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MEN’S GOLF: Irish win two tournaments in best season in decades

Ken Fowler | Friday, May 13, 2005

A new coach and a new beginning for the Irish this winter not only salvaged Notre Dame’s season, they helped propel the team to its best year in decades.

The Irish now have a chance to reach the NCAA Championships with a strong showing at the NCAA Central Regional May 19-21. The team will have a distinct advantage, as Notre Dame’s Warren Golf Course will play home to the event.

“We’re really excited [for the regionals],” first-year head coach Jim Kubinski said. “I think all the guys on our team have been playing really well.

To qualify for the NCAA Championships, to be held in Baltimore June 1-4, the Irish must finish tenth or better at the Regional. Last year’s team came in as the No. 24-seed and finished 12th. This year’s team is seeded only four spots higher, but has momentum on its side after a tremendous spring.

The defending Big East champions played lackluster golf in the fall, with the team’s best finish a fifth-place showing in the year’s first tournament, the Inverness Intercollegiate.

By the end of the fall stretch, the Irish had experienced ups and downs, and head coach John Jasinski went on administrative leave within two weeks of the team’s final fall tournament.

Less than a month later, he resigned.

After an extensive search, which included a subcommittee of Irish golfers interviewing a “short list” of four candidates for the head coaching position, the Irish hired the former Duke assistant Kubinski.

Nominated for the 2004 Golf Coaches’ Association of America Assistant Coach of the Year award, Kubinski brought high expectations for himself and the program, along with an enthusiasm that appealed to team members.

The Irish shot up the polls this spring with two wins and a gratifying seventh-place finish in the Augusta State Invitational, a tournament in which the field consisted of over a dozen NCAA qualifiers. However, Kubinski says he has “only accomplished about 20 percent” of what he wants to achieve at Notre Dame.

“I think the guys have had to go through a lot this year,” he said. “They made an adjustment to a new coach. For where we are … I couldn’t be happier.”

Where they are is two-time defending Big East champions, preparing to host the Central Regional.

And the turnaround from the fall was evident in Notre Dame’s first spring tournament.

Traveling to the Bayou to compete against thirteen teams in the Nokia Sugar Bowl/Tulane Invitational, the Irish beat UNC-Wilmington on the first playoff hole to capture a surprising victory. Nearly every other team in the field had competed in a previous tournament, while Notre Dame struggled just to get in practice rounds because of the South Bend weather.

But the Irish played exceptionally well, led by Cole Isban’s 221 (73-71-77).

The Irish continued their strong play, capturing fourth place in the Irish Springs Invitational in Florida and second in the Gen. Jim Hackler Invitational in South Carolina.

After the Augusta State Invitational, Notre Dame came home to face Texas Christian University in a dual match.

A poor 299 by the Irish in the final round allowed TCU to come from behind to win, but the highlight of the match was Irish golfer Mark Baldwin’s opening round seven-under 63. The score set not only the Warren Golf Course record, but it also beat the 40-year-old Notre Dame team mark by a stroke.

Kubinski said that Baldwin and Isban have each played like MVPs this spring.

“Cole came into the spring as the No. 1 player with high expectations, and he met them,” Kubinski said. “But I think Mark beat his expectations. He’s just had a great spring.”

The Irish hit a bump in the road at the Texas A&M Invitational, finishing a disappointing 14th in the competitive tournament, and Kubinski accepts responsibility for the last-place showing.

“I take the blame for that [tournament]. I didn’t stress enough how strong that that field in Texas was,” he said.

The team was able to move on quickly, coming back home the next week to win a snow-shortened Big East Championship. It was the team’s fifth Big East title in the ten years they have competed in the conference.

And for the second straight season, the Irish earned an automatic spot in NCAA regionals by winning the conference title. Because the Big East only gained an automatic berth into the NCAA tournament five years ago, Notre Dame’s last appearance in the tournament before 2004 was in 1966.

Now, the team looks to get one step past the regionals, by advancing to Baltimore.

Kubinski is confident in his team’s ability.

“There were 18 teams in Augusta, and probably 15, 16, 17 of those 18 are going to be in the NCAA tournament. Beating the Dukes and Wake Forests and Clemsons … shows what we can do.”