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Almost Got 'Em: Iowa Golf Finishes Tenth At NCAA Championships

This isn't quite what happened to the Iowa golfers on a few holes, but y'know, artistic license.

The excellent adventures of Vince India, Brad Hopfinger, and the rest of the Iowa golf team came to a crashing halt Thursday in Stillwater, Oklahoma, as they finished with a three-round total of 892, +28, and three strokes shy of an eighth-place finish that would have enabled them to continue playing in the NCAA Championships (after three rounds of stroke play, the top-eight teams advance to match-play rounds to conclude the tournament).  The good news is that the 10th place finish was the best-ever for Iowa, a massive improvement from the 17th place finish in 2009 that was their previous best finish.  The bad news is that they were painfully close to an even better finish and a chance to make even more history in the finals.

Mind you, the truly amazing thing is that Iowa even had a legitimate chance to make the finals here.  After a disastrous Day 1 performance (+16) that left them 21 shots behind the leaders (Georgia Tech), Iowa rebounded with a solid second round (+4) on Day 2, and flirted with the round of the day for a while on Day 3 before settling for a score (+8) that was still tied for sixth-best on the day.  The course turned brutally difficult yesterday and scores ballooned like that annoying girl in Willy Wonka.  22 teams shot +10 or worse yesterday, including the top two finishers (UCLA, +10, and Georgia  Tech, +14).  Alabama went from being relatively safely ensconced in the top-8 at +4 to T14 at +32 after shooting +28 yesterday.  (Amazingly, they weren't the worst performance yesterday -- that would be Arizona, who shot +33.)  Iowa was within the top-8 when they made the turn after nine holes, but too many bogeys (and not enough birdies) on the back nine spelled doom for their quarterfinal aspirations.

To the surprise of no one who's followed the Iowa golf team over the past month, the player of the tournament was Chris Brant, who finished +4, good for a tie for 20th place.  He also carded the low round of the tournament for the Hawkeyes (a 70 in Round 2) and led the team in birdies (10).  Brad Hopfinger finished +7, tied for 38th place, and had the distinction of being the only Iowa player not to card anything worse than a bogey.  Barrett Kelpin finished +9, tied for 56th place; it's a shame it took him a round to get into a groove because his closing stretch of 73-71 was very solid -- that opening 81, on the other hand, was hideous.  Vince India finished +12, tied for 81st place, and had the unfortunate distinction of carding the fewest birdies of any Iowa golfer (1, plus an eagle).  Finally, Jed Dirksen finished +20, tied for 121st place, and had the misfortune of carding more bogeys (22) than any other Iowa golfer.

There's not much point in assigning blame to any individual golfer -- each golfer had opportunities to carve a stroke or two off his scores in each round, which would have been more than enough to get Iowa into the quarterfinals -- but Vince India's disappointing performance is also the elephant in the room.  India was Iowa's most consistently excellent golfer all season -- he didn't win awards for lowest scoring average or Male Athlete of the Year just because of his awesome name, after all -- but he failed to perform well at the season-ending events.  There's no question that it hurts the team when your best golfer scores a birdie or better on just 2 of his 54 holes -- that puts a lot of pressure on the rest of the team.  The other thing that hurt the team -- and this was by no means exclusive to India -- but when holes go bad, it's vital to limit the damage as much as possible.  This was such a difficult course that scores around par were worth their weight in gold and even bogey wasn't the worst score (so long as you didn't amass too many of them, at least).  But doubles, triples, and quadruple bogeys... well, those are killers.  Among Iowa's golfers, they had ten holes where they scored double bogey or worse -- trim a stroke off half of those holes and Iowa qualifies for the quarterfinals comfortably.

On the the other hand, while it's disappointing that Iowa came so close to cracking the quarterfinals and came up short, we really shouldn't let that overshadow the strong effort (that T10 finish was the best-ever for Iowa, as noted above) and an excellent season.  Under Mark Hankins, Iowa golf has reached heights it's never seen before and that's exciting and truly commendable.  The key will be continuing to recruit and develop good golfers to replace guys like India and Hopfinger, who have been essential components in Iowa's rise over the past few years.  Luckily, he returns the other three golfers from this year's NCAA-qualifying team, with Brant emerging as a potential star and Kelpin finishing the NCAA Championships very strongly.