Donald cruises to 2nd win in a row

Bernard Schwartz

Northwestern men’s golf coach Pat Goss tends to speak confidently about Luke Donald’s game, even when the senior has misfired.

Here’s Goss after Donald finished a disappointing 11th at the Schenkel E-Z-Go Invitational last month:

“I’m not very concerned with Luke’s golf. Once Luke gets some momentum, he may never lose again.”

Here’s Goss again, this time before the Ford U.S. Collegiate Championships:

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

How could Goss have known?

At this weekend’s Kepler Intercollegiate, Donald once again made Goss look clairvoyant, shooting a 1-under 212 to claim his second straight victory.

Playing under the blustery conditions of early spring on OSU’s Scarlet Course, Donald shot rounds of 71-69-72 to best runner-up Kevin Hall of Ohio State by seven strokes.

“Pat’s been pretty accurate in the past with his predictions,” Donald said.

It took Donald all season to win his first tournament of the year, but only a week to win his second. He said a few small changes to his golf swing have begun to pay off.

“Hopefully it won’t end right now,” Donald said of his winning streak. “When I do win, I tend to do well the next week because of confidence. (Right now) I’m stepping up to the first tee and thinking I can win.”

The Wildcats broke through with a second-place finish at the Kepler, their best result of the spring. NU shot an 894 as a team – only one stroke behind host Ohio State, which won its own tournament for the first time in three years.

After 36 holes on Saturday, the Cats stood in second place – one shot behind Michigan – and Ohio State stood seven strokes out of the lead. But in Sunday’s final round, NU struggled to a 304, its worst total of the tournament, while Ohio State shot a 297. It was good enough to catapult the Buckeyes into the winner’s circle.

For the Cats, it was a weekend of improvement, but one that ended just short of expectations.

The Cats were considered the favorites going into the Kepler, but their less-than-spectacular final round cost them the tournament and their first victory of the year.

Still, taking second place at the Kepler was encouraging for NU, which only one week ago finished 11th at the Ford Championships.

The Cats placed just one golfer in the top 30 a week ago, but at the Kepler the team put three golfers in the top 15.

Besides Donald, freshman Tom Johnson and junior Chris Thayer finished strongly over the weekend. Johnson tied for ninth, while Thayer tied for 13th.

With rounds of 73-72-78, Johnson shot a 10-over 223, and with rounds of 74-76-74, Thayer shot an 11-over 224.

While Donald, Johnson and Thayer finished at or near the top of the leaderboard, NU’s other two golfers, freshmen Casey Strunk and T.C. Ford, finished near the bottom.

Strunk, playing in only the second tournament of his college career, tied for 52nd, while Ford finished 88th.

The inclusion of Strunk and Ford meant a lineup change for the Cats – neither sophomore Scott Harrington, a usual starter, nor senior David Shaffer made the trip this weekend.

The Kepler represented NU’s first real district tournament of the spring. With a field of Big Ten teams and other Midwestern squads, the Kepler was significant to the Cats for two reasons: First, they needed to secure their district rankings, and second, with the Big Ten championships just around the corner, they needed to send a message to the rest of the conference that that they’re still the best.

Already ranked second in the Midwest District, NU’s second-place finish at the Kepler all but shored up the team’s place in the NCAA Regionals.

But the Cats’ final round fall-off left their claim to conference supremacy up in the air.

NU is off next weekend, but resumes play at the Fossum Spartan Intercollegiate in East Lansing, Mich., on April 27-29. Donald said the Cats showed improvement over the weekend.

“We’re getting there,” he said. “We definitely have the ability and the talent, we just have to show it now.”