March 9, 2000
By Pete LaFleur
The fall athletic seasons at Notre Dame have produced countless memorable moments during recent years, with those successes stretching from the football and soccer fields to the volleyball gym and the cross country courses. But for the first time in a long time, the Irish men’s golf team is creating a buzz around the bustling athletic department.
Led by a pair of accomplished seniors, Notre Dame’s unproven five-man starting lineup finished first in three of four events during the 1999 fall season and third in the other, yielding an unprecedented top-25 national ranking and heightened expectations for one of Notre Dame’s most promising athletic programs.
The past two seasons have seen Notre Dame come close to securing the golf program’s first NCAA Championship bid since 1966 (six teams advance from District IV, with the Irish currently ranking fourth), as the Irish had to rally in the spring of ’98 and again in ’99, after sub-par fall performances.
“The only way we could do what we’ve done this fall is through a good team effort and a great practice regimen,” says 12th-year Irish head coach George Thomas. “This is a team with a tremendous work ethic and great shotmaking. They are defined by their hard work and dedication, which is a legacy left by our former players.
“We still have a long way to go in the spring, but it’s nice to have a good fall season under our belt.”
The Irish opened the 1999 fall by winning the 24-team Air Force Invitational with a team-record, three-round score of 878 before tying for first at the 18-team Legends of Indiana Intercollegiate, despite the limited contributions of senior Jeff Connell due to a wrist injury. One week later, the Irish again were in contention before finishing third at the 19-team Xavier Invitational, held at the par-71, 6,808-yard Grizzly Tournament Course. Notre Dame capped the fall by rallying to win the 18-team Louisville Intercollegiate, at the treacherous Persimmon Ridge Golf Club.
As a team, Notre Dame averaged an impressive four-man score of 291.91 during the fall (72.98 per counted score, in the play-five, count-four format), putting the Irish well on pace to best the team record of 298.33 set in 1997-98.
Notre Dame opened the season with the best four-man score (13-over 275) in the program’s history, with senior Todd Vernon shooting a six-under 66 for the best round by a Notre Dame golfer in 37 years. Surprising sophomore Steve Ratay then took the spotlight by winning The Legends of Indiana (with a three-round score of 214) before placing fifth at Xavier (214) and second at Louisville (143).
In addition to the impressive opening round at Air Force, possibly the team’s most noteworthy effort came in the second round at Xavier, when the starting five yielded two 70s, two 71s and a 72.
Notre Dame headed into the summer of 1999 with three open spots in the five-man starting lineup. Seniors Vernon and Connell were the only locks while the Irish faced the tough task of replacing graduates Brad Hardin (74.81 stroke average in ’98-’99) and Willie Kent (74.76). Ratay had some experience as a starter in the spring of ’99, but posted an unspectacular 78.35 stroke average.
The Irish added promising junior Alex Kent-the younger brother of Willie-to the mix. The younger Kent had transferred from Saint Louis University prior to the 1999 spring semester but delayed joining the Irish golf team until the fall of ’99. With Kent stenciled into the lineup, the fourth spot eventually fell to Ratay-who experienced a breakthrough 1999 summer season.
“The mental part is the key and Steve may have been lacking in confidence last spring,” says Thomas. “But he had a complete 180-degree turnaround after proving himself this summer.”
The final piece of the puzzle took the unlikely form of junior Adam Anderson, a native of tiny Plankinton, S.D., who made valuable contributions in the fall of ’99 despite no previous intercollegiate experience. “The fifth man is the key to having a good team and Adam has provided a lot of help and is such a fierce competitor,” says Thomas of Anderson, who averaged a solid 75.73 strokes per round in the fall while factoring into the team score during nine of 11 rounds.
With his starting lineup in place, Thomas and the Irish still faced many unknowns. Ultimately, the team’s work ethic, character and flat-out talent combined to produce a series of stunning results.
“This is the best group of players we’ve ever had in my 12 years, in terms of chemistry,” says Thomas. “Their common purpose is to play better and they get along real well. They realize that it’s a team effort.”
The team’s leadership starts with its captain Vernon, who is one semester shy of completing one of the top careers in the history of Notre Dame men’s golf. Vernon’s 75.48 career stroke average ranks second-best by an Irish golfer since 1970 and he has counted to the team score in nearly 90 percent of his career rounds (76 of 88), despite a junior-year “slump” that yielded a 76.49 average. In the recently-completed fall season, the Englewood, Colo., native turned in his best semester at Notre Dame with a 72.82 average.
If Ratay’s name sounds familiar to the fans of Notre Dame athletics, it’s because he is the cousin of Irish freshman women’s basketball player Alicia Ratay-a highly-touted shooting guard who earned All-America honors at Lake Zurich High School in the Chicago suburbs before being named the unanimous BIG EAST Conference rookie of the year for 1999-2000.
Ratay’s summer included a huge confidence boost at the highly-regarded Western Amateur, when he finished 28th with an even-par total of 288. A few months later, the pride of Arlington Heights, Ill., has fashioned one of the most accomplished runs ever by a Notre Dame golfer, with an eye-popping 71.83 stroke average. He shot 73 or lower in 10 of his 11 fall rounds, including three sub-par scores, and is just the third Notre Dame golfer ever to finish first or second at two tournaments during the same semester. The national GolfStat rankings place him 32nd in all of Division I and third in the competitive Midwest district (IV).
Connell, who hails from LaCrosse, Wis., could prove to be the “x factor” in the spring of 2000. “Jeff is very streaky and unpredictable, but he has a way of surfacing at the right time,” says Thomas of Connell, who owns the third-best career stroke average (75.89) at Notre Dame in the last 30 years and has two career runner-up finishes to his credit (including an Irish-record score of 209).
Kent, a native of Asuncion, Paraguay, also retains a huge upside, even after posting an impressive 74.09 fall stroke average. “Alex is a premier player who has just had some problems with his putting,” says Thomas. “If he awakens this spring, he could really shoot the lights out.”
With the strong fall season behind them and a promising future that includes use of the highly-anticipated Warren Golf Course (located near the northeast corner of campus), the Irish are well aware of the opportunity that lies within their grasp.
“It’s very gratifying to see how well we have played. Before, you would hold your breath and hope to make it through the fall,” says Vernon. “The new course is very exciting and validates everything that we are doing. Now there’s no reason that we can’t be a legitimate contender in the region and even the nation. It’s just the next step in the process.
“Our expectations have gone up. We no longer expect to just play well, we expect to go out and put ourselves in a position to win every week. And you don’t get to that level of confidence easily in the game of golf.”