Men’s Golf: Northwestern gets spring season under way with third-place finish at Big Ten Match Play

Kevin Casey, Reporter

Northwestern entered last season’s spring-opening Big Ten Match Play Championship as three-time defending titleholders, only to finish fifth. This time the Wildcats produced a better result, but didn’t quite make it back to the winners’ circle.

With a loss sandwiched between two victories, NU finished third on Saturday at the sixth annual tournament. The No. 3-seeded Cats opened the proceedings Friday afternoon with a 4-1 victory over No. 6 seed Indiana. The following morning in the semi-finals, the team fell 4-1 to No. 2 seed Purdue, but, pushed into a consolation match for third place, NU kept up its fight to narrowly defeat No. 4 seed Iowa 3-2.

Clearly, the break over winter didn’t dull the Cats’ edge.

“Any time you take two months off from competitive golf, there’s going to be a little rust,” senior Jack Perry said. “That’s the beauty of this tournament, though. It kind of gets you right out under the gun and testing you.”

And that test started from the very first match.

Though NU took care of the Hoosiers 4-1 in the quarterfinals, the final score does not do the match justice. The seemingly comfortable margin was only pieced together on the strength of three 1-up victories from the Cats.

For the most part, though, the task of building early leads staked the Cats to success.

“We did a good job of getting off to a good start,” coach Pat Goss said. “It was a tough match, when they get to play in the morning and play as well as they did and they’ve gotten their first round jitters out of the way. So it was important to be in good control from the beginning and we did a good job closing it out as well.”

The following morning, NU, having advanced to the semis, was set to face off against Purdue. But the Cats didn’t bring the same stuff they pelted at the Hoosiers.

Instead of pouncing on the opponent on the front nine, the Cats slogged through the opening half, trailing in three matches and leading the other two by precarious 1-up margins.

Unable to make up the early deficits, NU mustered just a single point in the end. With eight double bogeys or worse on the Cats’ cards versus Purdue, it was hardly surprising NU fell short of the finals.

“We had way too many unforced errors. We handed them the match,” Goss said. “They played solidly, but we didn’t make it too hard on them. We just forced too many mistakes, hit poor shots, poor wedge play. That really hurt us and we just dug too big a hole.”

NU’s final match brought the team back into good spirits. The Cats pulled out a 3-2 victory over the Hawkeyes, as Perry and Matt Negri, the team’s Nos. 1 and 2, pulled out decisive victories. Redshirt sophomore Scott Smith, filling in for junior Bennett Lavin in the Iowa contest, produced the third point by holding on to a 1-up lead on the 18th hole.

The biggest story of the weekend, though, might have been Andrew Whalen. The sophomore was a prominent player in the team’s lineup last spring, but did not see action as a non-individual this fall. This weekend, Whalen won his first two matches convincingly and produced a score of 3 under par in 14 holes in the latter contest, an effort Goss said was the “best round we saw all tournament.”

The sophomore was blunt about his previous struggles.

“I had a really tough fall,” Whalen said. “I spent the last couple of months really working so I could play myself back in the lineup.”

As for the Cats as a whole, they came in at No. 3 and left in third place. That may imply a certain stagnation, but NU’s senior leader was pleased with his teammates’ play.

“I saw a lot of guys make progress from the winter,” Perry said. “It’s really encouraging to see guys playing well. With the exodus of (Matt) Fitzpatrick, we’re going to need everyone to play well.”

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