Even with the Big Ten championships more than two months away, the Northwestern men’s golf team’s preparations for a three-peat started Saturday.
For the Wildcats, the most significant thing about this weekend’s Illinois Triangular wasn’t who they beat or what they shot, but where they played.
The Triangular, while just a one-round, three-team tournament, was the only competitive preview NU would have of Urbana’s Stone Creek Golf Club, the host course for this year’s Big Tens.
And the two-time defending champs liked what they saw.
“It seems like a good course for us,” said freshman Tom Johnson, who shot a 1-over 73 to share medalist honors with NU senior Luke Donald and Illinois’ Ryan Tendell. “It was long and rewards good ball-striking, and I think that’s our strength.”
NU and Wisconsin tied for first place with team totals of 301, while host Illinois rounded out the field just three strokes back at 304.
Along with co-medalists Johnson and Donald, the Cats placed three others in the top 10: freshman T.C. Ford, whose 77 was good enough for a share of eighth place, and sophomore Scott Harrington and senior David Shaffer, both of whom shot 78 to tie for 10th place.
Although the playing conditions were poor and the scores were less than spectacular, NU got a glimpse of the course it must conquer later this spring to claim its third straight conference title.
Most Big Ten teams played at Stone Creek during the Northern Intercollegiate in the fall, but both NU and Minnesota were competing in the Windon Memorial at the time.
Donald, the defending conference champion, likened Stone Creek to the layout on which he won last year’s championship at Purdue’s Kampen Course.
The fact that Stone Creek resembles Kampen may be music to the ears of Donald and his teammates, but it comes as bad news for the rest of the conference. Donald and the Cats simply dominated last year’s championships with a 33-stroke victory.
But before the Cats attempt to relive last year’s postseason success – and before they revisit Stone Creek for the chance to do it – they must first prove themselves throughout the rest of the season.
NU was encouraged by its sixth-place finish at the Schenkel EZ-Go Invitational last week, but believes improvement is a must before it returns to Stone Creek to defend the title.
“I think we’re getting better every time we go out there,” Johnson said.
The Cats’ next tournament is this weekend’s Ford U.S. Collegiate Championships in Puerto Vallarta, Mexico.