Men and women’s golf prepare for weekend openers

The Gophers men have not won the season opener since 2005; the women are coming off their best season statistically in their history.

by John Hageman

After failing to win a single tournament in 2008, the Gophers menâÄôs golf team looks to improve on a disappointing year. The team kicks off its season this weekend at the fifth annual Gopher Invitational at Spring Hill Golf Club in Wayzata, Minn. The tournament begins Sunday at 8 a.m., with the first two rounds played consecutively. The third and final round will be played on Monday. In the 2008 Gopher Invitational, the team tied for sixth place while Texas and LSU shared the top spot. This yearâÄôs field features 12 teams from 10 different conferences, including Big Ten rivals Iowa and Wisconsin, along with the 2007 winner Lamar University (Texas). The Gophers should benefit from starting the year at home, according to Andrew Tank , Gophers associate head coach and invitational director. âÄúItâÄôs a big advantage,âÄù Tank said. âÄúItâÄôs a golf course that most of our guys have played before. To not have to travel too far from home is a nice way to start the season.âÄù Senior Ben Pisani also said that playing in Minnesota is the best part the Invitational. âÄúTo be surrounded on the green by your supporters is something really special,âÄù he said. Pisani, one of two seniors on this yearâÄôs roster, looks to be the leader for the young squad. Last year he led or tied the team in most of the major scoring categories, including stroke average (73.27), rounds played (33) and low 18 score (67). âÄúMore than anything, heâÄôll be a good leader for the younger guys,âÄù Tank said. âÄúHopefully everybody can learn from what heâÄôs done.âÄù One of those young guys is Derek Chang, a sophomore from Alpharetta, Georgia. Appearing in 10 of the teamâÄôs 11 tournaments last season, Chang posted the third best stroke average on the team at 74.22. He also tied for 32nd at the 2008 Gopher Invitational with a score of 225 in his collegiate debut. âÄúPhysically he has gotten so much stronger,âÄù said Brad James, director of golf for the Gophers. âÄúHe has worked really hard.âÄù Following the NCAA championship in 2002, which the Gophers won with James as interim head coach, and Big Ten championships in 2002, 2003 and 2007, Athletics Director Joel Maturi decided to promote the young coach to director in 2007. James is responsible for all aspects of the program including the womenâÄôs team. The Gophers women also begin their season this weekend, as they travel to East Lansing, Mich., for the Mary Fossum Invitational. Play begins on Saturday and finishes on Sunday. Last year the Gophers finished fifth out of 12 at the same tournament. Although the women also failed to win a tournament in 2008, they did post their best season statistically in the programâÄôs history. Associate womenâÄôs head coach Kristine Wessinger said she plans to build on that success one day at a time. âÄúI think if we are able to reach each playerâÄôs goals individually, the team will have success as well,âÄù she said. Junior Teresa Puga, who was named team MVP in her first two years, is on track for a big year. Puga did not join the team until the spring half of her freshman year but made an immediate impact. She led the team with a 77.36 stroke average and finished sixth at the Big Ten Championships in 2007. The Spain native posted a stroke average of 76.28 in 2008, second best in school history. Puga also set several personal records with a career low round of 70 and a career low 54 hole score of 218. With the recent success, James has high hopes for the womenâÄôs program going into the future. âÄúNow is the time to take a whole new step from what we have done with those players and start being able to compete at a national level,âÄù he said.