Big Ten rival takes McLean’s NCAA title

Jim Schortemeyer

Luke Donald is not James McLean.
Donald doesn’t hit towering drives, he’s not from Australia and he’s never been bitten by an iguana.
However, the sophomore from Northwestern has one thing McLean doesn’t: the 1999 NCAA golf championship.
“I was hitting really solid today,” Donald said. “I was hitting all the greens. I hit 17 greens today. The one I missed, on number eight, I took a double bogey on. Other than that, I was hitting really well.”
Donald finished at 4-under par at Hazeltine National Golf Club, three strokes ahead of Ryuji Imada of Georgia, which won the team championship.
McLean, who won the tournament at New Mexico last year in record-setting fashion, was a distant 23rd at 12-over par.
While Donald’s win keeps the NCAA championship in the Big Ten for the second straight year, it almost wasn’t to be.
Starting the day at 4-over par, Imada put on a sparkling display of golf to get close. Imada shot a 5-under-par 31 on the front side to pull even with Donald.
The steady Donald responded by hitting a birdie putt on the 11th hole to regain sole possession of the lead. Imada would get no closer. He finished with a 67, the low round of the tournament.
Though it was tight for a few hours, Donald seemed unflappable.
“I wasn’t really worried,” Donald said. “When Ryuji and (Troy) Kelly (of Washington) caught me, it didn’t bother me. It kind of got me going. It fired me up.
“It was kind of a match-play situation.”
Northwestern coach Pat Goss followed Donald — along with about 500 spectators — for most of the back nine, and said he wasn’t concerned by Imada’s early charge.
“The only time I had to worry was on the eighth, when he took that double,” Goss said. “But (Donald) is so strong mentally that it didn’t even phase him. Luke just hits a lot of good shots.”
Donald hit a plethora of good shots three weeks ago as well, when Northwestern won the Big Ten title.
Donald shot a final-round 67 at the Big Ten tournament, and had three rounds of at least even-par at the NCAA tournament. Goss says Donald had an advantage because he was familiar with the challenges posed by Hazeltine.
“The one thing is (Hazeltine has) a style similar to the ones we play in Chicago,” Goss said. “The grass around the greens is thick and you have to hit it in the fairway.”
Donald’s game is different from many of today’s golf heroes. He didn’t hit the booming drives or go on prolonged birdie streaks to subdue Hazeltine; all he did was hit most of the fairways and greens. Donald said his success on every hole depended on a solid start.
“I think the key all around here is a lot of good tee shots and just being smart,” Donald said.
After Donald holed in his par putt on the 18th green, Goss admitted to being surprised by the ordinarily stoic Donald’s reaction.
“I was surprised he gave it a good fist pump when he won there on the 18th,” Goss said. “He doesn’t show much emotion. He just keeps plodding along.”