For the Minnesota men’s golf program, high expectations have become the norm in Gold Country and with good reason.
The Golden Gophers have emerged as one of a handful of national-level golf programs under director of golf Brad James, and annually contend for both NCAA and Big Ten championships.
In the last six years alone, Minnesota has carded three NCAA top-10 finishes including a national championship while capturing three Big Ten titles.
The 2006-07 edition of Minnesota men’s golf was no exception. The Gophers won yet another Big Ten championship before finishing ninth at the NCAA Championships.
But college golf is a dynamic sport. And as players conclude their eligibility most teams face a rebirth each season.
Such is the case for the 2007-08 campaign at Minnesota, which will be without the services of four-time All-American Bronson La’Cassie and two-time All-American Niall Turner. Both players completed their eligibility last spring after record-setting collegiate careers, creating opportunities at the top of the Gophers’ lineup as the team returned for the fall season.
“It was definitely a different kind of fall for us,” said James, now in his seventh year at the helm of the Gophers men’s program and his first as Minnesota’s director of golf. “We had a lot of success last year, but we lost two top guys. For the team to realize that they just can’t rely on Bronson and Niall anymore I think that was a bit of an eye-opener.”
The encouraging thing for James and the Gophers, however, is that senior Clayton Rask and junior Victor Almstrom seamlessly stepped into the void and appear to have successfully filled what could have been a precariously large gap at the top of the Minnesota lineup.
Rask’s leadership, in particular, was evident from the get-go during the fall. He finished no worse than 16th in five stroke-play tournaments while playing one of the nation’s most demanding and competitive schedules. The Otsego, Minn., product, who enters the spring ranked as the No. 11 college player in the country by Golfweek, averaged a team-best 71.33 strokes per round and tied for medalist honors at both the Windon Memorial Classic (206/-7) and The Prestige at PGA WEST (208/-8), while posting two of the top 54-hole scores in Minnesota golf history.
Rask wrapped up the fall with a sixth-place finish in a rock-solid field at the Big Ten/Pac-10 Challenge (219/+3) and according to James proved that he has what it takes to be one of the nation’s top players.
“I was definitely pleased with Clayton’s performance,” James said. “I think he is a born leader and I think he’s going to be a great professional golfer. Clayton definitely stepped up to the plate to get two individual tournament victories. And with the schedule that we play, that is an incredible feat.”
Almstrom’s production also ranked high on James’ list of fall highlights. The junior, who earned All-America honors following last year’s NCAA Championships, picked up right where he left off with three top-10 finishes to open the season.
Almstrom, who James considers to be the team’s best course manager, averaged 72.67 during stroke play and just missed out on a pair of tournament wins, finishing second at the PING/Golfweek Preview (211/-5) and third at the Gopher Invitational (216/E).
“Victor is a very experienced and mature player,” said James. “Being an All-American last year he showed that he can take his game to another level and we are looking for more of the same from him this spring.”
Sophomore Ben Pisani, who has the team’s top short game and is the squad’s best putter according to James, battled through his share of ups and downs during the fall but continues to show improvement. He is expected to be a regular in the Gophers’ spring lineup after starting all five fall tournaments and posting the third-best stroke average on the team.
“Ben is another player with international experience,” said James. “He showed a lot of great signs during the fall and I only see him improving from there.”
Competition for the remaining spots in Minnesota’s lineup will be strong, with a large contingent of veterans and newcomers vying to be in the mix.
Seniors Andy Paulson and Patrick Datz along with sophomore Justin Kaplan possess the most experience of the returnees and will look to become regular contributors.
Paulson appeared in all five stroke-play fall tournaments and displayed an ability to challenge for medalist honors at any time with seventh-place finishes at the Gopher Invitational (219/+3) and the Big Ten/Pac-10 Challenge (220/+4). He also posted some of the team’s lowest scores during the fall with nine rounds of 75 or better.
Datz made three stroke-play tournament appearances during the fall, including two in the Gophers’ five-man lineup. His best performance came at The Prestige at PGA WEST (229/+13).
A rising sophomore, Kaplan has adjusted quickly to the demands of college golf and will also be out to develop the consistency necessary to be a regular in Minnesota’s tournament rotation. He saw action in four stroke-play tournaments during the fall, with his best outing coming at the Windon Memorial Classic (228/+15).
Two other veterans looking to make their mark during the spring are sophomore Thomas Campbell and junior Robert Kelley. Both made their lone stroke-play appearances at the Gopher Invitational. Campbell also posted an impressive 1-up win over Oklahoma State’s Jon McLean at the Callaway Match Play Championship.
An impressive quartet of newcomers, including a pair of internationally tested freshmen and two experienced transfers, will also be gunning for a spot in the Gophers’ lineup.
Finnish import Mikael Salminen joins the Minnesota team for the spring and, according to James, could make a strong run at a spot in the Gophers’ lineup right away. Salminen is considered to be one of Europe’s top amateurs and recently placed second at the Finnish Open and third at the Finnish Amateur. He also had a strong showing at the European Amateur Championships as a member of the Finnish National Team.
Senior Yu Katayama possesses an intriguing blend of American junior college and international experience and is expected to challenge for playing time this spring as well. Katayama shot in the low 70s throughout his career at Scottsdale Community College and earned NJCAA All-America honors. A native of Tokyo, Japan, Katayama attended high school in Brisbane, Australia, where he blossomed into one of the top players on the Australian junior circuit.
Freshman Alexander Culverwell has a long list of accomplishments to his credit as one of Scotland’s leading amateurs. He was unable to crack the Gophers’ lineup during the fall but continues to work on the technical aspects of his game.
Sophomore transfer and local product Cameron White is also looking to make his first appearance as a Gopher after gathering plenty of experience as a true freshman at Iowa State during 2006-07. White was in the Cyclones’ starting lineup for 12 of 13 tournaments and posted an average 75.89 over 35 rounds of play.
“The fourth and fifth scores are going to be really important to the team this year,” James said. “There is plenty of talent on hand and it will be interesting to see who emerges. The last couple years we’ve had a well balanced team, where any of the five guys could win a tournament. Now we need the younger guys to step up.”
Minnesota faced one of the most challenging schedules in the nation during the fall and thing won’t get any easier in the spring as the Gophers travel to Puerto Rico and Las Vegas, before making back-to-back visits to Georgia. The team then wraps up the regular season at defending national champion Stanford.
“Our schedule gives us the opportunity to see the best players in college golf,” James said. “That way when we get to the NCAA Championships, where the best players are going to be, we’re used to competing at that level. To be the best you have to play the best.”