Carlson's Corner: A Dramatic Victory

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Big Ten Champs...

Why not us?  This was not a theme I used with my guys prior to embarking on the first round of the Big Ten Championships at the Dye Course at French Lick Resort, but I was certainly thinking it. The rankings were certainly not accurately measuring the 53 wins and 4 losses we had amassed in our six spring collegiate tournaments. I know how dangerous confidence can be in the game of golf. So before the start of the first round in Indiana, we talked about what we learned from winning three times in the 2013-14 season and playing the tournament for the teammate sitting next to you. All coaches have these types of speeches planned for certain times of the year, but our positive tone at all times with our players allows them to play freely and it is what Coach Stith and I witnessed in Round 1.

Let the drama begin...The Dye Course measures 8,108 yards from the back tees at a par of 72. No, we did not play this monster from those tees, but we did play each day of the tournament from 7,300 yards, which is tough enough on a course that boasts the second highest USGA rating of 81.0. For example, Hazeltine National GC, which is well known to be the toughest golf course in Minnesota from the back tees, has a course rating of just over 77.0. We maneuvered the deep fairway bunkers and 26-yard wide fairways with ease on Day 1 through 16 holes, finding ourselves eight shots clear of second-place Purdue University.

Not fazed by his first Big Ten Championships start, Jose Mendez closed his day with a solid par at the last for a 3-under total of 69. This would stand as the lowest single round shot at the 2014 Championships. I did say we played well through 16 holes above, as we unfortunately couldn't withstand the increasing wind and brutal par-4 17th, as we gave eight shots back to the field in those last two holes to find our team in the lead by two after Round 1. Jon DuToit and Jon Trasamar, both Minnesota high school products, each shot very good opening rounds to offset tough first rounds by senior Alex Gaugert and junior Tyler Lowenstein.

We all love 36-hole days...16 miles of walking in two rounds and winds that peaked at 22 MPH were two of the factors that contributed to higher second round scores for the field, along with a few more gray hairs for Ole Head Coach. Don't tell my wife about gray hairs as she still thinks I am the same strapping young man she married almost 10 years ago! Aside from the weather and tricky pin positions, we shot 300 in the second round with scores of 74 (Mendez), 75(DuToit), 75(Gaugert) and 76(Trasamar).

I thought mornings were supposed to be calm...25-35 MPH sustained winds greeted all players on "Moving Day" from the first tee until the final putt on hole 18. Our team is mentally strong, proven champions and always ready for the challenge of increased pressure that comes with being in contention at a major! Our third round was magic. Now usually when I use a strong word like that it means we shot career low rounds individually or as a team, but this is not the case. +13 was the number of the day for Gopher Golf. Some may say, "How can you feel good about that score?" Well, that was the best score of the day by two shots and moved our team clear of second place heading into the final round by seven shots over No. 9 ranked Illinois and No. 37 ranked Purdue.

Even better than the movement in the team race was the comment by one volunteer at the event to me just after play finished. A gentleman from Paoli, Indiana, who paid $100 to volunteer for the event, and worked in cold, windy conditions sought me out to tell me the University of Minnesota was "by a landslide" the most appreciative team at the tournament toward the 100-plus volunteers. I was overwhelmed with joy knowing our young players are growing into superb young men that represent the University of Minnesota and all the golfers in Minnesota in the best way possible.

Heading into the final round of the Big Ten Championships, I needed a little advice on how to deal with my own nerves as a coach. I am so fortunate to be surrounded at Gopher Athletics by some of the finest coaches in the world. I called Brad Frost, the finest women's hockey coach in the nation and one of my closest friends, the night before the round. He has a clear mission and vision with his team that I have been able to understand for the better part of four years now. "Controlling what you can control," "doing the little things well" and a few other coaching points were discussed on Saturday. Thank you, Brad, for that support!

Big Ten round...Jose Mendez vs. Charlie Danielson...Minnesota vs. Illinois...This has become a rivalry that started at the Big Ten Match Play and will continue for many years as I have the utmost respect for Coach Small and the Illini! Illinois would start out on fire with five team birdies in the first three holes, while we matched that with only three birdies of our own. The back-and-forth body blows continued for the next nine holes only to see our seven-shot lead evaporate into an all-square match starting the 16th hole. Jose Mendez had also given up his lead to a hot putter in Charlie Danielson. Charlie is from Osceola, Wisconsin, and is one of the strongest sophomores in the nation.  Hole 16 is a mere 191 yards with a green bordered by water on the right and a huge pot bunker on the left. The wind was freshening with the Iowa Hawkeyes in the clubhouse with the round of the day, 4-under par 284. 

Solid shots by both teams sent the match to the 17th, where the Illini found trouble with a bogey and a double bogey. In contrast, Gopher Golf drew on experience with the lead throughout the year by carding a bogey and a birdie, along with three pars by Jon DuToit, Tyler Lowenstein and Jose Mendez. That lone birdie at the 17th was that of senior captain Jon Trasamar. He buried a 10-footer after one of his finest iron shots of the week from 175 yards (8 iron). This set the stage for one of the finest moments of the year in Gopher Golf...

Go Gophers! Jon Trasamar
Go Gophers!
Trasamar drained a 45-yard putt.
Go Gophers!

After laying up on the 615-yard, par-5 18th hole, Trasamar would catch his wedge shot slightly heavy, leaving it 45 feet below the hole. With the hole location in the back right of this 59-yard long green, Coach Stith and Trasamar used "Aim Point" to read the putt. If you have not tried Aim Point, it is one of the new techniques we have taught our guys this year to revolutionize their green reading. Trasamar holed the putt with a fist pump and with the crowd on the hill going crazy, the Big Ten Championship was coming home to Minnesota! Because I had previously mentioned college golf is mostly a team environment, this did overshadow the individual duel between the "Costa Rican Athlete of the Year" and one of the three amazing Danielson siblings from Osceola.

The last player to win an individual Big Ten Championship is my good friend Matt Anderson. Matt now works at Dick's Sporting Goods in Bloomington, along with serving as assistant golf coach at Edina HS.  He also still sports one of the best wedge games in Minnesota!

Go Gophers! Big Ten medalists
Go Gophers!
Jose and Charlie shared medalist honors.
Go Gophers!

Jose and Charlie were playing hole 18. After both laying up to 69 and 92 yards respectively, an uncharacteristic poor shot from Charlie resulted in the greenside bunker. Jose hit a smart shot to 25 feet below the hole. Charlie could only muster a bogey 6 after his approach shot, which set the stage for Jose to win it outright. After hitting a solid putt missing on the right, he would bury it from 4 feet to earn a share of the Big Ten Individual title.  Because of tight travel windows, no playoff is held for the individual titles in our conference.

We did it! The Big Ten title is for everyone in the State of Minnesota, families of our players, alumni of our great program and donors. It's a great memory for all players/coaches on the victorious 2014 team.  You can watch the tape delayed drama of our win at the Big Ten Championships on Big Ten Network at 6 p.m. on May 17. 

We are now off to one of the six NCAA Regional sites at Lonnie Poole GC in Raleigh, North Carolina, next week. Follow the live scoring on Thursday, May 15-Saturday, May 17. Five teams advance to the NCAA Finals at Prarie Dunes Country Club in Hutchison, Kansas, which starts Thursday, May 22. Four team wins in our 2013-14 season, three individual titles by Jose Mendez and recently receiving the Norman Borlaug Academic Award at the Golden Goldys for the team with the best academic performance in Gopher Athletics in the previous year, are all proud moments in my third year as head coach.  This ride in our championship portion of our season has only begun though.

Fairways, Fairways, Fairways!

John Carlson

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