Cats aim for 3-peat in Big Ten tourney

Bernard Schwartz

Luke Donald hasn’t lost since March. He currently holds a three-tournament win streak. And he heads to Urbana, Ill., for this weekend’s Big Ten championships as the reigning conference medalist and two-time Big Ten Player of the Year. Nobody associated with the Northwestern men’s golf team is concerned with the health of Donald’s game. He is a sure thing.

Teammates look to Donald as a consistent source of excellence, and he delivers – every week, like a machine. Now, as the only senior in a lineup with little postseason experience, Donald is looked to more than ever before as the leader who can make things happen for the Wildcats.

But it is a matter of fact in the college game that no one golfer can guarantee a team’s success. Not even Donald, if he doesn’t receive help this weekend, will be enough to get NU the third straight conference title it seeks.

At last year’s Big Tens, Donald won the individual title, but it was his teammates who got NU the repeat. The Cats won because all five of its golfers placed in the top 25. They demolished the field by 33 strokes because Donald was not alone in his dominance.

He had seniors Jess Daley, Josh Habig and Danny Riskam, plus then-sophomore Chris Thayer, who registered a top-10 finish in just his third career tournament.

This year only Thayer is back with Donald. They are joined by three underclassmen – sophomore Scott Harrington and freshmen Tom Johnson and T.C. Ford. While Johnson has been the team’s No. 2 golfer all year, Harrington and Ford have been in and out of the lineup. And none of the three has ever played in the postseason.

They are the X-factors this weekend, but NU coach Pat Goss seems comfortable with that.

“They were recruited to be Big Ten champs. They’ve only seen us be Big Ten champs,” Goss said. “There’s definitely an attitude there.”

It is an attitude possessed by Harrington, who is well aware of the tradition of excellence that he and his fellow underclassmen have inherited.

“Our goal every year is to win Big Tens,” Harrington said. “It’s our conference. There’s a lot of pride that goes into saying that you’ve won the Big Ten three straight times. There’s a lot of pride in putting on that ring and wearing that sweatshirt.”

The Cats will try for their three-peat on a familiar course. Earlier this spring, NU played in the Illinois Triangular at the Stone Creek Golf Club and liked what it saw, comparing it to the Kampen Course in West Lafayette, Ind., where last year’s Big Tens were held.

“It seems like a good course for us,” Johnson said at the time. “It was long and rewards good ball striking, and I think that’s our strength.”

At last year’s Big Tens, rain and wind toughened the Kampen Course, but the Cats’ strong ball-striking abilities allowed them to weather the storm and emerge at the end of every round with a bigger lead than they had previously held. After three days and four rounds, NU held a dominant edge over the rest of the conference.

Though their lineup is younger and less experienced, the Cats still believe they’re the best in the Big Ten. Just last week, NU claimed its first victory of the spring at the Fossum Spartan Intercollegiate, a tournament whose field featured most of the teams competing this weekend. That field included Minnesota, the Cats’ fiercest conference rival. But the Golden Gophers didn’t come close, finishing second by 10 strokes.

“We had to prove not just to the other teams but to ourselves that we are the best in the conference,” Donald said. “It was very important psychologically. Winning at Michigan State boosts everyone’s confidence.”

NU’s confidence as a team has grown lately, ever since early spring struggles were redeemed by strong finishes and a win at the Fossum.

“We’re probably better than any other team in the Big Ten,” Goss said. “The reality is, it may be the weakest field we play all year. But the flip side of that reality is, it may be the most important tournament we play all year, next to NCAAs.”

Added Donald: “Everyone wants to win their conference. And we want the three-peat.”