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 mens golf team may prove to be the best in the programs 70-year history – with the ultimate goal of claiming the programs first NCAA tournament bid since 1966.
“Its 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 going out and shooting 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 Dames talented returnees 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 1998 fall tournaments to average a stellar 298.85 strokes per count-four team score. Despite that overall success, moments of inconsistency caused the Irish to finish seventh at the 24-team Air Force Invitational and eighth at the 18-team Legends of Indiana Intercollegiate, while Kents medalist finish paced the teams 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 head into the spring semester 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 in 1998 at the TPC Avenel Course in Bethesda, Md. “I know we will have another great spring, but to make the NCAAs we need to have even better positioning coming out of the fall season.”
In addition to the five regulars from last fall, Notre Dames 1998-99 roster includes five other golfers who could emerge as contributors in the spring and will look for expanded roles next season following the graduation of Hardin and Kent. Junior Bo Plummer (Louisville, Ky.) and sophomores Adam Anderson (Plankinton, S.D.) and Pat Schaffler (Dallas, Texas) have returned to the program from the 96-97 squad while Steve Ratay (Arlington Hts, Ill.) and Chris Whitten (Rockford, Mich.) join Monfort to form a talented freshman threesome.
Hardin has done a solid job helping to lead the veteran Irish squad in 1998-99 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.
“Brads mind is clearer now that he has his medical school tests out of the way,” says Thomas. “Hes refined his swing and also has worked to improve his special shots around the green and in windy conditions. Ive also been very pleased with the leadership shown by Brad, as well as Todd Vernon. They have shown the younger players what it takes to be successful in college golf, and the foundation of that success is built on hard work on a daily basis.”
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. He also went on to claim a runner-up finish at the BIG EAST Championship, with a six-over 148.
“Whats 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 wasnt target-oriented enough,” says Thomas of the player who keeps his teammates loose due to his free spirit. “But Willies ready to make his move. Hes 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 (LaCrosse, Wis.) 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 because of his successful summer,” 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. A disappointing fall (77.00 average) has only fueled the junior captains intense drive to excel.
“Todd is one of the most focused and conscientious players Ive been around and he can face any challenge head on,” says Thomas. “Todd has such an awesome all-around game that Im not even worried about him. Hes going to play some great golf for us this year.”
Monfort solidified his spot with a stunning final-round 68 at the Legends of Indiana, equaling the lowest tournament round by an Irish golfer in 20 years. He later tied Connell for 14th at Louisville and took fourth at the BIG EAST, yielding a team-best 74.77 fall stroke average.
Three returnees and two other newcomers also could play their way into the starting lineup this spring, led by Plummer and Ratay. The hard-working Plummer is known for his strong short game, as is Ratay-who regularly shot under 70 at Blackthorn Golf Club during fall practice rounds.
Second-year players Anderson and Schaffler and newcomer Whitten round out the deeply talented 1998-99 Irish squad, which includes players who hail from 10 different states or countries.
“Ive never been around a group of golfers with as much talent and work ethic as this group has,” concludes 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.”
Academics Job One
The Notre Dame mens golf program continues to excel in the classroom as well as on the golf links.
· The mens golf team’s posted a 3.29 team grade-point average in the 1998 fall semester. The Irish mens golf program held a 3.30 cumulative team GPA at the end of the ’98 fall semester.
· Members of the 1997-98 Irish golf team combined for 13 Dean’s List semesters (3.4 grade-point average or higher), including three players who made the Dean’s List in both the fall of ’97 and the spring of ’98. The returning players who turned in Dean’s List semesters in ’97-’98 are senior Brad Hardin (both semesters), junior Jeff Connell (spring of 98) and sophomore Adam Anderson (spring of 98). Three current players-Hardin, Connell and freshman Steve Ratay-made the Deans List in the 1998 fall semester.
· 1998 graduate Bryan Weeks and current senior Brad Hardin were two of 126 players in the nation named to the 1997-98 Golf Coaches Association of America All-Academic Scholar Team. Notre Dame was one of eight mens golf programs in the nation with multiple players on the All-Academic Scholar Team.
· Hardin and Connell are Academic All-America candidates for the 98-99 season. Hardin-who is headed for the Indiana University School of Medicine following graduation-has posted seven Deans List semesters in his first three-plus years at Notre Dame and owns a 3.68 cumulative GPA as a pre-professional science major. Connell, who posted a perfect 4.0 semester in the spring of 97, owns five Deans List semesters and a 3.72 cumulative GPA as an accounting major.
· Hardin and Connell are two of 28 current Notre Dame students-athletes involved in the Academic Honors program, which pairs high-achieving student-athletes with faculty member mentors.