January 21, 1999
SOUTH BEND, Ind. – In the sport of college golf, teams with four strong players are considered contenders for a top finish every time they take the course. And the rare teams with five strong players in the count-four format should regularly contend for top finishes.
For that reason alone, the 1998-99 Notre Dame men’s golf team may prove to be the best in the program’s 70-year history – with the ultimate goal of claiming the program’s first NCAA tournament bid since 1966.
“It’s safe to say that this group of players is the best assembled at Notre Dame in quite some time,” says 11th-year Irish head coach George Thomas, who returned four starters from the highly successful 1997-98 team, while adding promising freshman Kyle Monfort. “Our goal used to be to go out and shoot 300 with our four-man score, but now we go out trying to shoot 290. The bar has been raised, which is what it will take for this program to get back to the NCAAs.”
Notre Dame’s talented returners include seniors Willie Kent (who transferred from Saint Louis University prior to the 1998 spring semester) and co-captain Brad Hardin, plus the potent junior combination of co-captain Todd Vernon and Jeff Connell. That foursome combined with Monfort over the course of five fall tournaments to average a stellar 298.85 strokes per count-four team score. But still, moments of inconsistencies have caused the Irish to finish seventh at the 24-team Air Force Invitational and eighth at the 18-team Legends of Indiana Intercollegiate, with Kent’s medalist finish pacing the team’s third-place showing at the 12-team Iowa Intercollegiate. The squad then turned in its best effort of the fall by taking second out of 20 teams at the Louisville Intercollegiate before closing the fall with a disappointing runner-up finish at the BIG EAST Championship.
The Irish headed into the Louisville Intercollegiate ranked just 14th in the Midwest district, which will send only six teams to the NCAA regional tournament at the end of the 1998-99 season. Notre Dame used a strong showing in the 1998 spring season to finish 10th in the district for 1997-98, with a subpar fall proving to be its undoing – something Thomas and the Irish hope they have avoided this time around.
“We needed to play very strong at Louisville and at the BIG EAST Championship, which we did for the most part ” says Thomas, a two-time BIG EAST coach of the year whose squad had won three straight BIG EAST titles before failing to catch host Georgetown by three strokes at the TPC Avenel Course in Bethesda, Md.
Hardin has done a solid job helping to lead the veteran Irish squad and is in the midst of the best season of his career, with a 75.39 stroke average and a runner-up finish among 104 golfers at the Louisville Intercollegiate. And before heading off to medical school next fall, the Martinsville, Ind., native may still have his best golf in front of him.
“Brad’s mind is clearer now that he has his medical school tests out of the way,” says Thomas. “He’s refined his swing and also has worked to improve his special shots around the green and in windy conditions. “
Kent, who hails from Asuncion, Paraguay, made a strong impact with the Irish in the spring of 1998, when he led the team with a 74.07 stroke average. His 75.00 average in the fall of ’98 included tying for first at the 66-player Iowa Intercollegiate, after firing a second-round 69 en route to a final score of three-over 216, and he went on to claim a runner-up finish at the BIG EAST Championship.
“What’s scary about Willie from this fall is that he often was not even close to playing at the top of his game. He had been a little too focused on his mechanics and wasn’t target-oriented enough,” says Thomas of the player who keeps his teammates loose due to his free spirit. “But Willie’s ready to make his move. He’s a pure power hitter who can reach just about any par-five in two shots. Sometimes that power can be his undoing, but you better watch out when his game is on because he can put up a low number.”
Connell finished just one shot behind Kent last spring, with a 74.14 average, and his strong summer included a spot in the United States Amateur Championship. He paced the Irish with a 219 at Air Force and averaged 76.00 strokes for the fall.
“Jeff has made strides in his consistency and in not letting emotions control his game, but he may have felt a little extra pressure when the season started,” says Thomas. “But with his strong short game and some enhancements in his swing, Jeff should be right back on track for us.” Vernon won the 1997 BIG EAST title at nearby Blackthorn Golf Club in South Bend, thanks to rounds of 70 and 71 despite tough rain and wind conditions, and he led the Irish for all of 1997-98 with a 74.59 average. And a disappointing fall (77.00 average) has only fueled the junior captain’s intense drive to excel.
“Todd is one of the most focused and conscientious players I’ve ever been around and he can face any challenge head on,” says Thomas. “Todd has such an awesome all-around game that I’m not even worried about him. He’s going to play some great golf for us this year.”
Monfort solidified his spot in the starting five with a stunning final-round 68 at the Legends of Indiana, representing the lowest tournament round by an Irish golfer in 20 years. He went on to tie with Connell for 14th at Louisville and took fourth at the BIG EAST, yielding a team-best 74.77 fll stroke average that could signal Monfort’s role as the final piece to the Irish puzzle.
“I’ve never been around a group of golfers with as much talent and work ethic as this group has,” says Thomas. “Golf is both a simple and complex game at times, so there is no telling what could happen with us this season. But I like the character of this team. And because of that, I like our chances.”