There were many firsts this weekend for the Michigan men’s golf team. First tournament of the season. First tournament for a first-year head coach. With pre-match jitters and undeniable growing pains under the direction of Zach Barlow, the Wolverines looked to break out of a three-year rut and again become a competitive team.
But there’s no denying the struggles Michigan faced in the Windon Memorial Tournament in Illinois on Monday and Tuesday. Ultimately finishing 13 out of 14 teams, the Wolverines recognize their potential and are working on ways of harnessing a “refuse to lose” mindset to be a competitive team this year.
Michigan came out of the gates strong in each of the three rounds, but settled into a lull in the middle of each. Once the Wolverines started digressing, they couldn’t stop the bleeding. Barlow, hired just four months ago, points to the new season and coaching staff as a part of the problem.
“We showed stretches of what our potential could be, but we couldn’t sustain that throughout the entire tournament,” Barlow said. “The sky’s the limit for these guys.”
Barlow’s experience from the well-established Illinois golf team will surely aid him in this process. Over the past decade, he was both an assistant coach and player for the Illini. As an assistant coach Barlow helped the team win five consecutive Big Ten titles, three NCAA regional championships and advance to five straight NCAA finals. Last season, he was a finalist for the Assistant Coach of the Year award.
While their lulls lingered in the rounds longer than desired, the Wolverines’ driving was a highlight for the tournament. Senior and top scorer for the tournament Brent Ito hit almost 70 percent of fairways. His solid driving skills helped him secure an overall score of one-under par, as he birdied a short par five on the 17th hole. While the driving was a strength, Michigan’s Achilles heel for the tournament was its short game.
Both Ito and Barlow think this tournament was reflective of the team’s overall performance both early in this season and last year. Their biggest point of emphasis going forward will be consistency.
“They are as talented as any team I’ve coached,” Barlow said. “I just think today and this week was a microcosm of what they have been struggling with in the past.”
This season is more personal for Ito, as he is five months into recovering from an ankle injury. On Monday, he played 36 holes, a feat challenging for anyone. Ito admits it’s always tough to walk 36 holes. However, after undergoing rehad for his injury over the past five months, he was only able to compete in one tournament this summer.
Ito looks forward to the challenges his senior year holds with a new coaching staff and weighing the possibility of turning pro after graduation. He wants it to be a learning experience.
“Hopefully (the new coaching staff) will be a breath of fresh air,” Ito said. “Practices already feel different. It's more team oriented. He makes practice about finishing a job as a team rather than necessarily getting your two and a half hours of work in.”
As a senior, Ito has turned his focus to what comes next. His ultimate goal is continuing to play after graduation.
“I want to take this last year as an assessment of where I’m at,” Ito said.
If he continues to play as well as he did at the Windon Memorial, there’s no stopping Ito from turning professional shortly after graduation.
Once the Wolverines and coaching staff gets over the hump of the getting-to-know-you stage, Barlow is certain Michigan will find great success.
“My goal is to get to know each one of these guys down to their core,” Barlow said. “Figure out what makes them tick. We will be a much better team and I will be a much better coach once that happens.”