NU confident as it heads to NCAA tourney

Bernard Schwartz

The Northwestern men’s golf team has played the Grand National course before. It was September and the Wildcats’ first tournament of the year. The weather was cooler and the greens were bad, but the field was competitive and the prestige of winning was high.

At the fall’s Ping/Golfweek Preview, the then-No. 14 Cats demolished the field by eight strokes. That was eight months ago, but the memory of NU’s win at the Preview has not faded.

Grand National remains the host, but the tournament is no longer the Preview. It is the NCAA championships — to be played down in Auburn, Ala., from May 31 to June 3.

“When you’ve won a tournament against the same field on the same golf course, you have to go in thinking you’re one of the favorites,” senior Danny Riskam said. “I think we have a tremendous amount of confidence.”

And a lot of that confidence comes from having defending national champion Luke Donald leading the way.

He led not just the Cats but the nation at last year’s championships, claiming top honors by three strokes and helping the team to a third-place finish, its best since 1942.

But the championship hasn’t changed Donald.

“I don’t really feel too much differently,” Donald said. “I think I play better on the bigger occasions, with the scoreboards, the crowds and the attention.”

At last week’s NCAA Central regional, the qualifier for the championships, No. 4 Donald finished in a tie for third while his team took sixth.

He and teammate Jess Daley have fond memories of the Preview. It was at that tournament — where Donald edged No. 9 Daley by a stroke — when the the friends’ season-long rivalry was sparked.

The latest dogfight came earlier this month at the Big Ten championships, where Donald once again edged Daley by a stroke.

But Daley doesn’t always play the bridesmaid. After a final round 62 at the Compaq Intercollegiate in April, he went on a tear, winning his first college tournament the week after at the Kepler Intercollegiate and his second at the Bruce Fossum Spartan Invitational a week later.

“I think we’ve got the two best guys in college golf on our team,” Riskam said.

In fact, one of the characteristics that many of this year’s championship contenders possess is a lineup that’s top heavy with superstars.

Top-ranked Georgia Tech boasts No. 1 Bryce Molder and No. 5 Matt Kuchar. No. 2 Clemson, the winner of the NCAA East regional, has three golfers in the top 14 — No. 8 Lucas Glover, No. 10 Jonathan Byrd and No. 14 John Engler.

And No. 3 Oklahoma State and No. 7 UNLV both have two golfers in the top 16.

But the battle for the team title at the 72-hole championships, with a field composed of 16 of the nation’s top 20, will most likely be won by the team with the most depth, not the team with the best one-two combination.

The Cats struggled early this season with lack of depth that had coach Pat Goss shuffling the fifth spot in his lineup almost weekly. But now — after an amazing 16-under 268 in the second round of the regionals — they seem to have every man playing well.

Senior Josh Habig, who struggled much of the season, broke through with a third-place finish at the Big Tens. He finished 10th last week after firing a 63 in the second round, in which NU broke its own round record by 11 strokes.

The Cats need strong play from Habig to make a run at this year’s title.

“Josh might be the pulse of our team competitively,” Goss said.

Habig is one of three seniors — along with Daley and Riskam — making his final appearance at the championships. NU has qualified for the last four years.

“We have the the best team we’ve ever had this year,” Daley said. “When we go to a tournament now, we’re a team to beat. We finally get the respect we deserve.”

If success breeds confidence, then the Cats’ play at the Preview should give them a huge boost. But the seniors don’t want the team’s win in the fall to be the most lasting memory of their trips to Grand National.

“This is it for us,” Riskam said. “It’s the final chapter in a four- or five-year odyssey. This is the last time we’re ever going to play team golf again. With three of our top four not coming back, we want to go out with a bang.”