Northwestern began the last day of its final tournament of the fall three shots behind Alabama, the No. 1 ranked team in the land. With a winter hiatus approaching, the then-No. 34 Wildcats had provided themselves with a golden opportunity to end the fall with a bang. Seven holes into the closing stretch, the Crimson Tide had fallen into a tie with NU, marking a potentially dramatic battle between the country’s best squad and one of its emerging elite.
A win over Alabama? The same squad that boasts Cory Whitsett and Bobby Wyatt, No. 1 and No. 17 in the World Amateur Golf Rankings, respectively, and members of the highly exclusive American Walker Cup team? If head coach Pat Goss scribbled down a list of endings to the fall season, do you think he could pen a better idea than waging an assault on Alabama in the closing stretch and coming out the victor?
Alas, such musings prove fruitless. Instead of finishing strong, the Cats inexplicably fell apart. From a tie for first with a top-ranked foe, NU dropped behind USC, SMU and Washington by the time the proceedings finished. The fifth place showing, with higher-ranked opponents occupying all of the positions above, doesn’t appear too disappointing a result. But that’s until you consider the casualties NU produced over the final stretch.
Here’s the rundown. Jack Perry, -2 through six holes, bogeyed four of his last 12 and only made enough birdies to post an even par score. Bennett Lavin, +1 through 5, birdied the two remaining par-fives and still dropped four strokes to par in that span. Matthew Negri, even through five, came in at a whopping +10 following five bogies, a double bogey and a quadruple around a lonely, and rather out of place, birdie. Joshua Jamieson, struggling at +3 through 6, actually held things together and appeared he might still salvage a solid number when his birdie on 17 dropped to move him back to +4 for the day. If a bogey is a sour way to end a round though, Jamieson’s tally on 18 might invoke some four-letter words. The Scot picked up the dreaded snowman, a quadruple-bogey eight, on that final hole, a meltdown that ballooned his back-nine total to 40 and left him +8 for the day when the team could’ve really used an unspectacular, but useful score.
All of this is to say, on the verge of a monumental win with the first half of the golfing season coming to a close, it’s hard to imagine a much worse scenario than what befell the Cats. After looking the part of, at the very least, the second-best team over the first 36 holes in a field with a half-dozen other top-50 squads, NU produced the worst final-round total of any of the 10 teams in the tournament. By seven shots. Yes, Northwestern was +14 for the day, and the next worst score was +7.
It was a missed opportunity for sure. Yet, this tournament, along with the rest of the fall play, exemplified this simple overarching theme: Come springtime, this team could be really, really good.
Last spring, the Cats stitched together a lineup with considerable talent but proved highly inept at generating consistent play. Save for the exploits of Jack Perry, sustaining good golf proved a fatal flaw for NU. Goss rarely had the same starting lineup dating back to the middle of that fall. When Negri and Andrew Whalen struggled early on, John Callahan and Scott Smith got their chance to make a mark. When both incomers mustered poor finishes, Goss moved to a four-man rotation of Negri, Whalen, Jamieson and Lavin for those third, fourth and fifth spots in the spring before deciding to move Lavin out of the starting five for the final three regular-season events (he did compete for the team at NCAA Regionals).
The merry-go-round nature of that arrangement portended trouble for the squad. By the time a (relatively) static starting five emerged, the season was almost over and round-to-round continuity was going to be an issue for the quartet of players who had been bounced in and out of the lineup. In the final four events of the season, the four competitors combined for 13 rounds of 77 or higher. How many rounds of golf the team played over those tournaments? 13. So every 18 holes, you could expect one NU golfer to post a high number. On a team with superstar talent across the board, this might be able to pass. But for the Cats, who had little margin for error against the nation's top squads, it added up to a failure to advance beyond NCAA Regionals.
The fall has brought a new school year, a fresh start. And while the differences between the disappointment of last season's ending and the play in the first portion of the 2013-2014 haven't been stark, matters have clearly changed.
