Survival at NCAAs goal No. 1 for Cats

Bernard Schwartz

The first round of the NCAA Central Regional begins Thursday morning in Stillwater, Okla., and the Northwestern men’s golf team is hoping that the mysterious pain in Luke Donald’s right arm goes as quickly as it came.

It was while swinging during a practice round last Tuesday that Donald first felt the injury. Doctors said it might be something in the tendon or the muscle and suggested rest.

So in the week leading up to the regional — the qualifying tournament for the NCAA championships — Donald has followed doctors’ orders. He has hardly taken a full swing, nor has he played a full round. Instead he has worked on his short game and rested, all the while hoping that the arm will be a non-issue when Thursday rolls around.

“It shouldn’t be a problem,” Donald said. “I’m going in a little blind — I didn’t hit as many balls as I would have liked — but I still feel good about my game.”

As the reigning Big Ten Player of the Year, Donald should feel good about his game. After all, he has won four straight tournaments, including a repeat at the Big Ten championships two weeks ago.

At Big Tens, Donald may have led the No. 21 Wildcats to their third straight conference victory, but he didn’t carry them. Three other golfers — freshman Tom Johnson, junior Chris Thayer and sophomore Scott Harrington — also finished in the top 10, which is something that has given the entire traveling squad a great deal of swagger heading into the regional.

“We’re not nervous at all,” said freshman T.C. Ford, who has occupied the fifth spot in the Cats’ lineup the last three tournaments. “There’s no uncertainty. We know we can do it.”

The regional, played on Stillwater’s Karsten Creek, a course similar to NU’s own Conway Farms, is not like most tournaments. What matters is not winning but qualifying. In a field of 27 teams, only 10 will advance to the NCAAs next month.

“The reality is, you don’t have to play great at regionals,” NU coach Pat Goss said. “You just have to play solid. You just have to make sure you’re one of the 30 teams that gets in.”

There are three separate NCAA regional tournaments — the East, the West and the Central, where NU competes — and only 30 teams will qualify for the NCAAs early next month in Durham, N.C.

For the Cats to make it, they have to survive a field that includes six schools ranked in the nation’s Top 25. According to Goss (and the MasterCard rankings), the teams to beat are No. 5 Texas, No. 7 TCU, No. 15 Oklahoma State, No. 16 Oklahoma, No. 19 Houston and No. 35 Minnesota.

NU will also have to deal with No. 11 Augusta State, which was reshuffled out of the East and into the Central in an attempt by the NCAA to level the competition.

Still, that’s only eight elite teams, making the field tough to beat but easy to qualify against.

“Qualifying is the most important thing,” Donald said. “All we have to do is finish in the top 10. If you finish first, obviously you’re going to feel better about yourself, but no one at NCAAs remembers where you finished.”

NU is paired on Thursday with both Texas and Oklahoma State.

“We’re probably the top three teams,” Donald said. “When you play with other good players, it makes you play better yourself.”

For Donald, if the pain lingers, this week could be more a test of endurance than anything, although the prospect of winning his fifth straight tournament has the senior ready to ignore any soreness in his arm.

“I’ve won my last four events,” Donald said. “I feel like I’m unstoppable.”