Nov. 4, 2005
By Chris Masters
Throughout the fall, the eyes of the sporting world have been trained on South Bend, as the Notre Dame football team has enjoyed a renaissance under new head coach Charlie Weis. The Irish have conjured up visions of other famous Notre Dame football teams, including the 11 national championship squads that have been the cornerstones of the program’s undeniable national and international appeal.
While the football team’s success has dominated much of the headlines, another Notre Dame team is putting together a rebirth of its own and recalling its own history of success that, like the football program, dates back to the 1930s and includes an NCAA title.
During the past two years, the Irish men’s golf team has begun to climb back into the national spotlight, reaching as high as 12th in the first Golfweek rankings of the 2005 season. Notre Dame also has knocked off nine ranked teams in its last 11 tournaments, winning two BIG EAST Conference championships and advancing to the NCAA Central Regional in each of the past two seasons.
“It’s fantastic to see the way the guys have come together as a team,” second-year head coach Jim Kubinski says. “When I came here, it was hard to measure the dynamics of the group, but the guys have met, and in many cases, exceeded my expectations. Their work ethic has impressed me, as has their commitment to making us a top program.”
At its height, Notre Dame was one of the nation’s elite men’s golf teams, reaching the NCAA Championships 30 times in a 36-year span from 1930-66, with 19 top-10 finishes and 10 appearances in the national top five. The Irish also took home the top prize in college golf in 1944, winning the NCAA title at the famed Inverness Club in Toledo, Ohio. All of these accomplishments came under the guidance of a pair of University priests — Rev. George Holderith, C.S.C., and Rev. Clarence Durbin, C.S.C. — who were responsible for leading Notre Dame to more than 350 wins in dual match or tournament play, as well as 13 Indiana state titles. In addition, they helped tutor 20 All-Americans.
“I’ve always been a huge Notre Dame fan and have followed several of the other Irish teams over the years, specifically baseball and women’s basketball,” Kubinski says. “But after getting a chance to sit down and talk with some of the legends of our program such as Tom Hanlon (a member of the 1944 NCAA title team), I’ve learned how rich our tradition and history is, and how much our former players want to do all they can to help this current group get back to that point again.”
Following its 11th-place finish at the 1966 NCAA Championships, it would be another 38 years before the Irish returned to the national tournament, a hiatus so lengthy that in the interim, the NCAA had established a regional format (27 teams at three sites) with the top 10 teams in each regional advancing to the NCAA Championships. In 2004, after a pair of runner-up finishes at the BIG EAST Championship and several other near-misses in high-profile tournaments, the Irish rallied from four shots back in the final nine holes to win the BIG EAST title and the accompanying berth to the NCAA Central Regional. At the regional, Notre Dame was within striking distance of advancing to the national tournament with two holes left before coming up short. Still, the Irish players had seen the possibilities that existed in the future.
In January 2005, Notre Dame’s charge back to the upper echelon of college golf got another boost when Kubinski was hired after a successful stint as an assistant coach at national power Duke. Combining youthful energy with a steady, disciplined hand and a keen teacher’s eye, Kubinski has pushed the Irish to the proverbial next level. Since his arrival, Notre Dame has finished fifth or better six times, ousting six ranked teams and winning two tournaments including the 2005 BIG EAST Championship that allowed the Irish to play on their home turf, the Warren Golf Course, in the NCAA Central Regional. There, Notre Dame once again came agonizingly close to making the NCAA Championship field, rallying to tie for the final qualification spot with two holes to play before just missing the cut line.
The close calls in NCAA regional play the past two years have stoked the fires for the Irish this season. During its first four fall tournaments, Notre Dame took down three ranked teams (No. 3 Florida, No. 16 Texas and No. 17 Alabama) and post a 292.50 stroke average. If that mark holds up throughout this season, it would obliterate the old school single-season stroke record of 298.29, set back in 1999-2000. During this meteoric rebirth, the Irish also have begun receiving votes in the Golf Coaches Association of America (GCAA)/Bridgestone Top 25 poll, peaking with 36 votes (tied for 33rd place) in early October. In addition to the No. 12 Golfweek computer ranking, the Irish also were as high as 19th in the Golfstat rankings used by the NCAA selection committee.
Senior Mark Baldwin has been a steady force in the Irish lineup. He has finished in the top 30 in eight of his last 10 tournaments and copped medalist honors at the 2005 BIG EAST Championship in leading his squad to the team title and automatic NCAA Championship berth.
The true catalysts for Notre Dame’s play of late have been its upperclassmen, led by seniors Mark Baldwin (Laconia, N.H./New Hampton Prep) and Scott Gustafson (Eden Prairie, Minn./Eden Prairie), as well as junior Cole Isban (South Bend, Ind./Mishawaka Marian). All three golfers are ranked among the top 100 golfers in the nation by Golfweek, combining for 13 top-five finishes and 23 top-10 placements.
Baldwin struggled for much of his first two seasons at Notre Dame, enduring health problems as well as dealing with swing changes. However, once he returned to 100 percent, Baldwin has been a steady force atop the Irish lineup, posting a career-best 71.89 stroke average this fall, which is more than a shot lower than the school record for a season. Baldwin also has finished in the top 30 in eight of his last 10 tournaments, peaking at the ’05 BIG EAST Championship where he earned medalist honors. In addition, Baldwin broke the Warren Golf Course record with a 63 (-7) during the first round of a dual match with 11th-ranked TCU last April.
Meanwhile, Gustafson played a major role in Notre Dame’s growth during his first two years, registering 11 team-leading finishes and seeing 61 of his 67 rounds count toward the team score. Then, his development was abruptly cut short last fall, when he suffered an arm injury in an automobile accident. It took more than a year before Gustafson’s familiar confident swing returned, the one that yielded a 74.61 stroke average his first two years. This fall, that swagger has been back in spades, as Gustafson has a 72.17 average with three top-10 finishes in four events.
Isban came to Notre Dame as a two-time prep All-American who was ranked in the top 25 in the nation as a high school senior. Since joining the Irish, Isban has lived up to his reputation, carding a 74.39 career stroke average that currently stands as the best lifetime mark in school history. He has nine top-10 finishes to his credit, has started 29 of a possible 30 tournaments in his career (as of Oct. 24), and has seen more than 91 percent of his collegiate rounds (75 of 82) count to the team score.
“All three of those guys have really stepped up and led this team in all areas,” Kubinski says. “They’re all having an All-America caliber season so far and if we can get some of our other guys up there as well, we have a chance to be very good this spring.”
However, for as much as Notre Dame has enjoyed the beginnings of its return to prominence, Kubinski understands much work still lies ahead if the Irish are to return to the top of college golf’s mountain.
“My goal is see our program be the best in the nation, both on the golf course and in the classroom,” he says. “That’s not an unrealistic goal and we’re not very far from seeing it happen right now. The support we’ve gotten from our administration, especially (athletics director) Kevin White, has been outstanding, and the fact that we’re now fully funded in terms of scholarships is a major step forward. It’s been a real pleasure getting to know the players and the Notre Dame community during the past year, and I’m confident the future is exceptionally bright for Irish golf.”