Photo by Andrew Campbell
Photo by Andrew Campbell
Courtesy of the Western Golf Association
Photo courtesy of Athletics Media Services
Luke Donald lay sprawled out on the floor of his Minnesota hotel room moaning and grunting while stretching his aching back.
"So tell me," Donald (WCAS01) asked his roommate breathlessly in his diluted British accent. "How does it feel to know that you're rooming with the national champion?"
Northwestern had enjoyed a successful year on the links, but on the eve of the 1999 NCAA Division I Men's Golf Championships, Donald could not have known the truth behind his forecast.
Yet in that one incredible season, Donald and his teammates confirmed the unbelievable. The Wildcats had grown from a low-profile Midwestern team into one of the most competitive programs in the nation.
Ending the Drought
The Northwestern golf team entered the 1999 postseason with high expectations. With three victories and top-three finishes at all but two tournaments in the regular season, they first aimed to capture the Big Ten Conference Championship — a team victory that had eluded them for half a century.
It was early May 1999 and Minnesota's Twin Cities were experiencing abnormally hot weather. On a muggy day in Minneapolis, Wildcat players fought to the finish. Each Northwestern golfer contributed — highlighted by a clutch round of 67 from Donald, the Big Ten Athlete of the Year — to beat the rival Gophers by three strokes.
"Winning the 1999 Big Ten title is my single most memorable highlight to date at Northwestern," says current head coach Pat Goss (WCAS93). "It meant the most to the people within the program. Winning a major conference championship substantiated the progress of the NU golf program."
The Cats' momentum carried into NCAA competition. Only days after capturing the Big Ten Championship, Northwestern made its way back to the Minneapolis area, where 30 of college golf's best teams battled for a national title.
By the final day of competition, Northwestern's fate was in the hands of its sweet-swinging Englishman. Maneuvering his way around the treacherous hazards at Hazeltine National Golf Club, Donald's round came down to his final putt, a 6-foot slider on the last hole.
Ailing from a sore back, Donald adjusted his sweat-soaked back brace and drained the nail-biter to secure his individual win — Northwestern's first national championship in golf — and the team's third-place finish overall. It was the Wildcats' best finish in recent history.
"1999 was so special for us because of how far we had come and how hard we had worked to earn it," Goss says.
But the Wildcats weren't finished.
The next season (1999-2000), Northwestern achieved the No. 1 ranking by winning the 1999 Ping/Golfweek Preview Invitational at Auburn University. Donald was not only the University's best player, but he was also the top-ranked college golfer in the country.
Led by All-Americans Donald and Jess Daley (C00), the Wildcats added an eighth-place finish at the 2000 NCAA Championships and Big Ten Conference titles in 2000 and 2001.
After years of missing their mark, Northwestern returned to prominence in the Big Ten Conference and began challenging the best teams in the country.
From Bogeys to Birdies
After topping the Big Ten Conference in 1948, the Northwestern golf team slid into a long-term slump. The Cats would not take another Big Ten title for more than a half-century. From 1967 to 1983 the Wildcats finished last in the conference every year, except 1976 when the University didn't even field a team. With the exception of John Seehausen (WCAS66) — the 1966 Big Ten Champion — the Northwestern golf program failed to compete for decades.
Bob Williams (C86), CEO of Burns Sports & Celebrities in Evanston, was recruited during Northwestern's slump years. He says Wildcat golf was more of a club team than a varsity sport at the time.
"Guys basically volunteered to play after class and then go out and get beat up by the rest of the Big Ten Conference," Williams says.
It was during head coach Wally Goodwin's tenure in the 1980s that the program began to turn around. Under his leadership, the University committed to developing nonrevenue sports like golf, designating several new scholarships aimed at getting the program back on its feet.
But it wasn't easy to attract talent or financial support. With no place to play or practice and few strong players, Goodwin had to start from scratch. A charming ambassador, he developed personal relationships with alumni and convinced college golf tournaments to invite his team.
"Wally was a great salesman for the Northwestern golf program," says Jeff Mory, who later became the team's head coach and is currently a volunteer assistant. "He says things with such conviction you truly believe that anything is possible. Wally could probably sell a drowning man a glass of water."
He did just that. With passion and persuasion, Goodwin lit a fire under the Wildcats. He successfully recruited players who brought life back to Northwestern golf.
"I was so taken in by Wally's personality during the recruiting process, I couldn't have imagined going anywhere but Northwestern," says Williams, one of his first recruits. "He laid out an excellent vision for the program."
First, Goodwin designed a premier collegiate golf tournament sponsored by United Airlines, the Americana in Lake Geneva, Wis., that his team hosted to help raise money for an improved travel schedule. Then he convinced local country clubs to allow the team to practice on their exclusive private courses — benefits the team still reaps.
"Wally was truly the person who developed the framework for how we do things today," says Goss, a former Wildcat golfer.
Goodwin cultivated a relationship with Eric Gleacher (WCAS62), a partnership that would prove essential to the team's progress.
By the time Goodwin left Northwestern in 1987, he had coached the team to second place in the Big Ten Conference and developed a star player in All-American and Big Ten Champion Jim Benepe (WCAS86).
Leading by Example
Benepe was the most celebrated Northwestern golfer since Manuel de la Torre (EB48), who finished second at the NCAA Championships in 1942, and Seehausen, who earned third team All-American honors in 1966. Benepe, who hails from Wyoming, owns one of Northwestern's lowest stroke averages (73.95), won the 1986 Big Ten Championship and was named first team All-American.
"In my mind, I proved to the golf world that you could go to NU, play a good schedule, be a successful college golfer and get a great education," Benepe says.
