Men’s Golf: Northwestern hopes to use momentum to win Big Ten

Kevin Casey

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Northwestern has had a spring season to remember so far on the course. At the Big Ten Championships this week, the team could make a bold statement.

The Wildcats will head off to French Lick, Ind. for the four-round conference tournament from Friday through Sunday.

After an inconsistent fall season, NU started out strong in the spring, marching right through its opponents on its way to victory at the Big Ten Match Play Championship. The Cats didn’t stop there, winning the Rice Intercollegiate the very next week and picking up their third win of the season at the NYX Hoosier Invitational in early April.

Eric Chun, who won the Big Ten Championships three years ago as a freshman, has caught fire this spring, shooting seven of his 12 stroke-play rounds below 70 on his way to three Big Ten Golfer of the Week honors, two victories and such consistent play that he didn’t finish outside the top five in any of his four events.

The senior’s astounding 70.17 spring scoring average allowed him briefly to scare Luke Donald’s single-season record of 70.45 in 1998-1999 before falling to a full-season average of 70.70.

However, Chun and the team may face their toughest challenge yet. The Big Ten field contains four teams ranked in the top 50 and a course that is sure to challenge the players.

The French Lick Resort – which was named America’s Best New Public Golf Course in 2009 by Golf Digest and GOLF Magazine – can play up to a whopping 8,102 yards (a distance not even the PGA Tour has seen) and features a number of elevation changes because it was built on a hilltop. However, the Big Ten Championships will play a much more manageable 7,152 yards on the par-72 course.

This will be NU’s second straight event on a course that should greatly test players’ resolve. Two weeks ago at the Kepler Intercollegiate, pouring rain and gusting winds made Ohio State’s Scarlet Course tough to play. The Columbus track let up just one sub-par round in the entire tournament.

These conditions may have proved too much for NU to secure a victory, but senior Sam Chien said it was a good precursor for what should prove to be an equally difficult course.

“Columbus was the hardest conditions I’ve ever played in,” Chien said. “We’re predicting it will be windy at French Lick, and Columbus was a great preview.”

Coach Pat Goss got to tour the course a little more than a week ago, and he saw ball striking as a key to taming this Pete Dye monster.

“We focused on playing in the wind,” Goss said. “The course is on top of a mountain, so you are exposed.”

Goss also noted that the team has continued to work in the short game area in preparation for this week.

Chien agreed, saying the team has been getting creative in practicing the unusual shots it will face around the greens at French Lick.

“We’ve been trying to pretend that we were at the course,” Chien said. “We were able to hit a lot of bump and runs and some fall-off-of-the-green-type shots that we wouldn’t hit at local courses.”

The team has improved a great deal this spring season and is hungry to deny Illinois its fourth consecutive Big Ten Championships crown.

No. 25 Iowa, No. 34 Illinois, No. 37 Indiana and No. 48 Purdue all rank ahead of NU, but it won’t be so easy to count the Cats out.

The Cats lurk just outside the top-50 rankings and have beaten Iowa, Illinois and Indiana at one time or another this spring.

Besides Chun, others have shown flashes of great play this season. Chien has nabbed top-15 finishes in his last two events, junior Nick Losole has returned from a back injury to post two top-10 finishes this spring and Jack Perry recorded consecutive finishes of ninth and fourth earlier in the spring.

Goss has seen his team play well, and if all the pieces fall into place this week, NU may just get that coveted victory.

“We’re close in terms of progression,” Goss said. “Chun has been consistent, Nick Losole has put it together occasionally, Perry has shown flashes. At this time, hopefully we see it all come together.”