Struggling Gophers look to turn season around

C.J. Spang

Minnesota’s men’s golf team found a gem in Finnish freshman Antti Ahokas.

The problem is Ahokas left the team – a team which has struggled to find its way since.

After finishing 17th and tied for sixth in its first two tournaments of the spring, the Gophers travel to Tucson, Ariz., for the National Invitational Tournament March 26-29, without their freshman phenom.

The Finnish freshman left the team after first semester to play professionally in Europe.

“Did the loss of Antti hurt us? Yeah,” coach Brad James said. “Was it unexpected? Yeah, it was. And I think with Antti, I don’t think there was a team in the Big Ten that could even come close to us. But now someone has to step up and take Antti’s position.”

But taking his position means more than just playing better, it means becoming the leader the team is desperately missing.

“I just think the guys are waiting around, waiting for someone else to step up,” James said. “When a lot of them need to look at themselves in the mirror and say, ‘You know what, I need to step up.’ “

No one moved to the forefront in the Gophers’ first tournament of the spring, the Puerto Rico Classic in Rio Grande, Puerto Rico.

“I was disappointed in our performance at Puerto Rico,” James said. “I was disappointed in the performance of Bronson La’Cassie and Niall Turner and Josh Persons. Those three are the leaders of our team on the golf course.”

The team finished six strokes out of last place and 57 strokes out of first place, in 17th. La’Cassie led the team with a 4-over-par 222 in the three-round event, finishing in a tie for 49th. Turner fired a 12-over-par 228 and Persons a 13-over-par 229 to finish third and fourth on the team, respectively.

But James’ criticism comes from his belief in his team and its abilities.

He explained that those three golfers in particular are getting to the point where they have to prepare for their next career – the PGA Tour.

To this point, that is something they haven’t done. And it was something that Ahokas did do.

“Everything (Ahokas) did he prepared himself for the PGA Tour,” James said. “He’s definitely someone who will make it to the PGA Tour because he did those little things that are needed to get to that next level, and one of those three guys, if not all three of them, need to start doing those things.”

Those little things may be happening already to some degree, if the Gophers’ results in their second tournament of the spring season are any indication.

Minnesota finished in a tie for sixth at the Schenkel Invitational in Statesboro, Ga., 19 strokes behind tournament winner North Carolina.

Persons finished tied for 10th to lead the Gophers. He carded an even par 216.

“I think that Puerto Rico was a good wake-up call for us,” James said. “The guys have definitely worked a little harder. (They) worked very hard down at spring break and due to that I think we’re looking at some low scores this tournament.”

Four golfers already have qualified for the National Invitational Tournament.

La’Cassie, Turner, Persons and freshman Victor Almstrom will be playing for sure, while sophomores Andy Paulson and Clayton Rask will qualify for the final spot when the team gets to Arizona.

“This golf course produces a lot of low scores,” James said. “Our expectation is to shoot a lot of rounds in the 60s because you have to. It’s a golf course that typically you gotta shoot at least in the 60s to stay up with leaders, otherwise, you’ll quickly fall far behind.”

Kelley out for grades

Freshman Robert Kelley will not make the trip to Arizona because of academic reasons.

Kelley played in the Schenkel Invitational, finishing tied for 40th with a 7-over-par 223.

“Robbie Kelley was supposed to be going to this event, the National Invitational, but is not,” James said. “He is being left at home due to academics.”

Kelley is not ineligible by NCAA standards, but rather by James’.