Men’s golfer stuns NCAA field

Aaron Kirscht

This won’t do much to quiet those Tiger Woods comparisons.
Long-hitting Gophers golfer James McLean, a 19-year-old freshman from Wahgunjah, Australia, who’s been in the United States for just five months, fired a final round 69 on Saturday to win the NCAA title with a record-tying 17-under-par 271.
McLean is Minnesota’s first national champion since 1944, when Louis Lick won the individual title and the Gophers were national runners-up. He is also only the second freshman — behind Arizona State’s Phil Mickelson, who won in 1992 — in NCAA history to win the title.
“I hit the ball well. The course set up for me,” said McLean, who also earned All-American honors this weekend. “I could open the shoulders up and give it a hit.”
McLean’s prodigious length off the tee puts him in the class of another former champion: Woods, who averages nearly 300 yards per drive. Gophers coach John Means said he’d like to see a driving contest between the two, and that he’d put his money on McLean.
The freshman had no trouble getting around the 7,151-yard Championship Course at New Mexico. McLean pulled the smiling gopher head cover off his driver and let it fly. He took advantage of the wide fairways, frequently using a pitching wedge for his second shots. On Saturday, McLean reached the 495-yard, par-5 ninth hole in two with a driver and a 9-iron.
But the 248-yard, par-3 17th hole was the toughest on the course, and Means said that’s where the tournament was won. McLean stood on the tee at 18-under, knowing that his score there could decide his fate.
McLean had been hitting the ball well all day, but he pulled his tee shot left, into the six-inch rough that surrounds the green. He faced a 40-yard shot, 30 feet above the green, over a bunker.
No problem. McLean flopped the ball to within five feet and nailed the par putt. The save was huge at the time, but proved even more critical to McLean’s title hopes after he bogeyed the 18th hole to finish at 17-under.
“As far as I was concerned,” Means said, “that was it. If you have enough cool to get that done, under that sort of pressure, you deserve to win the tournament.”
An hour or so later, Nevada-Las Vegas’ Chris Berry came to the 17th in a similar position, tied for the lead with McLean, who sat anxiously in the clubhouse. Only he didn’t have the same flair for the dramatic — or an equally trusty wedge — that McLean possesses; Berry carded a bogey, giving the Gopher a one-shot lead that would hold up.
McLean tied the tournament record held by North Carolina’s John Inman (1984), Mickelson (1992) and Texas’ Justin Leonard (1994).
If McLean was fazed by the all-star lineup in this year’s tournament, he didn’t show it. He outdueled some of college golf’s biggest names, including Georgia Tech’s Matt Kuchar — the reigning U.S. Amateur champion and the low amateur at this year’s Masters — defending NCAA champion Charles Warren of Clemson and Stanford’s Joel Kribel.
“I wanted to make the cut and finish in the top 10, but coming into the tournament I’d been hitting the ball pretty bad,” McLean said. “I worked hard on the practice field in the weeks prior, put together a practice round and it all seemed to come together.”
Minnesota finished seventh in team competition at 15-under, the Gophers’ best showing since they were runners-up in 1944. Martin LeMesurier, the Big Ten Freshman of the Year last season, was 5-under for the tournament and finished in a tie for 20th place. Junior Adam Dooley (+4) tied for 60th, junior Bill Thompson (+5) tied for 65th and senior Rob Kerr (+15) came in 85th place.
Nevada-Las Vegas (-34) won the team title, shattering the previous tournament record by 11 strokes. Berry was the Rebels’ low finisher, closing the tournament with a pair of 67s but still coming up one stroke behind McLean.
In his short career with the Gophers, McLean has won three other tournaments, led the Big Ten in scoring average (71.9) and was named conference freshman of the year.
“He’s been there. He’s played in a lot of big tournaments,” Dooley said. We were a little surprised he played this well, but he had the talent to do it.”
Means credits his assistant, Brad James, a native of Australia, with luring McLean away from the tropical climes Down Under to play at Minnesota.
“All the coaches in the United States tell the good players that they can’t go north,” Means said. “People still don’t realize that we’re alive up here. But we can get the job done, and James has proven that.”