U gets a dose of Hazeltine humility

Jim Schortemeyer

So much for home cookin’.
Before the NCAA tournament, the Minnesota men’s golf team was talking about home-course advantage. After placing 11th at Hazeltine National Golf Club — 28 strokes behind the champions from Georgia — the Gophers changed their outlook.
“We talked Saturday night, when for all purposes the tournament was over for us,” coach John Means said. “I asked what went wrong and the common answer was that we played the course too much.
“As a player, if I had to play Hazeltine every day, it’d drive me mad.”
Minnesota was stymied by the lightning-fast greens and thick rough at Hazeltine. Over the course of the four-day tournament, Means said the Gophers almost managed to go without a single long putt or chip falling in.
“We got out here and were missing putts,” Means said. “No chip-ins and no putts. Only two I saw and two I heard about. The guys are used to getting one of those once a round, or at least once a tournament.”
Among those most visibly shaken by the course was sophomore James McLean. The defending NCAA champion — who lost the title to his Big Ten rival, Northwestern’s Luke Donald — struggled all weekend to hit a birdie putt of any length.
When he finally sank an eight-footer for birdie on the 18th hole Saturday, McLean gave a little grin and raised his hands to the sky. The smile didn’t last long as McLean recounted his tournament.
“I only made five birdies for the whole tournament,” McLean said. “I usually make five in a round.”
Getting under par was a problem for all the Gophers. Minnesota played 20 rounds during the tournament and only two players carded under-par rounds.
“We’ve got all the talent, but no ability to put the ball in the cup,” Means said.
One of those rounds came from senior Adam Dooley, who struggled for most of the tournament — until finishing it in style.
Saturday, on the 18th hole, Dooley slammed in a 30-foot birdie putt for a 70. The putt moved Dooley into a tie for 12th place.
“I didn’t leave a putt short all day,” Dooley said. “I’d been ramming it by the hole. If it hadn’t gone in, I would have been 10 feet past the hole. That’s a good way to finish.”
The next highest Minnesota finisher was McLean, who tied for 23rd. McLean said he struggled because of a variety of factors — the putts weren’t falling and he couldn’t seem to do anything consistently.
And of course, there was his now-infamous driver, which was broken at the driving range Monday. McLean played the tournament with a club bought from a Gophers booster.
“It was just tough not trusting the thing 110 percent,” McLean said. “I hit some great shots but I couldn’t capitalize.”
All of the Minnesota golfers had a tale of disappointment. Senior Jeff Barney struggled just to break 80, junior Martin Le Mesurier was continually frustrated for most of the tournament and McLean said he was expecting to do well at the tournament.
But perhaps McLean’s misfortune isn’t such a bad thing for the Gophers.
Minnesota is already losing three seniors — Bill Thompson, Dooley and Barney — and some have speculated that McLean would turn pro after his sophomore season.
After a dose of humility from Hazeltine, McLean all but guaranteed he would return to the Gophers next season.
“It just made me realize there’s a lot of work to do on my game if I expect to go to the next level,” McLean said. “It was tough mentally, but there were flaws in my game and it came out this week.
“Unless I have a phenomenal summer, like win the U.S. Amateur or something, I’ll be back,” McLean said.
And while McLean will be returning, Minnesota’s supposed home-course advantage will not. But that might be a good thing according to some who say the advantage was negligible.
Barney is one of the Gophers who struggled just to finish a round. While he says he wasn’t especially nervous — except on the first tee — Barney also says that Hazeltine doesn’t provide much of a benefit to the home team.
“This is a very straight-forward course,” Barney said. “There’s not any tricks. It’s the same all the way through — you have to hit the fairways and greens.”
As for the experience, most of the Minnesota contingent was happy to get away from Hazeltine.
“It’s nice I guess, but I’m pretty burnt out after this weekend,” Barney said. “I don’t think any of us played well.”