Late charge carries Cats to 4th place (Men’s Golf)

Adam Grossman

Sometimes, golf is a game of inches.

After birdies on the 16th and 17th hole, Northwestern junior Tom Johnson needed to make an 8-foot birdie putt on the final hole to take a share of the lead in the Big Ten championships last Sunday. Just moments earlier, Minnesota’s Matt Anderson had sunk a 30-foot putt on the same hole to take a 1-stroke lead.

“When I was walking in, I saw his whole family go crazy,” Johnson said. “I thought (the putt) was maybe to win the team thing. I didn’t know it was for the individual.”

Johnson put himself into contention for the lead after chipping within 8 feet of the pin. But he misread his final putt and could only watch as the ball barely rolled over the right edge of the cup.

Johnson’s 7-under 277 was still good enough for a second-place finish in the tournament. His play helped the Wildcats secure a fourth-place showing at the Indiana University Golf Course in Bloomington, Ind., their first top-five finish in seven weeks. NU carded a 22-over 1158, 36 strokes behind winner Minnesota. It was the Cats’ second consecutive fourth-place finish at the tournament after winning it from 1999-2001.

“Tom played great,” coach Pat Goss said. “He gave himself an opportunity to win. That’s all you can do. The last putt just didn’t fall.”

Johnson had his second straight strong performance after his suspension from the Kepler Intercollegiate on April 12-13 for academic reasons. He finished fifth at the Fossum Spartan Intercollegiate on April 26-27, and his strong play late in the season helped him to secure a first-team All-Big Ten selection. With his second-place finish in Bloomington, Johnson captured All-Big Ten tournament honors.

“I guess I just sort of started feeling more confident about my game,” Johnson said. “After sitting out a tournament, it got me really anxious about getting back into competition.”

Johnson’s play, along with a final-round 69 from Casey Strunk, helped elevate the Cats from sixth place to fourth on the final day of competition. NU had been in sixth place after both the second and third rounds of the tournament even though the Cats recorded the third-lowest team score in the third round.

“Obviously, I’ve always believed in myself,” Strunk said of his 18th-place finish. “You always desire the respect of your teammates, but sometimes you just need to go out there and prove it.”

Strunk, a junior who has been NU’s No. 4 or 5 golfer his entire career, has struggled to have a breakout performance.

Strunk’s Sunday round was critical to make up for below-average performances from seniors Bjorn Widerstedt and Scott Harrington, who both have struggled at various times during the spring.

“One of the things (Goss) and I talk about is trying not to be just a good four or five guy,” Strunk said. “This weekend I got to pick up for Bjorn and Scott.”

After having success earlier in the season, Widerstedt had been unable to crack the top 20 in the past two tournaments and finished 35th over the weekend.

Even with his recent slump, Widerstedt was still able to secure a second-team All-Big Ten nod. Widerstedt also was named one of five finalists for the Byron Nelson Award, given annually to a senior men’s college golfer who displays excellence on the golf course, in the classroom and in the community.

Having won the Rice Intercollegiate on Feb. 10-11, Harrington had failed to crack the top 10 in a single tournament for the rest of the season. Although he had played well at the Spartan Invitational, his disappointing season continued with a 40th-place finish over the weekend.

“The key to how strong we finish is Bjorn and Scott,” Goss said. “Their games aren’t very sharp right now.”

The Cats’ next competition is the NCAA Central Regional qualifier at Kansas State in Manhattan, Kan., where NU is seeded 10th in its ninth-consecutive berth. The Cats were unable to make it past the Regional last spring.