U takes time to refocus before NCAAs

by Ryan Schuster

Before the start of the Gophers men’s golf team’s spring campaign, this season figured to be one to remember. But with the conclusion of its spring competitions looming near, Minnesota would like to forget its last few outings.
The No. 25 Gophers entered the season with high expectations after making the NCAA tournament the last four years. The team had reason to be optimistic as it returned three letter winners from last year’s squad, which made it to the NCAA regionals. Junior All-American Rob Kerr is included in the mix.
As expected, the team had a stellar fall, finishing in the top four of its five competitions. After a decent start to their spring season, however, the Gophers have struggled. They failed to place in the top five in both of their last two meets.
The team’s below-average performances have left the Gophers upset but bent on remedying their position.
“We’re not too satisfied,” Kerr said. “The last couple of tournaments have been pretty frustrating for us. We’re discouraged a little bit. We were playing really well in the winter; the first three tournaments went great for us. We know we have a much better team than we have showed the last two weeks.”
Minnesota is currently ranked third in district IV with only one meet left before the Big Ten championships May 9-11 in Columbus, Ohio. The top six teams in each district make it to regionals. Even though the Gophers are ranked high in the poll, Minnesota remains on the playoff bubble because the regional teams are selected by a committee.
Northwestern, Indiana, Michigan, Miami (Ohio) and Kent State are also in the running. All five finished higher than Minnesota at the Marshall Invitational.
The Gophers have only one tournament left before the Big Tens: the Kent Invitational May 2-3 in Ravenna, Ohio. If the team has another sub-par performance at that meet, a return trip to the NCAA regionals could become an iffy proposition.
“We know how important it is for us to play well at Kent,” sophomore golfer Bill Thompson said. “We’re now faced with the possibility if we don’t play well, that could be our last regular season tournament.”
Gophers coach John Means asked his team to evaluate their strengths and weaknesses when they returned to campus after the Marshall Invitational. Means also told the team they would play a lot when they returned to practice.
A week and a half later, both have happened. The team has done some soul searching and plenty of practicing. Minnesota is determined to avoid a late-season collapse, even if it means putting in extra time.
“They know what needs to be done, and they are out there working hard to make sure that it happens,” Means said. “I came out to the golf course this weekend. We didn’t have practice scheduled for Saturday or Sunday because I wanted to give them time off, and those guys were out there for six to seven hours on their own.”
The team’s biggest problem this spring has been it’s anemic short game. Despite striking the ball well, the Gophers have routinely misfired on the green. Lack of time outside on the greens for much of the spring because of inclement weather has prevented the team from perfecting their putting and close shots.
Minnesota’s woes on the greens and their April swoon can also be attributed to frustration, and members of the team trying to do too much instead of just worrying about their own game.
“We’re just going to try to relax a little bit,” Thompson said. “Maybe we’ve been trying to win too hard. I think we’re just going to go back to the basics and get down to business.”
When the Gophers are playing up to their capabilities, they can beat any team in the country, as their first-place finish out of 12 teams at the prestigious ReliaStar Collegiate Invitational during the fall season attests. Means calls this squad the best and most balanced team he has coached in his seven seasons at Minnesota.
“As well as we played this fall, we can beat any team in the nation,” Kerr said. “We haven’t come close to that golf the rest of the year. With the hard work we’re putting in now, I think we can get that form back again. We know we’re good enough, it’s just a matter of doing it.”
Another one of the team’s problems has been a lack of consistent play from its top players.
“They have not all played good at the same time,” Means said. “When that happens, there’s going to be some explosions going on.”
Thompson is the only member of the team who has maintained any consistency during the spring. The sophomore from Wayzata has placed in the top 10 in all but one meet this spring.
Minnesota’s other top golfers, Kerr, senior captain Mark Halverson and freshman Martin Le Mesurier, however, have been erratic at best. The trio has combined for just three top 10 finishes in 12 opportunities.
The most surprising of the three is Kerr, who entered the season as the top golfer on the team. His teammates are banking on his never-say-die attitude, helping him make a late-season surge like he did a year ago.
“Rob is very tough mentally,” Thompson said. “There isn’t much that really shakes him. I think that he’s been close all year, and his scores haven’t reflected it.”
After Halverson tied for the team’s top stroke average (73.7) during the fall, he struggled in his first three tournaments this spring, failing to break into the top 40 in all three. He has played better lately, though, and his 15th-place finish in the team’s last competition could signal a resurgence.
Le Mesurier, who was one of the top amateur golfers in England last year, has also had a difficult April. The highly-regarded freshman placed in a tie for 59th at the Marshall Invitational, mostly because of problems with his short game.
“We can’t have Martin playing like that and expect to win or expect to compete,” Means said. “Martin, Rob and Mark have got to be in the top 10 or 15 of a tournament for us to do well as a team.”
If Kerr, Halverson, Le Mesurier and the rest of the team can recover from their spring slumps and regain their old form, the Gophers should place high enough at the Kent Invitational to garner an invitation to the NCAA Central Regional.
“Everyone has got their own thing that they need to work on,” Thompson said. “It’s just like Coach Means said at the beginning of the year, `If everyone takes care of their own stuff, the team will do just fine.’ That’s what we need to do this week.”
With a week and a half left before their next meet, the Gophers appear to be prepared, focused and ready for what could be the biggest meet of their entire season.
“We may not make the region if we don’t play well next week,” Thompson said. “We dug ourselves a hole here, and now we’re going to have to dig ourselves out of it.”