Trio Drives NU to 3-peat

Bernard Schwartz

Luke Donald’s teammates picked the perfect week to join him at the top of the leaderboard.

Four Northwestern golfers finished in the top eight at this weekend’s Big Ten championships, as the Wildcats claimed their third straight conference title at the Stone Creek Golf Club in Champaign-Urbana.

Shooting a 9-under 279 over four rounds, Donald won his second straight Big Ten title. Freshman Tom Johnson and junior Chris Thayer tied for fourth with 4-under 284s, and sophomore Scott Harrington tied for eighth at 2-under.

It was a total team effort.

The Cats took the lead after shooting an 8-under 280 in Saturday’s second round, and held onto a one-stroke lead after the third round that afternoon.

“They were loose,” coach Pat Goss said. “There was almost an eerie calmness about them.”

By Sunday afternoon, the lead had grown to 13 and the three-peat was theirs. NU’s 20-under team total of 1132 was just one stroke higher than the Big Ten record, which NU set in its 1999 conference championship.

At last year’s Big Tens, the Cats bested runner-up Purdue by 33 strokes. This year the Boilermakers got closer, finishing 13 strokes behind at 7-under. Ohio State was third at 1-under, and Minnesota took fourth at even par.

“We never take winning Big Tens for granted,” Goss said. “Each one of these is special. I’m very excited for the players.”

With his repeat, Donald extended his present winning streak to four consecutive tournaments and wrapped up a third straight Big Ten Player of the Year award. Donald also won his second straight Les Bolstad Award, given to the player with the lowest season scoring average in the conference.

Just like last year’s conference tourney, which came down to the wire between Donald and former NU golfer Jess Daley, Donald also had to fight for this one. After bogeys at the 10th, 12th and 13th holes on Sunday, Donald trailed Ohio State’s Mike Austin by a stroke.

But Donald recovered with three straight birdies at the 14th, 15th and 16th.

“He has tremendous will to come back like that,” Goss said.

Harrington also showed his tremendous will this weekend. The sophomore had been kept out of the lineup at the Kepler Intercollegiate and Fossum Spartan Intercollegiate – the two tournaments leading up to Big Tens – but responded strongly after being re-inserted this weekend.

“Two weeks ago, he was at a point where he could have packed it in,” Goss said. “But Scott was the one who really came through this week.”

The Cats expected greatness from Donald but needed more than that to make the three-peat a reality. NU needed other great performances.

And both Thayer and Johnson delivered.

Thayer finished in the top five for the second straight week and in the top 10 at only his second conference tournament. And Johnson got himself in position to win this weekend before faltering on his last two holes.

Both Thayer and Johnson, along with Donald, were named to the All-Big Ten team. Johnson was also named the conference’s Freshman of the Year. NU golfers were unavailable for comment.

“Everything Tom has done is what we have expected of him,” Goss said. “You’ve only seen a glimpse of what Tom can do over the next four years.”

This weekend also gave a glimpse into the future of NU golf. With Johnson and Harrington able to place among the Big Ten’s best as underclassmen, that future looks bright for the Cats.

“For them to play as well as they did,” Goss said, “it shows how far they’ve come.”

Now the Cats have to go a little further. They have a week off before competing in the NCAA central regionals in Stillwater, Okla. NU must qualify at the highly-competitive tournament to earn a berth to the NCAA championships the following week.

“Big Tens is just one of our accomplishments,” Goss said. “The reality is, we’ve got to be better next week.”