Past is prologue for Donald, young Wildcats

Bernard Schwartz

All-American Jess Daley is gone and graduated, off playing pro golf on the Canadian and Buy.com tours. Josh Habig, who finished third at last year’s Big Ten tournament, is trying to make it on the Hooters Tour. And Danny Riskam is headed to law school.

Daley, Habig and Riskam were the seniors on last year’s Northwestern men’s golf team. During their NU careers they contributed to two Big Ten titles and a top-three finish at the NCAA championships. They all were in the lineup when the Wildcats demolished their conference counterparts by 33 strokes at last year’s Big Tens.

But they don’t matter anymore.

Luke Donald, the 1999 national champion and the two-time Big Ten player of the year, is the senior now, leading a young team that is short of memory but long on talent.

The past doesn’t matter anymore.

“For three years, we had a set group of players with a set personality,” coach Pat Goss said. “Now we’re finding our way with a new group of players.”

That group includes junior Chris Thayer, who was the fourth NU golfer to post a top-10 finish at last year’s Big Tens; sophomore Scott Harrington; and four freshmen, including Tom Johnson, who now occupies the second position in the Cats’ traveling lineup – a position that once belonged to Daley.

“You always had a solid player at No. 2,” Goss said. “Jess got the most out of every round. Tom is the one who has to replace him.”

This fall, Johnson performed his best Daley impression, challenging Donald and even besting him with third-place finishes at the Ridges Intercollegiate and The Prestige at Palm Desert.

This fall, NU competed in five tournaments and never finished worse than sixth. The Cats won The Prestige, and they seemed to be getting on nicely without those who departed.

“We had a pretty good fall without those guys,” Donald said.

The transition from last year to this one has been smooth for NU. In echoing past success, these Cats are also working to develop their own identity – and most, if not all, of the credit should go to Donald.

Donald was a sophomore when he claimed the individual NCAA title. But he’s a senior now, and for all his individual accolades – the British Open appearances and the Walker Cup showings (not to mention his run to the semifinals of this year’s U.S. Amateur) – Donald wants his team to succeed more than ever.

And that means doing more than just leading by example.

“Starting this year, I’ve tried to be more of a leader,” Donald said. “I’m not the most outgoing person, but I’ve definitely gotten to be more outgoing in the past year. I’ve tried to speak up more, just talking to them, giving them props for doing well.”

And his young teammates appreciate anything Donald has to offer.

“He and Pat are the two main reasons I came here,” Johnson said. “I’ve never seen anybody play as well as Luke. Just being able to watch him play everyday, you learn things. You just try to emulate him.”

NU is two tournaments into the spring season, but the team has had trouble emulating Donald’s style. While Donald has put up two top-10 finishes, his younger teammates have struggled at the Mercedes-Benz Collegiate Classic and the NCAA Puerto Rico Classic. In both tournaments, the No. 9 Cats finished no better than 10th.

“Those two tournaments showed us that we’re not exactly where we want to be,” Thayer said. “They get a lot of good teams at them that we’ll be seeing at the end of the year, and right now it looks like we’re a little behind.”

Goss put it more bluntly.

“Those are the worst two performances since I’ve been the coach here,” he said.

Still, the season is early, and the coach isn’t panicking yet.

“I feel very secure about our future,” Goss said. “It’s going to take some time, but these guys have a tremendous work ethic, and they really want to be good.”

The players in the lineup may be different this year, but everything else remains the same.

“We think we have the opportunity to be better than last year’s team,” Harrington said. “We have the same goals, we know they’re realistic, we know we’ve got the talent.”