Experience-filled men’s golf team heads to Big Ten tournament

Brett Angel

With four golfers ranked among the 100 best collegiate players in the country, Minnesota’s men’s golf team isn’t exactly lacking in talent.

And though the 14th-ranked Gophers have gone the entire spring schedule without winning a tournament, their confidence remains unwavering.

It’s their experience, however, that might give the defending national champions the edge in this weekend’s Big Ten championships.

The same five Minnesota golfers who competed and won at last year’s NCAA championships – seniors Matt Anderson, Will Schauman, Simon Nash, and juniors Justin Smith and David Morgan – will tee it up at the conference tournament this weekend in Bloomington, Ind.

“There’s so much experience in our top five,” head coach Brad James said. “We don’t have to worry about freshmen being under pressure. These guys have been there before so they know what to do.”

They better. James will not make the trip with the team to Bloomington. He will stay in Minnesota with his wife, who is expecting the birth of their first child.

Despite the advantage of returning all five players from a year ago, James expects his team’s experience to be tested by some young guns from No. 25 Illinois. The Illini bested Minnesota at last weekend’s Fossum Invitational and presents the greatest threat to denying the Gophers their second Big Ten title in as many years.

“They’re coming off a high and obviously they want to beat us,” James said.

Illinois is the polar opposite of Minnesota when it comes to experience. Its two best players have less than three years of collegiate experience combined.

Sophomore James Lepp leads the team with a 71.08 stroke average. Freshman Patrick Nagle is close behind (72.47). Both players fired their best rounds of the season at the Indiana University Golf Course last fall.

But the age difference hasn’t stopped Minnesota and Illinois from developing a budding rivalry in the past two years.

The Gophers’ come-from-behind victory over the Illini at last year’s Big Ten tournament kick-started a post-season run that ended with Minnesota’s first-ever men’s golf national championship.

The Illini didn’t forget.

They are the only Big Ten team to finish ahead of Minnesota in any tournament this year, doing it twice. That includes edging the Gophers by a shot at the Northern Intercollegiate last September. The tournament was held at the same course the teams will be playing this weekend.

The two schools actually played three of four rounds together at the 2002 NCAA championships before the Gophers won it all. The pair will be paired together again in Friday’s opening round since Minnesota and Illinois come in ranked No. 1 and No. 2 in the conference.

Northwestern, ranked 23rd nationally, as well as Purdue and tournament host Indiana are also expected to contend. But with undeniable experience, Illinois and Minnesota might be a cut above.

“If we play well, the only team we think has a chance to beat us is Illinois,” Schauman said.

The rough at the par 71, 6,942-yard Indiana University Golf Course is expected to be long, which will make approach shots to the quick undulating greens especially difficult.

But James thinks the tough conditions will favor the Gophers.

“The harder the golf course, the better it is for our team, for sure,” James said.

So, what exactly is it that allows James to remain so optimistic about a team that hasn’t won a tournament in six months?

“Being able to compete in crunch time,” James said. “These kids know how to take it to that next level.

“They’ve worked so hard,” he said. “It’d be nice to see them get another trophy.”

Brett Angel covers golf and welcomes comments at [email protected]