2004 Men's Golf Preview
MANHATTAN, Kan. -- Don't look now, but the 2003-04 Kansas State men's golf team may be the best in the history of the program.
The sky is the limit for the Wildcats as they return every member of last year's squad which set new marks, including K-State's best finish (tied for 6th) in the eight-year history of the Big 12 Conference and qualifying for the NCAA Regionals for the first time since 1993.
The Wildcats have opened their 2003-04 campaign on a blistering pace. K-State placed in the top five in all five of its fall tournaments, including a record-breaking team title at the Nestle Purina Classic at Missouri Bluffs Golf Course in St. Charles, Mo.
While most teams were still sorting out their lineups and trying to get into a rhythm, the Wildcats came out of the gates blazing. The squad broke every team record at the Purina Classic and rewrote the school's record book.
K-State decimated the competition, en route to firing a 54-hole school-and tournament-record 830 (277-265-285), smashing the previous school record of 855. The Wildcats annihilated the rest of the field and won the Classic by 16 strokes over Texas-San Antonio.
The course was there for the taking and the Wildcats took advantage of the conditions, as three golfers broke the previous school record for the lowest three-round score (210) in tournament history.
Junior Matt Van Cleave, a native of Maryville, Mo., led the charge for the Wildcats as he took home the first tournament title of his career after firing a tournament-and school-record 70-67-65-202 to finish at 11-under-par.
Also breaking the previous mark of 210 were sophomore Ben Kern and senior co-captain Tim Moody, as each carded 209 to finish in a tie for fifth. Senior co-captain Aaron Watkins of Mesa, Ariz., also shot a 71-65-74-210 to tie his previous school record of 210, set back in 2001 at the Baylor Intercollegiate.
The pair of 65s shot by Van Cleave and Watkins were the second lowest one-round scores in K-State history, one-stroke behind the school record of 64 fired by Matt Williams in 2001.
With such a record breaking start to the season, the Wildcats know that they have high expectations after just missing the NCAA Championships by one-stroke and are eager to take their game to The Homestead in Hot Springs, Va., site of the 2004 NCAA Men's Golf Championships.
"I think we do have a sense of urgency to get back to regionals," Head Coach Tim Norris said. "Missing out by a stroke was not a negative when it had been the first time our team had gone to the regionals in 10 years.
"It's not like we've been a fixture in the regionals every year, but I do think that our performance in the last round has been with them throughout the summer, and obviously we need to get off the bubble. It would have really been a success if we had made it to Stillwater, Okla. (for the 2003 NCAA National Championships), but I was proud of the effort. And, that will carry over into this year, if we keep making an effort like that."
Much of the credit for the turnaround of the program is due to the tireless efforts of Norris. He has taken the golf program from the depths of the Big 12 and has molded it into a prominent contender, not only in the conference, but also on the national stage. He has assembled one of the deepest and most experienced squads in the country. It will be a weekly battle to see who gets to travel as a member of the top five or as an individual.
The Wildcats have the experience and the depth to take them to a whole new level and to challenge the nation's best. Watkins, K-State's top returnee, was the Wildcats' top player last year as he paced the team with a team-best stroke average of 73.4 and also won medalist honors at the 2002 Jim Colbert Intercollegiate. The senior hasn't missed a beat this fall season, garnering four top-10 and three top-5 finishes in five tournaments. Last season, Watkins led the way for the Wildcats in eight out of 14 events played, posting nine top-20 finishes.
"He's definitely one of our all-time greats," Norris said of Watkins. "I think he has established himself as a very, very good player in this part of the country and now he has a chance to establish himself on a national level. If he continues to improve he will have another great year."
Over the summer, Watkins picked up right where he left off and qualified for his second consecutive U.S. Amateur. Joining Watkins at the U.S. Amateur was sophomore Josh Persons, who put together a stellar showing as he advanced out of stroke play and made it all the way to the round of 32.
The Fargo, N.D., native is looking to add to his resume after an impressive freshman campaign where he competed in all 14 tournaments. He began his 2003-04 season with a bang, finishing in a tie for fourth at the Badger Invitational.
Watkins shares captain duties with seniors A.J. Elgert and Tim Moody. Elgert brings a great deal of leadership to this veteran-laden squad, after competing in all but one tournament last season. Elgert has had a consistent start to the 2003-04 season and has been a mainstay on the squad, competing in all five of the Wildcats' tournaments.
