Men’s Golf: Over trying weekend, Wildcats see signs of improvement in final tournament before Big Tens

Kevin Casey, Assistant Sports Editor

With this team in the spring, you never know what you’re going to get. But Northwestern is coming close to where it wants to be.

On Sunday, the Wildcats finished off their final tournament of the spring before Big Ten Championships, placing sixth at the Boilermaker Invitational. NU actually dropped a position each round, finding itself in fourth place after 18 holes, fifth after 36 and down one more spot on the final day.

And in a 15-team field in West Lafayette, Ind., that held six top-50 squads, No. 49 NU finished exactly where the rankings would have predicted. All of this appeared to point toward a theme of stagnation.

But coach Pat Goss was convinced his team took a step forward.

“We definitely made progress. We were better this week,” Goss said. “We did a lot of good things. We made too many mistakes, too many par-5 mistakes particularly. But the fact that we’re making birdies at a course that very much resembles the French Lick course we’ll play for Big Tens is a good sign.”

And progress can also be counted by trends in the starting lineup. After struggling nearly all spring to find anything from a player lower than the No. 2 spot, the team has finally uncovered some depth.

At the Kepler Intercollegiate, junior Matthew Negri, the No. 3, and redshirt sophomore Scott Smith, the No. 5, each posted three solid rounds on their way to highly respectable showings, tying for 28th and 34th, respectively.

As the old saying goes, once is a fluke, twice is a trend. In West Lafayette, Negri once again put together three consistent scores, all 74s, on his way to a tie for 26th. Smith’s stock steadily climbed even higher.

The redshirt sophomore, now listed as the No. 4, opened in 76 but sliced strokes off his score each of the next two rounds, with a 74 followed by a closing 71. In that final round, Smith was 2-over in his first 11 holes before closing with four birdies and just one bogey in his last seven.

For Smith, who has now been in the lineup for three consecutive events, it was a strong punctuation to a stellar 54 holes.

“I played well all week,” Smith said. “I hit the ball really solid, in the first two rounds I made a couple of mistakes on par-5s and that kind of hurt me. I’m really pleased with my ball-striking, I just have to tighten up my short game.”

But with all the improvement in the bottom of the lineup, the top didn’t play as well as usual. Sophomore Andrew Whalen, the No. 2, was only incrementally worse than before, finishing tied for 26th, but placed outside the top two on the squad for the first time in a stroke-play event this spring.

Jack Perry fashioned easily his worst showing of the season last week at the Kepler. The senior got right back to leading the team at the Boilermaker, but all that meant was a tie for 22nd.

For a man who could basically guarantee he would end up with a top-15 finish just two weeks ago, it was a lowly result. But his play this week did include an anomalous nine on a par-3 and Perry overall spoke highly of his performance.

“I played really well this week,” he said. “Obviously one hole really cost me. But I’m playing great and I’m really excited for Big Tens.”

Question marks remain at the No. 5 spot, and the top of the lineup has not been as strong, at least in results, in recent weeks. But with life, and plenty of it, from the Nos. 3 and 4 spots, this squad might actually be on the upswing.

The team is now closer than it ever has been this spring to securing a stable starting lineup, and its coach is not giving up on a spectacular stretch to end the spring campaign.

“We’re making progress on establishing a lineup,” Goss said. “We’re definitely making progress and we have shown that we have the ability to make a postseason run.”

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