Wildcats finish 12th in Florida

Bernard Schwartz

The voices on the other end of the phone may have been different, but the explanations coming from the Florida end of the line were pretty much the same.

“We’re very disappointed,” said Northwestern men’s golf coach Pat Goss, whose words were echoed by senior Luke Donald and freshman Tom Johnson. “There are no excuses.”

Except for a few hours Monday afternoon, the No. 9 Wildcats enjoyed their extended weekend in Florida at their first tournament of the year, the Mercedes-Benz Collegiate Championship, where they finished 12th.

But it was those few hours, and a devastating 24-over-par team score in Monday’s second round, that clouded NU’s otherwise encouraging re-introduction to the world of tournament golf.

“Golf’s a fickle game,” Goss said, “but I don’t think it’s that fickle.”

Donald, who tied for sixth at 5-under, was the only bright spot in the Cats’ disappointing finish – which left them 38 strokes behind victorious Florida. But even he fell victim to the Sawgrass Country Club during NU’s disastrous second round.

A 2-over 74 was an embarrassment to the reigning Big Ten champion. And from Donald on down, the scores only got worse, bottoming out with an 86 from sophomore Scott Harrington that the Cats were forced to count as part of their team total.

The 24-over 312 was enough to deflate NU’s confidence after a first-round 289, and more than enough to take the team out of contention.

“Put it down to one really bad round,” Donald said.

NU rebounded Tuesday with a 2-under 286, but by then, regaining lost confidence was more important than climbing the leaderboard.

Johnson was perhaps the Cats’ most consistent scorer after Donald, finishing tied for 33rd after rounds of 73-75-71. And no one embodied NU’s third-round improvement more than junior Chris Thayer, whose 2-under 70 allowed him to jump 19 places on the leaderboard into a tie for 52nd.

Thayer came on strong at the end of last year’s spring season, with a top-10 finish at the Big Ten championships, and Goss expects big things from him this year.

“I think Chris is going to be an integral part of the team,” Goss said. “I look for him to have a strong spring.”

Harrington and senior David Shaffer rounded out NU’s lineup. Harrington tied for 68th and Shaffer tied for 74th.

The field at the tournament was a strong one. According to the MasterCard rankings, five Top 25 teams competed this week, including the No. 9 Cats. But only one team, No. 4 South Carolina, was ranked higher than NU, even though No. 12 North Carolina State, No. 13 Wake Forest and No. 23 Florida all fared better.

The excuse could be made that the rest of the field, all hailing from the Southeast, had an advantage over NU, whose season didn’t start until this week. But Donald refused to make the team’s late start an issue.

“It’s a little difficult to come down here and not play well,” Donald said. “We practice as hard as the other teams. We should all be good enough to adapt.”

And with the NCAA Puerto Rico Classic less than a week away, the process of turning months of indoor practice into outdoor success will have to resume sooner rather than later.

“We’re gonna look at all the things we did wrong,” Johnson said, “and try like hell to fix them.”