Wildcats drive for victory at the Ford

Bernard Schwartz

For the Northwestern men’s golf team, last Saturday’s Illinois Triangular was little more than a one-round, three-team scouting expedition of Stone Creek Golf Club, the host of this year’s Big Ten championships. It didn’t really matter that senior Luke Donald and freshman Tom Johnson tied for first place, or that the team had done the same. The competition lacked intensity, the scores were less than spectacular and the most significant thing about the day wasn’t the victory but the information it provided.

Which is why NU coach Pat Goss mocked the win in his post-round, pre-dinner congratulations that night.

Goss knew, and he wanted his team to know, that the world of college golf yields bigger prizes than a victory over Illinois and Wisconsin. One of those prizes is up for grabs at this weekend’s Ford U.S. Collegiate Golf Championship in Puerto Vallarta, Mexico. Besides the NCAAs, the event is the most prestigious spring tournament in college golf, attracting not only the cameras from ESPN2 – which will show a tape delay next week – but also the nation’s best teams: No. 1 Georgia, No. 2 Georgia Tech, No. 3 Clemson, No. 5 Florida and No. 8 TCU.

No. 19 NU encountered a similar field at the Preview this fall, where it finished in fourth place – two strokes behind third-place Clemson and only seven behind first-place Georgia. The Cats also competed against Georgia and Clemson two weeks ago at the Schenkel E-Z-Go Invitational, where they took sixth (Clemson finished third and Georgia once again emerged victorious).

The Invitational marked NU’s best finish of the spring season and proved that the team was slowly but surely emerging from the winter.

A year-round practice schedule enables southern teams like Georgia, Georgia Tech and Clemson to get a quick start fast when tournaments begin again in the spring and leaves teams like NU struggling to catch up.

Another factor that separates the Cats from the elite is depth.

“Teams like Georgia and Clemson, they’ve got four guys who would play no worse than No. 2 on our team,” Goss said. “They’ve got a little more firepower. They have room for a little more inconsistency, but for us to be competitive, we have to be clicking on all cylinders.”

Even so, proof that NU has what it takes lies in the team’s performance against the powerhouses during the fall season – before winter forced the team indoors. NU held the No. 9 spot in the rankings at the end of November, having registered the fourth at the Preview, another fourth-place finish at the Windon Memorial and then a win at the Prestige in Palm Desert, Calif.

The team’s strong fall was especially promising because it brought with it the emergence of Johnson, who held off the pitfalls that typically face freshmen, and took third in the Ridges Intercollegiate, his very first college tournament. This meant the No. 2 spot, vacated by All-American Jess Daley, was in safe hands, and Donald was glad to have found an apprentice.

“Tom’s definitely our No. 2 guy,” Donald said. “He’s set his sights on someday being an All-American. He’s very strong-willed.”

The duo of Donald and Johnson leads the Cats into this weekend’s 54-hole Ford Championship (18 holes will be played Friday, Saturday and Sunday) – the last time NU will see the nation’s best teams before May.

“This is our last crack at some of these teams until the NCAAs,” Goss said. “We need to prove to ourselves that we can beat them.”

A strong performance at the Ford Championship would give the Cats the momentum they’ve lacked so far this spring, which has been full of mediocre play and lineup changes.

And there will be yet another change to the lineup in this weekend’s tournament.

Senior David Shaffer is back in the fifth spot after losing it for much of the spring.

“David had a good fall, then an aberration this winter,” Goss said. “But over time he’s proven he can play at the highest level, and he deserves the opportunity to play again.”

Shaffer is not the only senior in the NU lineup seeking a turn for the better.

While Donald’s playing record speaks for itself – he won the NCAA individual championship as a sophomore – this spring has been somewhat of a disappointment. Although he shared medalist honors with Johnson last week, this season hasn’t been the most successful of Donald’s career. He has only one top-three finish this spring, and that was at the Triangular.

But Donald has a track record at the Ford Championship. Last year, he shot 11-under par to finish in second place, just one stroke behind Oklahoma’s Edward Loar.

“I keep telling Luke he’s one good thing away from never losing another tournament,” Goss said.

And the team may be one great finish away from recapturing its fall form.