CHASKA, Minn — The Gophers men’s golf team knows Hazeltine National Golf Club better than anyone. But shin-high rough and bathtub-slick greens have a way of negating any home course advantage.
Minnesota was among the favorites to win the NCAA tournament this week, but as the Gophers walked away from the ninth hole Thursday after carding a second-round 17-over par, they were on the verge of missing the cut.
If the sixth-ranked Gophers were going to make the 15-team cut with a two round total of 32-over, they had to depend upon the mistakes of others in the 30-team field.
Swirling winds were a factor all day, but kicked up as the day went on. That proved to be Minnesota’s saving grace; the wind pelted teams with later tee times and helped the Gophers to a four-way tie for 12th-place.
“It’s definitely a load off our shoulders,” Gophers defending NCAA champion James McLean said. “(The wind) definitely made the course play harder later on.”
McLean’s second-round score gave the Gophers a shot at the weekend. The sophomore shot a team-best 2-over par and sits in a tie for 29th in the individual standings at 6-over.
Despite struggling to hit the fairways, senior Bill Thompson is the Gophers frontrunner at 5-over. Thompson posted Minnesota’s best opening-round score at 1-under.
“We started on the back nine today and we finished well on the back side (Wednesday), so we were ready to play,” Means said. “Unfortunately we got off to a slow start. The pins are in tough spots so it’s tough to get the ball close.”
The Big Ten is the most represented conference in the final rounds. Illinois and Big Ten champion Northwestern advanced into the weekend with the Wildcats boasting the individual leader.
National player of the year candidate Luke Donald was one of only six golfers to break into red numbers and tops the leaderboard after posting rounds of 73 and 68. Despite being nine strokes behind Donald, McLean said he’s still in the running for a repeat.
“Hopefully I can pull a few putts,” McLean said. “That’s a fair bit of strokes to make up, but with this course scores change every round.”
Oklahoma State knows the difference one round can make. The Cowboys owned a three-stroke advantage over the field after the first round. But on Thursday, Oklahoma State shot 20-over and dropped into a tie for 5th place.
“The winds were blowing and the greens were drying,” said Cowboys sophomore Charles Howell, who was medalist at the NCAA preview held at Hazeltine last fall. “The golf course is hard already.”
Georgia Tech has been the biggest surprise of the tournament, taking an early exit after carding rounds of 314 and 312. The third-ranked team — which includes the nation’s top-ranked golfer in Bryce Molder and 1998 ACC player of the year Matt Kuchar — finished in 28th place.
“It’s just the game, maybe even why we play it,” Kuchar said. “Because tomorrow we may have it. That’s why we come back out.”
Kuchar’s approach is something Minnesota has taken stock in, especially after Thursday. Despite two treacherous rounds at Hazeltine, the Gophers are looking forward to two more days.
The Gophers are paired with Washington for Friday’s round.
“I think it’s just Hazeltine. It’s so easy for players to have a negative mindset, thinking the course is tough and the scores will be high,” McLean said. “Hopefully, we’ll get better tomorrow.”
ù The rest of the 15-team field includes: BYU (591), UNLV (593), Georgia (597), North Carolina (601), Houston (602), Arizona State (604), Eastern Tennessee State (604), Nebraska (606), Florida (608) and Washington (608).
ù Only one team that made the cut improved its overall score.
Washington dropped six strokes, shooting rounds of 307 and 301.