They fought well today.”
McLean was one of those who led the turnaround. After breaking his driver late Monday, McLean had a borrowed driver to take on Hazeltine Wednesday, which he partially attributed to his rough start.
“It was a combination of a new driver, not having the feel for it and being nervous,” McLean said. “I put some tenuous swings on it and I got in trouble left.
“With the old driver, I’d have been comfortable and just lashed at it like I usually do.”
Though he shot 4-over on the front nine, McLean recovered to go even par on the back. After 18 holes, he stands tied for 63rd in the field of 154.
And thanks to a solid back nine, McLean thinks he can get back into the title hunt before the tournament is finished.
“I could shoot a 66,” McLean said. “There’s three days left, so there’s plenty of time.”
The only Minnesota golfer who was comfortable from the start was senior Bill Thompson. Thompson was the only Gopher to finish under par, firing a 1-under 71. It was a scrambling 71, to say the least.
“I was either in the fairway or the woods,” Thompson said. “I made birdie on six from the snack bar. I was so far right, I had a good lie because the sprinklers don’t reach that far.”
Thompson is tied for seventh in the standings after breaking par for the first time since the third round of the Big Ten championships. He shot 72, 80 and 80 at the NCAA regionals.
But during the first nine holes, Thompson watched the Gophers’ precipitous fall down the scoreboard like a passerby watches a car crash.
“I just kept watching that black number getting bigger,” Thompson said with a bewildered look. “I didn’t know what was going on.”
Means credited Thompson with keeping the Gophers in the running for their first-ever NCAA championship.
“Billy played really well today,” Means said. “Thanks to Billy and our back nine, we’re in the position we are today.”
East Tennessee State’s Chris Wisler shot a 4-under par 68 and holds a two-stroke lead in the individual competition. His nice round came despite a bogey on the tricky first hole.
“It wasn’t a good feeling to start with a bogey,” Wisler said. “But if there’s a good hole to make a bogey, the first is the one to do it. There’s 17 holes left to get it back.”
Wisler holds a two-stroke lead on a group of four players who shot 2-under 70s.
As for the Gophers, many of the players were still trying to shake images from their horrific front nine.
“It was just ugly, ugly golf,” senior Adam Dooley said. “I had to hit irons on the back just to get it on the fairway. It was just a weird day.”