Mendez measures up to expectations

Costa Rica native Jose Mendez has already made an impact this season.

Minnesota's Jose Mendez plays at the season-opening Gopher Invitational at Windsong Farm Golf Club Sept. 8.

Daily File Photo, Chelsea Gortmaker

Minnesota’s Jose Mendez plays at the season-opening Gopher Invitational at Windsong Farm Golf Club Sept. 8.

Samuel Gordon

By his own admission, Costa Rica native Jose Mendez’s English skills aren’t quite up to par.

On the golf course, though, being under-par is a good thing. And Mendez has proven he can go under par.

Way under par.

Gophers head coach John Carlson called Mendez, a 17-year-old freshman, the most talented player the program has ever seen.

That puts a lot of pressure on Mendez, who can’t even legally buy a lottery ticket.

But the compliment only fuels his already unquenchable drive to become a standout at Minnesota, and someday a professional golfer.

“I can handle it,” Mendez said of the expectations that come with being a freshman phenom. “It’s a lot of pressure, but I like it.”

And he proved he can handle that pressure with a win at the 2013 Callaway Junior World Golf Championship at San Diego’s Torrey Pines Golf Course in July.

The world-famous course was the site of the 2008 U.S. Open, where Tiger Woods, Mendez’s idol, had his last major championship win.

Mendez posted 5-under to win his tournament. Woods won his at 1-under.

The conditions were different, but the course was the same.

In his first outing for the Gophers last week at the Gopher Invitational, Mendez was admittedly a little nervous, and his scorecard reflected that.

He finished tied for 39th at 10-over.

Still, senior captain Jon Trasamar said Mendez’s attitude and poise are impressive for someone his age.

“You can tell [Mendez is] an accomplished player,” Trasamar said. “With that comes sort of a calming effect on some of the other guys around the team.”

A knack for the game

Mendez began honing his golf game at age 8 — his father put the club in his hand, and Mendez did the rest.

A year later, he was dominating his age group in tournaments across Costa Rica.

Mendez said his early success was inspiring and allowed him to funnel his focus and become an even better player.

“When I was 16, I would practice seven hours a day,” he said.

He’s not a long hitter — he hits his drives about 280 yards — but he refined his short game by spending long hours on and around the practice green.

“Those are the basic things you need to improve in golf,” he said.

By 2011, Mendez was being wooed by several Division I programs in the U.S., including Minnesota.

Carlson discovered him on the World Amateur Golf Rankings website.

Shortly after, he watched Mendez play at an amateur tournament and “saw a big, strong kid who was really striking the ball solidly on the range.”

Carlson dove headfirst into the recruiting battle and sold Mendez on the city of Minneapolis and the Gophers’ competitive schedule.

“We spent more time with him than any other coach in the country,” Carlson said.

Mendez has already fortified a strong, stable relationship with the coaching staff. He visits Carlson in his office every day, and the two chat about golf and life.

“We don’t get enough of that interaction anymore as coaches,” Carlson said.

Mendez speaks highly of his coaches and said they were influential in his decision to come to Minnesota.

But they weren’t the only factor.

“One reason I came [to Minnesota was] … I wanted to combine golf and academics,” he said. “If I don’t play that well on the PGA Tour, I have a diploma.”

If all goes according to plan, that diploma will be in marketing and business education.

So far, the transition to the U.S. has been a smooth one for Mendez.

He’ll have the entire fall to adjust to American golf courses, and come spring, Carlson expects him to be one of the top players in the conference.

 “He’s going to have a chance to be Player of the Year in the Big Ten,” Carlson said. “He’s that good.”