Men’s golf enduring season of enhanced foes

Brett Angel

Brad James sat in his office at the Bierman Athletic Building on Tuesday afternoon trying his best to relax in the half hour he had to himself before practice started.

James, Minnesota’s men’s golf coach, had just finished touring the University campus with representatives from the Scottish Institute of Sport.

Two days earlier, James spent his Easter Sunday walking on soggy fairways at the TPC of the Twin Cites in 45-degree weather to watch the Gophers’ exhibition match against the British Collegiate champions visiting from the University of Stirling in Scotland.

It’s all part of a whirlwind of events James and his team have been swept up in after Minnesota won its first NCAA golf championship last June.

And it’s all worth it for the second-year coach from Queensland, Australia, who has used his international connections to help transform Minnesota’s golf program from a virtual unknown into one of the best in the country.

“Developing those relationships may not seem so important initially, but down the road they help ensure the success of our program,” James said.

James is quick to point out he is building on the foundation built by his predecessor John Means, but James’ own contributions to the Gophers’ success can’t be ignored.

Since joining Minnesota as an assistant coach in 1996, Minnesota has appeared in five straight NCAA tournaments after qualifying for just one in the previous 25 years.

In addition to capturing the first national title by a northern school in 23 years last season, the Gophers also won their first Big Ten title since 1972.

Both trophies now sit behind James in his office.

Much of James’ success comes from his ability to recruit and relate to international players. James himself was recruited by Means and played golf at Minnesota from 1993-96.

He has since recruited eight players to Minnesota who went on to earn All-America status, including current Gophers Simon Nash (Pullenvale, Australia) and Will Schauman (Djursholm, Sweden).

“He’s a similar age to the players, so he knows exactly what we’re going through,” Nash said.

For international players such as Nash and Schauman, coming to Minnesota gives them an opportunity not available in their own countries, where universities often have no competitive athletics programs.

“All the international players realize it’s the University and people of Minnesota that gave us this chance,” Nash said. “My home away from home is Minnesota and I take great pride in that.”

Since becoming national champions, though, Nash and his teammates haven’t spent much time at either home.

The Gophers’ revamped schedule this season has sent them to Japan, Puerto Rico, Arizona and Las Vegas, among other places.

“Everything about these tournaments is better,” Schauman said. “You not only get to play a better course, you get to play in better weather and against the best players.”

The enhanced competition has kept the Gophers from winning any tournaments this spring, but the experience of playing in the best tournaments offers something they consider more valuable.

“You learn more playing against better players,” Nash said. “The first years I was here we didn’t play a great schedule and it was frustrating because we knew we were a good program.

“It just goes to show you that nothing can replace winning a national championship because now we get the opportunities we always thought we deserved.”

James uses a similar philosophy when describing the benefits of having international players on his own team.

“Not only is it great for the international players, but it’s great for Minnesota kids as well,” James said.

“They don’t have to go overseas, they don’t have to go to Florida or Phoenix to compete against the best in the world,” James said. “They can do it in their own backyard.”

More than anything else, James said it’s that opportunity to compete against the best that he is most proud to bring to Minnesota’s program.

“We’ve got to have something different, something unique to attract kids,” James said. “Otherwise, (as a northern school) they’re just not going to come.”