Victory gives men’s golf hope

Brian Stensaas

Minnesota men’s golfer Justin Smith has written his name countless times in his nearly 20 years, on everything from homework to his library card. Yet when the time came to sign his scorecard on the afternoon of June 1, he couldn’t. The emotions were overwhelming for Smith as the Gophers, who are facing elimination, won their first national championship. Smith was the last Gophers golfer to hole out in the final round, carding a 2-under 69. Moments earlier, the sophomore sank a 10-foot par putt on the 18th hole, securing a 7-shot lead over Georgia Tech, which was still on the course.

Though he was steady enough to make the putt, his hands shook as he went to verify his final round.

“I couldn’t write,” Smith said. “It was a weird feeling. I just kept replaying the final putt and hearing the crowd cheer over and over in my head. I couldn’t believe it. I hope I feel it the rest of my life.”

Firing a combined 6-under-par 278 at Columbus, Ohio’s Scarlet Course in the final round of the championships, the Gophers defeated the Yellow Jackets by four strokes. Minnesota was the only team to finish below par, closing with a 2-under 1,134 for the tournament.

“It just goes to prove that anything is possible,” said interim coach Brad James, who took over for longtime coach John Means in September, “with guys who have as big of hearts as they do especially. They went on pure adrenaline. They knew they could do this, and it showed.”

The Gophers were the best team for the final two days en route to becoming the first northern team to capture the title since Ohio State University in 1979.

Former University President Mark Yudof recommended April 11 eliminating the team, along with women’s golf and men’s gymnastics.

Yudof said the University would save an estimated $900,000 by eliminating the three teams. However, supporters of the three answered Yudof’s statement by making one of their own.

To date, they have raised enough money to match the number Yudof estimated, saving the programs for at least one more season. But anything beyond that is still up in the air. Another $1.8 million must be raised before Feb. 1, and taking home the golden NCAA trophy only helps the cause.

“This ensures success for Minnesota golf for years to come,” said junior Matt Anderson.

With all the smiles and cheers on June 2, it’s hard to imagine that three days prior the season seemed likely to be over.

Rain hampered the first two rounds of competition. NCAA officials had discussed slicing the field in half – from 30 to 15 teams – in order to wrap up the championships as scheduled. At the time, the Gophers were in 16th place and wouldn’t have made the cut. But the entire field was allowed to continue, a decision that won the championship for Minnesota just as much as the shots from the fairways.

“We really weren’t too worried because through everything this season we’ve learned to worry about only what we can control,” sophomore Simon Nash said. “The next morning we went out and just concentrated on ourselves, and it paid off.”

It’s safe to say the team is riding high and looking ahead to the future. With all five NCAA scorers returning next season and a title to defend, the attitude is clear.

“This is the ultimate statement,” James said. “Good luck at getting rid of the national champions.”