Title run ends, but Cats’ strong finish provides hope for 2003

Kelvin Ma

If this season taught the Northwestern men’s golf team anything, it’s that it’s not important how you start, but how you finish.

After an abysmal start to the spring season – a pair of last-place finishes in their first two outings – the Wildcats ended the season two strokes away from qualifying for the NCAA national tournament.

“You could definitely tell things were going in the right direction at the end of the year,” NU golfer Scott Harrington said. “But no one’s ever going to tell you we reached our expectations for the year.”

And NU’s expectations were high, after winning its third straight Big Ten title in 2001. But after Winter Break, NU found itself mired in a funk that the players could not explain.

“Handling (the poor start) had a huge effect on us,” Harrington said. “It was a huge disappointment.”

From that point on, the Cats struggled through their early tournaments and were unable to pull together a consistent string of high finishes. NU didn’t win a single team title in the spring.

“I would say the biggest things we were plagued by were big numbers and inconsistency,” NU coach Pat Goss said. “We just didn’t seem to have anyone who could bring a consistent game every week.”

Tom Johnson, who was considered the heir apparent to former NU golfer and current PGA tour member Luke Donald, was unable to maintain his success from the fall into the spring. Johnson placed 28th in his first spring outing, and his next time out, he was disqualified because of a scoring error.

“I wasn’t really mentally prepared for the first few tournaments of the spring,” Johnson said. “We practice really hard and we work really hard, but I think I just forgot how to get the job done. My attitude probably wasn’t really good, and that’s what determines your golf.”

Scott Harrington, Chris Thayer and Bjorn Widerstedt had their share of early-season struggles, as each played inconsistently. Harrington eventually broke out of the slump to become NU’s hottest golfer in the final weeks of the season. Widerstedt steadily improved toward the end of the season and was even in contention for an individual title at the Bruce Fossum/Taylor Made Invitational. But Thayer was unable to recover, despite a team-leading 15th-place finish at the Morris Williams Intercollegiate, the third tournament of the spring.

T.C. Ford and Casey Strunk rotated for the fifth spot on the squad, but neither shot a score low enough to count in any tournament.

The turning point of the season was the Kepler Intercollegiate at Ohio State. Led by Harrington’s breakout performance, the Cats finished the first round in second place. A rainout in the third round left NU in the fourth slot.

The Cats took their success at the Kepler and never looked back, following it up with a fifth-place finish at the Fossum and fourth-place finish at the Big Ten championships.

The showing at Big Tens was enough to pull the Cats, who were sitting on the bubble for a tournament bid all season, into the NCAA regional tournament.

“I think we steadily got better,” Goss said. “It just took a little longer to find out who we are.”

NU’s climb out of mediocrity culminated on the last day of regionals, when the Cats shot the low round of the day despite windy conditions. NU outshot each of the top four teams by either four or five strokes.

“For the first time all year, we felt like we were all starting to gel together and play as a team,” Johnson said. “I don’t think I really felt that all year, especially coming down to the end of the tournament when we were all making birdies and clutch putts.

“After the tournament, we were reflecting on not making it to nationals. I really think we had a strong moment there.”

Although the Cats missed out on a trip to Columbus, Ohio, for the national championships, the final round at regionals gave the team something to build on next year.

“The high point (of the season) by far was the last day at regionals,” Goss said. “The low point was about two minutes after we shot the low round and then not being able to play at nationals.”

But the season is not over for one NU golfer. Johnson, who placed fifth at regionals, earned one of six individual bids to the national tournament at Ohio State’s Scarlet Golf Course.

“I haven’t won in a while,” Johnson said. “Now’s a good a time as any.”