Seniors Scott Gustafson (left), Tommy Balderston (center), Mark Baldwin (right) and Eric Deutsch (not pictured) leave Notre Dame having helped lead the Irish to three BIG EAST titles and three NCAA regional appearances in their four-year careers. <i>(photo by Chris Masters)</i>

Men's Golf Saves Best For Last, Finishing 17th At NCAA East Regional

May 20, 2006


ORLANDO – Showing the grit and determination that has made the 2005-06 season one of the most successful in school history, the Notre Dame men’s golf team posted its best score of the three-day NCAA East Regional with a final-round 289 (+1) on Saturday, finishing 17th in the 27-team field at the Lake Nona Golf & Country Club (par 72/7,179 yards) in Orlando. The Irish wrapped up their third consecutive NCAA regional appearance (and 33rd postseason visit in program history) at 33-over par 897 (300-308-289), placing almost exactly where they had been seeded (16th) at the start of the competition.

“While our final spot in the standings and our performance on the first two days was disappointing, I was very proud of the way our guys handled themselves today, playing like champions in the true spirit of Notre Dame,” Irish head coach Jim Kubinski said. “It’s certainly not the way we wanted our season to end, but I think we’re building something special here and the future is very bright for our program.”

The top 10 teams at this weekend’s regional have advanced to the 30-team NCAA Championships, along with the top two individuals not on those clubs. In the East Regional, the qualifying teams were (in order of finish): Wake Forest, Georgia, Texas Tech, North Carolina, Coastal Carolina, Charlotte, UCLA, Auburn, South Carolina and UNLV. In addition, USC’s Taylor Wood and Tennessee Tech’s Scott Stallings claimed the individual berths for the NCAA finals, which will be held May 31-June 3 in Sunriver, Ore.

Notre Dame’s third-round 289 is its second-best single-round score ever in an NCAA postseason event, and best ever on a par-72 course. It also continues a recent trend of Irish success in the final round of NCAA regional competition, as Notre Dame shot a 282 to close last year’s NCAA Central Regional on its own par-70 Warren Golf Course in South Bend.

Individually, junior tri-captain Cole Isban (South Bend, Ind./Mishawaka Marian) was the top Irish finisher, doing his best to erase the memory of two difficult rounds with a sizzling final-round 68 to move up to a 52nd-place tie at eight-over par 224 (79-77-68). Isban’s third-round 68, which featured six birdies and only 24 putts, tied the school’s 18-hole record for NCAA postseason play and set a new mark with relation to par — current senior Eric Deutsch (Rochester, Minn./Lourdes) shot a two-under 68 in last year’s third round in South Bend.

Freshman Josh Sandman (Greensboro, N.C./Southeast Guilford) was one stroke behind his teammate Isban in a tie for 59th place at nine-over par 225 (75-77-73). Saturday’s circuit was another adventurous round for the Irish rookie, who carded two birdies and an eagle at the par-five 11th hole (one of only three recorded in the course of the three-day regional), but closed out with a bogey at No. 17 and a double bogey on the 18th after his approach shot barely skipped off the left fringe of the green and took an unlucky bounce behind a small wooden retaining board near a hazard.

“It says a lot about where our program is heading when our top two scorers in this final round were underclassmen,” Kubinski said. “Cole showed great mental toughness to shake off those two tough rounds on Thursday and Friday and come back strong today. And I can’t say enough about what Josh has given us, not only this weekend at the regional, but during the past two months since he joined our lineup. I’m very excited about what these two guys will bring back to the table next season.”

Senior tri-captain Mark Baldwin (Laconia, N.H./New Hampton Prep) wrapped up his college career on Saturday in a tie for 68th place with a 10-over par 226 (75-79-72). The veteran collected four birdies in his final round and was poised to end his Irish tenure in red numbers before his par putt on No. 18 lipped out and brought him back to level ground for the day. Like Baldwin, senior tri-captain Scott Gustafson (Eden Prairie, Minn./Eden Prairie) ended his career this weekend, tying for 82nd place at 13-over par 229 (72-77-80). A third Irish senior, Tommy Balderston (Boca Raton, Fla./St. Andrews) also put the cap on his college tenure in a 95th-place tie at 15-over par 231 (78-77-76).

For the season, the Irish posted a school-record 292.97 stroke average, shattering the old mark by more than five shots (298.29 in 1999-2000). Notre Dame now has logged two of the top six seasonal stroke averages in school history since Kubinski arrived on campus in January 2005. What’s more, for the first time in the 77-year history of the program, the Irish had four players finish the season with stroke averages under 74.00 — Isban (school-record 72.97), Baldwin (73.17), Sandman (73.40) and Gustafson (73.53). In fact, before this year, Notre Dame had never even had three players shoot better than 75.32 in a season (1999-2000).

Additionally, the Irish tacked on seven more victories over Golfweek Top 25 opponents this season, giving them 12 wins over ranked teams in Kubinski’s tenure. And, Notre Dame carded six of the top 10 single-round scores in school history during the 2005-06 campaign, including a school-record 272 (-16) during the final round of the BIG EAST Championship, highlighting a stirring 12-stroke comeback that led to the Irish winning their consecutive league title (and sixth in the past 11 years).

Notre Dame’s four graduating seniors — Balderston, Baldwin, Deutsch and Gustafson — also will leave with the knowledge that they have helped shepherd the program the next step on its journey back to the national prominence the Irish enjoyed so much from 1930-66. During their four-year career, that quartet played a vital role in not only three straight BIG EAST Championships (2004-06), but three NCAA regional berths — the first for Notre Dame since the 1966 NCAA Championships — as well as five tournament titles (two in sudden death playoffs) and four of the top 10 single-season stroke averages in school history. All four players also earned all-BIG EAST accolades at least once in their time at Notre Dame, with Baldwin becoming the first golfer in school history to garner that distinction three times (including medalist honors in 2005).

“It would take a week to even begin to consider all the contributions these seniors have made to this program during the past four years,” Kubinski said. “They had a difficult challenge to adjust to a coaching change in the middle of their college careers, but each of them handled it with incredible maturity and class. In the coming years, when our program is back as a regular contender for national championships, we will look back and remember how much these guys laid the foundation for those that follow them. We’re grateful for all they have contributed and we’ll miss them tremendously.”

Meanwhile, Isban and Sandman will form the core of next year’s Notre Dame squad. Isban is the current career stroke average leader for the Irish at 74.10, more than one-third of a shot clear of second-place Charles Thurn (74.43 from 1956-58). Sandman’s 73.40 mark as a freshman was not only fifth-best in school history, but also came in just five tournaments, all in the final two months of the season after he missed much of the season with a nagging back injury. Other returning veterans for the Irish will be rising seniors Adam Gifford (79.00 in 2005-06) and Shane Sigsbee (did not play this year), along with juniors-to-be Mike King (75.95), Eddie Peckels (73.33) and Greg Rodgers (76.73). In addition, Notre Dame will be joined by at least two incoming freshmen — Doug Fortner (Tustin, Calif.) and Kyle Willis (Lake Forest, Ill.) — with an announcement on additional new players forthcoming.

— ND —