Moody will look to contribute more on this season's squad after having a comeback year last season. The Lindstrom, Minn., native has already made a statement and showed the rest of the team that he will challenge for one of the five traveling spots after a strong fifth-place showing at the Purina Classic, where he competed as an individual. Moody parlayed his strong showing at the Purina into a spot in the Wildcats’ lineup at the Duke Golf Classic. Moody didn’t disappoint as he fired 224 to tie for 27th with Aaron Watkins.
Van Cleave already has one victory on the season and has finished in the top 10 at all five tournaments during the fall. He has continued to build on his 16th-place finish at the Big 12 Conference Championships in 2002-03.
Senior Greg Douglas and sophomore Ben Kern will also battle for traveling spots and will each make a significant contribution to this year's squad. Douglas, who played in every tournament last season, has gotten off to a slow start and is still trying to get back to his form of last spring, when he finished in a tie for 33rd at the NCAA Central Regional.
Kern had a terrific summer, taking second place honors at the Arizona Amateur. He won the stroke portion of the event and advanced all the way to the finals of match play, where he fell 3-and-2. Kern got a huge boost after finishing in a tie for ninth at the Colbert Intercollegiate and showed everyone it wasn't a fluke, by firing a 4-under par 209 to finish tied for fifth at the Purina Classic. Kern capped the fall portion of the schedule at the Duke Golf Classic, where he shot a 73-73-74220 to lead all Wildcats and finish in 14th.
Rounding out the list of five seniors is Bryan Schweizer. Schweizer, the Kansas Public Links Champion in 2000, will bring a great deal of experience to an already experienced team. The Burlington, Iowa, native has competed in two Big 12 Championships. Schweizer made his season debut at the Colbert Intercollegiate where he posted a 79-75154 to tie for 31st. Rounding out the Wildcats’ roster is sophomore Jimmy Dietz. Dietz participated in three tournaments last season as a redshirt freshman. Dietz opened up his 2003-04 campaign competing as an individual at the Jim Colbert Intercollegiate, where he fired a 154 to tie for 31st.
Senior Nick Schumacher and junior Jonathan James have elected to redshirt the 2003-04 season.
"Both Jonathan and Nick have outstanding practice habits and lofty goals. Their talents will be needed to replace the five seniors who will have exhausted their eligibility after this season," Norris said.
All of their success on the links has propelled the Wildcats into the national polls, where they are ranked among the top-20 teams in both Golfweek/Sagarin and Golfstat rankings.
The polls have noticed that the Wildcats are taking on all comers and aren't pumping up their record versus less than par competition. In order for the Wildcats to improve their program and remain nationally ranked, they bolstered their schedule.
The Wildcats' 2003-04 slate is loaded with several of last year's NCAA Regional teams and presents a new challenge to the squad as they compete at unfamiliar courses. But, the courses will bring a new challenge and excitement to the program.
"We have four golf courses (in the spring) that we will be going to for the first time," Norris said. "I know that playing new courses adds to the anticipation and it puts an importance on the practice round and our preparation once we get to the site. As a golfer, you look forward to going to new places."
The Wildcats will be testing the grounds for the first time at four of the six regular season tournaments in the spring. Those tournaments include the first three of the spring season, with visits to the Matlock Collegiate Classic in Lakeland, Fla., the Beau Chene Collegiate Classic in Mandeville, La., and the Coastal Carolina Invitational in Myrtle Beach, S.C.
K-State will also travel to Hutchinson, Kan., for the 2004 Big 12 Championships, where they will look to improve off of a school-best sixth-place finish last season. K-State will host the championship, which will take place at Prairie Dunes, which will host its seventh conference championship in the eight-year history of the Big 12.
The tournament that may be the most vital for K-State is the Boilermaker Invitational, held at Purdue's Kampen Golf Course in West Lafayette, Ind.
Kampen will host the 2004 NCAA Central Regional, a place K-State has had marked on its calendar, ever since last year's near miss at regionals.
"It gives us a chance to play at the site of the regional tournament, one month before regionals and we couldn't pass it up," Norris said.
The Wildcats were so close to nationals last spring that they could almost taste it.
And, with the combination of a very talented squad mixed in with the hunger and desire to get back to NCAAs, it makes K-State a national force to be reckoned with.