Feb. 16, 2015
NOTRE DAME, Ind. – Battling through competitive trials and tribulations are necessary circumstances that every team, whether in athletics, business or any venture, are confronted with. Following a 2014 fall season that saw its share of highs mixed with lows, the University of Notre Dame men’s golf team is ready to turn the page in the spring of 2015.
Following a near four-month competitive tournament hiatus as the seasons changed from fall into winter, the Irish are primed to return to the course on Feb. 23-24 at the Jones Invitational at the Valencia Country Club in Los Angeles, California. The middle season gap always provides a needed break from the rigors of tournament golf, but for Notre Dame, this midway point truly came at the perfect time.
“For us this year (the break) was critical,” Notre Dame head coach Jim Kubinski said. “Many years you end the fall playing well, one year we won out in the Pebble Beach area (2010 Saint Mary’s Invitational) and said we wished we were playing the next week. This year’s team opened with the tune up event in August (Notre Dame Kickoff Challenge) with two great scores of 280-281, I thought the team was playing great.”
After a tie for 10th place at the Minnesota Gopher Invitational on Sept. 7-8, Notre Dame would again find its groove early at the Windon Memorial Classic (Sept. 21-22) and its own Fighting Irish Golf Classic (Sept. 28-30) before adversity struck in each event.
“We went to Northwestern and in the middle 36 holes we were second to only California, and we opened with the lead at our home event after the first day,” Kubinski said. “In each case we dropped places in the field during those two events, and coming in playing at the Rod Myers Invitational at Duke (Oct. 11-12) and the Bridgestone Golf Collegiate in Greensboro (Oct. 25-26) we were really struggling as a team. I think we lost some confidence and a number of different things came up for the team, each player had some things he needed to work on.”
Taking a step back to decompress, Kubinski believes, was exactly what the team needed to refocus its collective direction.
“To have this break after Greensboro and be able to get to work, pretty much to a man I have seen tangible improvements from our guys,” Kubinski said. “These three months were a chance to work on some things, we have gotten some help from sports psychologist Dr. Rob Bell and he has done a great job. This was a time to take care of those things, and I think right now our confidence is as high as it was after our initial event in August heading out to Los Angeles.”
The physical side of the game, the swings, the putts, the flush shots, the miss-hits, are all visible actions in the eyes of an observer. Too often, even players themselves do not properly identify the mental edge needed for success on the golf course. Solving those problems first was where Kubinski and assistant coach Scott Gump formulated their plan of attack.
“Except for the highest ranked players in the country, the very top players and cream of the crop in college golf, most players for most teams are what I call “testing” players almost on a daily basis,” Kubinski said. “They are looking for signs that they are either good or they are struggling. The top players have built up enough experiences and results that they aren’t doing that as much, but many guys do that. We spend most of our time working on the mental side of the game and making these guys realize they are really good players.”
Trying to keep the mental game in top shape, even for the best players on the highest levels, is not always easy.
“Even on the professional tours every golfer is going to struggle, and that doesn’t mean it should bring your confidence down so precipitously,” Kubinski said. “The name of the game is that there is no question we will work on swings and skills like that, but 80 percent of our job is working with the guys in not only their mental approach to course management but also emotional maturity. How things bother them, how they’re going to react.
“Dr. Bell has talked to the team and said that, “It’s not the setback, it’s about the comeback,” Kubinski added. “That’s what we had to learn this fall in coming back from those nine and 18 holes where we didn’t play well, be able to put a stop to them and move on rather than carrying them through an event. I think we have made great strides in that way.”
Even in the face of results that erred on the side of unfavorable, the Notre Dame roster saw many individual accomplishments achieved by a variety of players last fall. Senior Patrick Grahek earned co-medalist honors for the first time in his career at the Notre Dame Kickoff Challenge, junior Cory Sciupider (FIGC) and sophomore leading scorer Matthew Rushton (Rod Myers Invitational) each posted runner-up results. Freshman Thomas Steve even picked up a top 10 (eighth place) in his first career Fighting Irish Golf Classic start during a solid opening fall season.
Moving forward while emulating aspects of past top performances is what Kubinski feels can help bring a number of the younger players along on their respective journeys.
“Guys like (sophomores) Blake Barens and Liam Cox look at Matt and Thomas and say hey, I practice with these guys every day and I beat them a good number of times, so I know I can have that success,” Kubinski said. “That’s important that they can look at their classmates and teammates and have those feelings. We had Patrick win the mini event to start the season with some great play, shooting 67-69 at the Warren, but we had two other players nearly win tournaments and post runner-ups as well with Matt down at Duke and Cory at the home tournament.
“In a five-tournament stretch we had one win and two runner-up finishes for some strong individual performances to build on. I think there is a lot of optimism because of those things.”
Notre Dame will undertake a noticeable national schedule during its spring campaign, opening in Los Angeles before making a second straight cross country trip over the semester break. Appearances at the Lamkin San Diego Classic (March 9-10) in California and the Talis Park Challenge (March 15-16) in Naples, Florida, set the stage for the regular season finale at the Mason Rudolph Invitational (April 3-5) in Nashville, Tennessee.
Mixing in familiar stops while continuing to broaden the program reach will serve a two-way purpose for Notre Dame. The Irish return to a pair of courses in the San Diego Country Club and Talis Park Golf Club where they rose above a team-wide illness to post respectable scores just one year ago, while the new tournaments on the docket will help grow the Notre Dame brand nationally.
“One of the great challenges in college golf is that all of the teams have to learn the course in typically one afternoon practice round and go compete, when on the PGA Tour you can have two or three days and even draw on past experiences from playing there,” Kubinski said. “It’s big for us to go out to LA, a new event for us, and we don’t typically get to the West Coast without the break period because it is difficult to get back for classes. To go back to San Diego and Naples over the break, we will have three or four returning players who are going back to those sites.
“It is really important to both know the golf course and have a comfort level, and quite honestly last year at San Diego we had a great chance at a top five finish,” he added. “Three guys battled through food poisoning and we didn’t finish as strong. That wore us down, but we then went to Naples and were second going into the final round there and didn’t finish it off.”
Fighting through both illness and fatigue, Notre Dame posted a seventh place finish at the Lamkin San Diego Classic and a fifth place result at Talis Park in 2014. With a handful of returning players that became tournament tested at both sites under uncommon circumstances, Kubinski thinks those two events in particular could be flashpoints to showcase his team’s growth in 2015.
“Some of the courses we have played in the past, the starters will go back with some good feelings because in neither of those events did we really struggle with the course or field,” Kubinski said. “There is a lot of optimism about our schedule, the improvements we have made the last three months and there are good feelings as we are ready to look forward and not back. That’s an important step for this team.”
— Tony Jones, Media Relations Assistant