The Wisconsin men’s golf team will begin postseason play May 2 as the 11-seed in the 2014 Big Ten Match Play Championship.
Despite a 41-67-1 season full of adversity and frustrating growing pains, head coach Michael Burcin said at his press conference Monday he still believes the Badgers can perform well at the Big Ten Championship. He said is possible if the two younger players at the bottom of the lineup can match the consistent, quality play that the three top Badger golfers have been providing all season.
“If we just get a little bit of help in those last two spots, I don’t see how we wouldn’t have a good a week,” Burcin said. “We’ve got to take a little bit of the load off those three guys. That’s really important for us.”
The “three guys” carrying the Badgers this year have been redshirt seniors, Zach Balit, Robert Jacobsen and Jack Watson.
Balit was a former walk on at South Carolina and followed Burcin to Wisconsin when he left his position as assistant coach at South Carolina to become Wisconsin’s head coach in 2011.
Jacobson posted the lowest average round of any Badger this season with 74.16 strokes per 18 holes. Not far behind Jacobson, Watson posted an average round of 74.66 in 2013-2014.
Burcin said the Badgers would be ready to compete nationally if the entire team rose up to the level that his three fifth-year seniors have been playing at all season.
“Week in and week out those guys have done a great job and they’ve put us in position where, with some more help, we could be in the NCAA [tournament] mix,” Burcin said in regards to his team’s potential. “Rob, Zach and Jack have done a tremendous job.”
While the top-3 Badgers combine for 15 years of college golf experience, the bottom two players in the lineup have mostly been true freshmen. Despite having shown themselves to be promising talents, they still need to make the full adjustment to Big Ten play. But Burcin said the improvement they have made thus far has encouraged him.
“I think they are all pretty frustrated with how they’ve played, but they have gotten so much better,” Burcin said of his first-year golfers. “They’re eager to work and they’re excited to come to practice every day.”
That group includes Richard Hubbard, a freshman who came to Madison highly touted and with big expectations. Qualifying for the 2012 United States Amateur Championship, both Burcin and Hubbard envisioned a lot of immediate success for him in Madison. But injuries have been the source of a disappointing season.
“Richard came in. He was a top-30 kid in the country, expected to do a lot, and he got hurt early. So he really didn’t get off to a good start and hasn’t really recovered from that,” Burcin said. “The kid was recruited by everybody, and he thought he was going to come in and just beat up on everybody, and it just worked out like that.”
Come tournament time, the young Badgers’ abilities to battle adversity and get better through learning from this season’s struggles will be put to the test as Wisconsin will need all five of its golfers to put forth stellar efforts to finish toward the top of the standings in French Lick, Ind.
With the team’s top performers, Balit, Watson and Jacobson, not returning next fall, the continued improvement of underclassmen becomes pivotal for the future of the program as they will be asked to take on much larger roles next season.
“There’s a lot of pressure on those guys to fill those two spots, and that’s a lot to handle,” Burcin said. “Their day’s coming. It is.”
To make the NCAA Golf Championships, the Badgers need to finish first this weekend and pull off a significant upset by taking down the University Illinois, which is ranked 8th nationwide, along with other competitive Big Ten programs.
A finish in the top-half of the conference would be huge for the Badgers and provide them with positive momentum heading into next year. It would serve as a sign of great things ahead for the young golfers returning and allow Burcin to take a big step towards helping Wisconsin develop an elite men’s golf program in his third year as head coach.
The Big Ten Men’s Golf Championship begins May 2 in French Lick, Ind. at the Pete Dye Course and concludes May 4. The No.11-seed Badgers kick off the tournament against No.6-seed Minnesota Gophers, with the winner playing No.3-seed Northwestern.