Benepe began his collegiate career at Weber State in Utah. But when he opted to pursue his golf career and education elsewhere, Goodwin persuaded Benepe that Northwestern could provide better opportunities for golf and overall college experience.
"Of all the decisions I have made in my life, choosing to transfer to Northwestern was one of the best," Benepe says. "It was an opportunity to attend a great university — someplace I probably would not have been if it weren't for golf — and to help Wally build a golf program."
Playing professional golf didn't come quite so easily, but Benepe soon got the break he needed. In 1988 the Western Open at Butler National in Chicago extended him a sponsor's exemption and a rookie appearance at a PGA Tour event.
On a muggy summer day in Chicago, Benepe labored through his final round, bogeying the last hole. He walked off the course at 10-under for the tournament.
Peter Jacobsen, the crowd-pleasing PGA Tour veteran, walked to his drive on the 18th hole owning a one-shot lead.
But as the engraver prepared his tools, Jacobsen's approach shot found a watery grave over the green.
He would double bogey the hole.
As a result, Benepe won the 1988 Western Open — the first PGA Tour event he ever entered — by a single shot. Benepe's win brought national recognition to Northwestern golf.
He had put the Wildcats back on the map.
Passing the Torch
Goodwin, who had taken the head coaching job at Stanford University, and PGA Tour winner Benepe set the framework for the Northwestern golf program. (At Stanford, Goodwin went on to win the 1994 NCAA Championship with players such as Tiger Woods, Casey Martin and Notah Begay III. He was named 1994 National Head Coach of the Year for his accomplishments.)
Jeff Mory took over the reins at Northwestern in 1990 after serving as assistant coach for three years. In his first full season as head coach, Mory led Northwestern to a third-place finish at the 1991 Big Ten Championships. That same year Northwestern also made its first NCAA appearance in almost 50 years and finished tied for 18th place overall.
Those achievements allowed Mory to recruit top national and international players, such as 1995 Big Ten Champion, two-time Big Ten Player of the Year and three-time All-American Scott Rowe (SESP97) of Canada, 1996 Big Ten Champion Jonathan Loosemore (SESP97) of England and Kevin Lynch (C97) of Chagrin Falls, Ohio.
Add Matt Seppanen (SESP98), 1995 Big Ten Freshman of the Year, honorable mention All-American and 2003 U.S. Open participant at Olympia Fields, and Erik Ciotti (C00), 1997 All-Big Ten, 1999 U.S. Open participant at Pinehurst and current assistant coach at Northwestern, and you have a first-rate college golf team.
With the foundation set and a steady flow of incoming talent, Northwestern won its bid to host the 1997 NCAA Division I Men's Golf Championship at Conway Farms in Lake Forest, Ill.
Season on the Brink
The team was peaking in February 1997 when Pat Goss took over for Mory, who had accepted the head golf professional position at Conway Farms in Lake Forest, Ill.
In his first season, Goss led the Cats to four consecutive tournament victories, giving Northwestern momentum coming into the NCAA Championships at its home course.
After two rounds of gritty play, Northwestern topped the country's best teams. College golf held its breath as the underdog with home-course advantage threatened to capture its most coveted championship.
Instead, the Wildcats hiccuped to a seventh-place finish with mediocre play the final two days. But it was Northwestern's best finish since 1943 — the last time the NCAA Championships were held in the Chicago area, and Goss was named 1997 National Coach of the Year.
Seniors Rowe, Loosemore and Lynch had pioneered the golf program to a new level. They put Northwestern in contention for a national championship and set the stage for the future in terms of team morale, expectations, tournament schedule and even equipment sponsors.
A Tradition for the Ages
Northwestern has become a college golf dynasty.
With its academic reputation and a nationally ranked golf program, today Northwestern attracts the best golf recruits in the country. Senior Tom Johnson is one example. The All-American from California could have gone anywhere, but he chose Northwestern.
"I wanted to go to a school where I knew I could get beat," says Johnson. "I knew that coming to Northwestern I would be forced to play my best to compete with Luke [Donald]. Now incoming freshmen push me to do better, and it keeps the cycle going."
Jim Nugent (KSM87), vice president and publisher of Golfweek, says the Northwestern golf program is unique in the kind of players the coaches have recruited.
"They were more than just golfers. ... They went to class, and they could discuss more than birdies and bogeys," Nugent says. "They had lives and interests off the golf course, and they were in Evanston to further develop those interests. ... But they could really play, too. They could play with the best of the nation, and not give an inch."
Competitive as the players he coaches, Goss also takes great pride in watching his golfers grow as people and developing close relationships with them. His players are a huge part of his life, and he is part of theirs.
Northwestern golfers frequent his house in Evanston for everything from team barbeques to Christmas tree decorating. They even attended his wedding at Chevy Chase Country Club in Wheeling, Ill., in 1997. Goss says he considers former players and coaches to be part of a Northwestern golf family.
It is only fitting the first person Goss called to thank after winning the 1999 Big Ten Championship was Wally Goodwin.
"It was his strong conviction and his great vision for what the program should be that was the impetus of what it is today," Goss says.
The current team is among the Big Ten's best. Johnson already owns two of the program's 10 best single-season stroke averages, and as of mid-April the Wildcats were ranked 40th in the country. They are seeking their fifth NCAA appearance and fourth Big Ten Championship under Goss' leadership.
"Northwestern is a team to be reckoned with," says Chris Haack, head coach of the 1999 NCAA Champion University of Georgia. "They are legitimate contenders year in and year out."
David Shaffer (WCAS00, GJ01) was a member of three Big Ten Championship teams and competed in two NCAA Division I Championships. He was also a four-time Academic All-Big Ten and four-year letter award winner. He is currently a partner at Match Play Enterprise, a golf company near Boston.