Chris Whitten’s job has not been easy this year.

The Michigan men’s golf coach lost Lion Kim — the Wolverines’ top scorer of the 2010-11 season, and a Masters participant, to boot — and fellow senior Alexander Sitompul to graduation, while Joey Garber — last season’s freshman standout who started every tournament last year and was third on the team in scoring average — transferred to the University of Georgia.

Whitten’s had to face all of this, while also learning the ropes as a first-year head coach.

Andrew Sapp, Michigan’s former coach, left after last season to coach the University of North Carolina men’s team.

“It’s been a struggle on the course, but at the same time there’s been change for everybody,” Whitten said. “Even though I was the assistant (under Sapp) for five years, I thought there were some certain things I needed to emphasize with the culture of the team, the attitude of the team.”

In the face of adversity, Whitten has looked to his lone senior, Matt Thompson, for leadership on and off the course.

“Having Matt on the team really makes things a lot easier, because he’s such a leader on the course and with the guys,” Whitten said. “They can all see what he does at home and (they can) see why he plays so well at the events.”

Two weeks ago, Thompson contributed a stellar 10-under performance for Michigan at the Furman Intercollegiate, finishing in second place for the 54-hole event — his third top-two finish of the year. He led the Wolverines to a 16th-place finish overall.

But this week, Thompson finished at six-over-par and 20th individually at the LSU Intercollegiate in Baton Rouge, La.

“(On Saturday), I was fighting all day to put everything together,” Thompson said. “Every time I thought I was climbing back into it, I would make another bogey. I just couldn’t really get into a rhythm.”

Thompson fared better on Sunday, shooting an even-par 72, even after bogeying his final three holes.

“(Matt) maybe tried to force it a little bit,” Whitten said. “(However), he’s such a good player that he can make those decisions. He had a green light and it just didn’t work out this time, but that doesn’t really reflect where his game is at. He’s still playing really well.

“We don’t talk too much about the results, we talk more about the process, just getting prepared.”

After a steady first half of the year for the Wolverines — a period where Thompson finished in the top-10 three times, including a victory at the Windon Memorial Classic in mid-October — the spring season has seen them precipitously drop out of NCAA contention. If Michigan wants to extend its four-year NCAA Regional streak, it’ll have to win the Big Ten Championships in French Lick, Ind. in four weeks to receive the automatic bid.

“Every guy on the team knows that (the Big Ten Championships) is the most important tournament of the year,” Whitten said. “Everyone is capable of playing much better than they have so far.”

The Wolverines will have to play better than they did in Louisiana this weekend, where the team finished in a tie for tenth with a three-round total of 907 (+43).

“I’d say, overall, our performance (this weekend) was well below expectations,” Whitten said. “We’re learning new things every week, but we’ve still got a lot of things to get better at.”

Whitten is still optimistic that his players will have an opportunity to play at their home course — the site of the NCAA Regional — in May.

“I don’t think there’s any reason that we can’t go into (Big Tens) with high expectations,” Whitten said. “We’re hoping to do something special.”

If optimism isn’t enough, Whitten should find solace that Sapp, who also struggled in his inaugural season as head coach at Michigan, found success at the year-end conference tournament.

During the 2002-03 regular season, Sapp’s first, the Wolverines didn’t place better than ninth in any tournament. But at the Big Ten Championships in Bloomington, where they were seeded last, they finished in eighth. In the second round, they tallied their best team total (285) for a single round all season.

By 2008, Sapp had led Michigan to its first NCAA Regional in eight years. In 2009 — Thompson’s freshman season — the team made it to the Final Four, losing to eventual champion Texas A&M in the semifinals. Thompson’s sophomore and junior seasons saw similar results. The Wolverines made it to the NCAA Regional each year, winning the Central Regional last season.

“It’s been difficult, especially after my first three years — where we’ve been and where we came from,” Thompson said. “Nobody likes to lose.”

With roster attrition and a first-year coach, sustaining its past success on the course has proven to be easier said than done for the Michigan men’s team. But Thompson is confident in the coaching staff moving forward, even if the Wolverines fail to reach their fifth-straight NCAA Regional.

Whitten is also staying positive about the future.

“I think we’ve laid some pretty good groundwork here,” Whitten said. “I think everything we’re doing now puts us into position to have a lot of sustainable success going forward.”

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