U on upswing as season winds down

by Jim Schortemeyer

As temperatures rise and the days get longer, most duffers are digging their clubs out of their basements or closets and starting the search for that ever-elusive “A-game”.
The Minnesota men’s golf team is a different story.
The Gophers have already competed in five tournaments since the beginning of February. As one of the top-ranked teams in the nation, Minnesota has hit the links early to chase its NCAA title dreams.
“I think we’re at least looking at a top-three finish, if not winning the thing,” sophomore James McLean said.
The Gophers had a coming-out of sorts at last year’s NCAA championships, thanks in large part to McLean. He won the individual crown as a freshman — only the second player to do so — and the team placed seventh.
While Minnesota figures to improve this year, having lost just one golfer from last year’s team, better results have been slow in coming.
At the end of fall season, everything looked good for the Gophers. Minnesota was ranked as high as third in the nation and placed fourth at the NCAA preview meet.
Since then, Minnesota has been mired by minor setbacks and less-than-impressive performances.
At the San Juan Shootout in late February, the Gophers placed eighth behind seven nationally-ranked teams. Just three weeks later, they finished 12th against essentially the same field.
“We lost a bit of [confidence] after winter, but we’re starting to get that back,” senior Adam Dooley said.
Another thing the Gophers (nearly) lost this winter was part of McLean. An iguana took an extra-special liking to McLean at a photo shoot and bit McLean’s hand. The wounded hand had to be stitched and forced McLean to withdraw from the Shootout.
He’s also been bothered by tendonitis in his hands. McLean’s stroke average currently ranks 21st in the nation, followed by Dooley at 34th.
“I’ve got one of those braces that cover your wrists, so it’s not too bad,” McLean said. “It tends to flare up when I hit hundreds of balls a day.”
McLean isn’t the only Gopher who’s been struggling; Dooley has posted some inconsistent results of his own. One week he finished tied for 47th and two weeks later he finished fifth.
But the entire team is showing signs of a turnaround. The Gophers wrapped up their best weekend of the spring at the Dr. Pepper Intercollegiate on Sunday. Minnesota won the meet by five strokes over Big Ten nemesis Northwestern. The Gophers outpaced nine Big Ten teams at the meet.
Results like that bode well for Minnesota, which hasn’t won a Big Ten championship since 1972. And while they’ve lacked confidence early, Dooley says the Gophers think they’re the team to beat.
“We know we’re the best in the Big Ten,” Dooley said. “There’s no question in my mind that we’re better than everybody else.”
While Dooley is openly confident, coach John Means is more reserved. Means is concerned with Northwestern, which Minnesota has beaten three times by a combined total of just 10 strokes this spring.
“Northwestern is tough,” Means said. “They’ve been right there the whole time. And Illinois is right up there, too.”
At least the Gophers won’t have to worry about traveling this spring. Minnesota will host both the Big Ten and NCAA championships. But Means downplayed the importance of staying at home for the Big Tens.
“Last fall at the Big Ten preview meet, three guys shot 64s,” Means said. “We better be prepared to shoot some low scores to win.”
But the home course advantage will be sizeable when the NCAA championship come in June. That’s because the meet is at Hazeltine National Golf Club in Chaska, Minn., and not at the University’s home course.
“Having the Big Tens here isn’t that big an advantage,” Dooley said. “Teams (in the conference) saw it last fall, and after a couple days were shooting low scores. But Hazeltine, I can’t tell you how many times I’ve played it. I know that course in and out.”
McLean thinks the Gophers can sneak away with the NCAA championship — assuming they play up to their potential. And there’s some evidence to support that theory. At the fall NCAA preview event, Minnesota finished fourth behind Oklahoma State, Georgia and Arizona State. McLean seemed especially worried about Georgia and Clemson.
“Georgia and Clemson are the two that tend to be a little ahead of everyone else,” McLean said. “But they didn’t play very well at Hazeltine in the fall and we didn’t play our best either.”
A win at either the Big Ten or NCAA championships would be a big victory for Means. The Gophers coach is in his ninth season, but has finished no higher than third at the Big Ten championships.
While a team place of higher than seventh would be its best since a second-place finish in 1944, Means won’t be satisfied with just a top-six finish.
“I want these guys to walk out of here with a ring on their finger,” Means said. “One on each hand.”