Gophers lean on experience heading into Big Ten championships

Minnesota is coming off a top ten finish in their most recent tournament in Iowa.

Riley Johnson plays at the Windsong Golf Club during the Gopher Invitational on Sept. 13, 2015.

Joe Sulik

Riley Johnson plays at the Windsong Golf Club during the Gopher Invitational on Sept. 13, 2015.

Max Biegert

Heading into the Big Ten championships, the Gophers feel they are peaking at the right time. 

Minnesota is coming off their tie for sixth out of 13 teams at the Hawkeye Invitational in tough weather on April 14. Senior Riley Johnson finished in the top ten for the first time in his career. 

“Throughout the whole year, we do everything we can in preparation to get our games to peak this week and onward,”  head coach Justin Smith said. “We build everything up to right now.”

The Gophers will travel to Baltimore to play at the Baltimore Country Club for the Big Ten championship. All 14 teams in the Big Ten will be participating in a 54-hole tournament. Illinois is the favorite to win the event, coming in as the Big Ten’s only team in the top 25. The Fighting Illini are ranked 13th in the country. 

The Gophers are familiar with the golf course they will play. Three out of the five players in Minnesota’s lineup played Baltimore Country Club last year at the Big Ten championships, where the team finished 10th.

“We are a team where every week usually we are top three in par three, so because of that we are really good with long and mid irons,” Smith said. “If you hit those well out there, you will have a chance to be in contention in the final round.”

The hope is that Johnson, senior Rúnar Arnórsson and sophomore Thomas Longbella will bring their experience from last year and use it to their advantage in the final weekend of the year.

“It is a great course, one of my favorites. They have big greens and I know that discipline iron shots is what it calls for and that will fit into our game well,” Johnson said. 

The Gophers lineup will also feature two freshmen — Angus Flanagan and Evan Long. 

Long has only played in seven tournaments this season. His best finish came at the SJU Fall Invitational early this year with a tied for 18th. 

In the fall, Flanagan, who came over from England, tied for fifth as his best finish of the year. He has played in every tournament for the Gophers, with his score counting in 21 of 24 rounds. 

Flanagan said he isn’t feeling any nerves, but is excited to get out and compete.

“I’m excited to get there and start playing golf. To me, it’s another tournament, so it is just getting out there and playing a golf course I have played before,” Flanagan said. “Just going to go out there and enjoy it.”

Flanagan leads the team in scoring average overall, combining fall and spring, with 72.88, and Johnson is second, with an average of 72.96.

Just in the spring, Johnson leads the team with 73.25, narrowly beating Longbella, who has a scoring average of 73.75 and Arnórsson, who has 73.83.  Flanagan is fourth on the team in scoring average for the spring.

“I think everyone on the team is going to have a big weekend,” Johnson said. “These guys know what to do and know what talent they have. We are ready and it will be fun.”

The team knows what is at stake in the weekend, and Smith couldn’t be more excited to be a part of the tournament and for his team to lay well. 

“You take a lot of pride of seeing how you stack up against the conference and it is exciting and special every year,” Smith said.