Yes, round-to-round inconsistency festered in all five fall events. The 3-4-5 trio of Negri, Lavin and Jamieson have each registered rounds in the 80s, with Negri surpassing the dubious mark twice. Heck, in that last effort of the season's opening half, Jamieson followed a second-round 64 with a final-round 78 and Negri only saw a slightly more modest incline, jumping from 69 to 80 from rounds two to three. Even the über-reliable Jack Perry failed to eliminate the bad rounds at times, with a 79 and an 82 in the season opener and a first-round 76 in the third event. The hyped newcomer Matt Fitzpatrick actually carded a 76 in four of the first nine rounds of his college career.
This issue has been but a blip though on the Cats' results. Progress is apparent everywhere. Let's start with the fact that Goss has employed the same starting five in every fall event. Sure, the day-to-day volatility doesn't inspire confidence, as we've already noted. Regardless, all five have managed to produce some solid finishes thus far, and there is something to say for keeping such a unit together event-to-event. As long as none of the competitors are seriously imploding to horrific finishes on a semi-frequent basis, it serves the team well to stick to the status quo. The starters all contribute and the longer they remain immersed in the pressure of competition with the same men, the more likely a consistent and high level of play manifests itself. With a single group of starters firmly in place, it leaves NU less prone to the ballooning scores that marred last season's efforts down the stretch.
Perry's and Fitzpatrick's uncharacteristic bad rounds probably aren't cause for concern either. That's because all of them came early on. Perry's two worst 18-hole scores came in the initial event of the fall, something that can be attributed to off-season rust. Fitzpatrick's series of 76s are understandable for a player seeing his first action in college golf, even if he was the No. 1 ranked amateur in the world--he's now fallen all the way to No. 2--before he embarked to Evanston.
After working out the kinks, a new dominant duo has blossomed. Last spring, Perry held down the team's No. 1 spot while Nick Losole offered a nice complement as a solid No. 2. Normally the loss of a senior leader like Losole would put a sizable dent in a team's prospects. The swapping in of Fitzpatrick, though, has made the team better. The firm of Perry and Fitzpatrick offer NU two players of the No. 1 caliber, and it's showed. In spite of growing pains in the season's infancy, the pair placed 2nd and T-3, respectively, in the second event of the fall, leading the charge to a team victory. Later, Perry and Fitzpatrick tied for first at the Rod Myers Invitational (a tournament that contained three other top-50 teams at the time) and gave the Cats two wins in four fall events. The final outing saw both finish in the top-15 with nary a round over 71 among their six tries.
Perry was clearly the team's best player last year and now he has company. Competition can fuel an athlete to strive for greater heights. For Perry, this appears to be the case and makes his and Fitzpatrick's budding partnership an intriguing storyline for the second half of the season.
The fall has laid the groundwork for NU's improved operation, but the spring could provide the grand showcase. Barring some unforeseen injuries or coaching decisions, Perry, Fitzpatrick, Negri, Lavin and Jamieson will represent the team on the links when the winter chill dissipates. The latter three should be in line to put together more consistent play as the byproduct of their continuous insertion into the starting lineup. As for No. 1 and No. 1, Fitzpatrick is now minus a handicapping transitory period and Perry's All-America level game is going nowhere, maybe even trending upward depending on how much his partner's success pushes him.
Northwestern is the 31st best team in the nation following its fall campaign, according to both the Sagarin and Golfstat ranking systems. The parts are in place to reach a whole new level in the spring. How high could the Cats climb? Are they a top-20 squad? Top-15? Is it crazy to think of NU as one of the 10 best collegiate golf teams the United States has to offer?
The Cats already played the No. 1 team in the country to a tie over 43 holes. Every starter is potentially trending upward. The team has the motivation to prove itself after not making it to the NCAA Championships last spring. Yes, freak injuries or unexpected regression could pop into the equation at some point, after all this is golf--the hardest game to master--we're talking about.
But if things remain on the rails, spring 2014 could be a special time for NU.
This may not just be a team that is NCAA Championships bound. This may be a squad with a legitimate shot to win it all.