By Michael Kessler, Daily Sports Writer
Published October 8, 2013
Two top-three finishes to start the season for the Michigan men’s golf team was an ideal start, especially coming off a disheartening last season. The talented sophomore duo of Chris O’Neill and Brett McIntosh was off to a fantastic start, leading a young Wolverine squad that looked poised to compete for the Big Ten championship.
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Those expectations haven’t evaporated by any stretch, but a disappointing performance at the Erin Hills Collegiate may give those aspirations a sobering pause. The Wolverines fell back to reality with an eighth-place finish this week in Hartford, Wis., shooting a 29-over-par 893.
Though Michigan started relatively well, shooting its best round of the tournament in the first round and finishing the day in sixth place, it slipped to eighth after a rough second round on Monday that was hampered by strong, gusty winds. Scores across the board spiked in the round, but despite an improved final round, the Wolverines were unable to make up any ground and settled for eighth place in the 14-team field.
“We were capable of better,” said Michigan coach Chris Whitten. “The golf course was challenging and was really penalizing poor shots. This will leave a little bit of a bad taste in our mouths.”
The subpar performance was in part the doing of a strong field, which included highly ranked teams like first-place finisher No. 10 Stanford, runner-up No. 4 UCLA and Oklahoma. Additionally, the recently-opened Erin Hills Golf Course, which will serve as the home for the 2017 U.S. Open, was not easy to navigate. The course was adjusted to be more playable for collegiate competition, but it nonetheless served as a strong test for Michigan’s upcoming events.
“We are going to play very difficult courses in the postseason,” Whitten said. “I think this course is a good preview for the courses we will play in the Big Ten Championships, so it was a really good experience from that perspective.”
O’Neill, the undisputed leader of Michigan’s young squad, led the team once again, shooting a one-over-par 217 that was good for a top-15 individual finish. But O’Neill struggled throughout the event with his wedge and short games, which contributed to his worst individual performance of the season. The rest of the team was unable to pick up the slack, as none of the other four Michigan golfers finished in the top 30.
“I think we turned in a ‘B’ performance,” O’Neill said. “No one really played anything special, just kind of average golf. We have a lot of room to improve after this week.”
Silver linings may have been hard to come by for the Wolverines, but the team still finished second out of the four competing Big Ten teams — ahead of Wisconsin and Michigan State — which bodes well for Michigan’s chances as it hones in on the Big Ten Championships.
“We want to have a very strong Big Ten record, and we want to have a high seed going into the Big Ten Tournament at the end of the year,” Whitten said. “So it’s good to see the Big Ten competition early in the year like this and see how we stack up at this point in the season.”
Additionally, while O’Neill’s scorecard may have ended up better than his performance would indicate, fellow sophomore Brett McIntosh flipped the script. His scoring didn’t stand out, and his best round was a mediocre two over par, but his play on the course showed clear improvements.
“I think Brett had a really good ball-striking week. Probably the best he has all year, and just from a scoring perspective, I don’t think the score showed as well as he played,” Whitten said. “Chris and Brett have different things they need to work on, but there were lots of encouraging things to see out of both of them.”
For a team with just one upperclassman, inconsistency should not come as a surprise, and that inexperience finally reared its head at the Erin Hills Collegiate. But for O’Neill and the rest of the team, one mediocre event doesn’t change expectations going forward.
“As a team goal, we said that we wanted to try and finish in the top three of every event, and this week that wasn’t accomplished,” O’Neill said. “Individually, I feel like this year I have a shot to win every time I tee it up. If I play my best golf, I think I’ll be right there in contention.”
The Wolverines won’t have much time to dwell on their performance, as they will be back in action over fall break Monday in the AutoTrader.com Collegiate Classic.