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Men’s Golf: Down a dozen, birdie hunters recover to win

Greg Arbogast | Wednesday, April 26, 2006

Notre Dame hasn’t seen a comeback of this magnitude in a long time.

Down by 12 strokes through 36 of the 54 holes of the Big East Championships at Lake Jovita Golf & Country Club in Dade City, Fla., the Irish shot a Big East record 16-under-par 272 in the final round Tuesday to force a one-hole playoff in which they defeated Louisville by two strokes to win their third consecutive conference title.

All five players from each of the two teams regrouped to replay the 18th hole with the top four scores from each squad counting. Louisville finished the hole with three pars and a bogey, leaving the door open for Notre Dame.

Led by freshman Josh Sandman’s 10-foot birdie putt, the Irish sank the Cardinals with three pars and Sandman’s birdie.

“Josh’s putt was key because it gave us some cushion,” Irish coach Jim Kubinski said. “It took the pressure off and allowed [junior] Cole [Isban] and [senior] Scott [Gustafson] to relax on their par putts.”

Notre Dame is not a newcomer to either Big East Championships or dramatic victories.

In the Big East tournament two years ago at Notre Dame’s Warren Golf Course, the Irish trailed Virginia Tech by four strokes going into the final 18 holes before emerging with a five-stroke win.

Last year, in Kubinski’s first season with Notre Dame, the team won the Big East Championship by playing only 18 holes before the final two rounds were snowed out.

This year’s victory marks the third straight, and Kubinski is pleased with the progression of his program.

“Winning three in a row shows we’ve arrived,” he said. “It’s a good step for the future, but we also want to take the next step now when we play at the NCAA [Championships].”

Winning its third consecutive Big East Championship wasn’t the only noteworthy accomplishment for Notre Dame, as the team set multiple records throughout the championship. The team’s first round score of 281 Monday morning was the best postseason mark ever for the Irish and the third lowest score in school history.

But even that score wasn’t enough to give Notre Dame the first-round lead as Louisville opened with a 279.

“We were surprised that after shooting a 281 [that] we didn’t have the first-round lead,” Kubinksi said. “It opened our eyes and surprised us a bit, and we didn’t play a good second round.”

Monday afternoon, the Irish carded a 1-over 289 to give the team a 36-hole score of 570 – 11 shots better than the old 36-hole program record of 581 set at the 1968 Notre Dame Invitational.

But it was only good enough to put them in third place, 12 strokes behind Louisville.

“After the first day, we knew we had to get out to a strong start and make some birdies,” Kubinski said. “Since it was team golf, the twelve-stroke margin didn’t seem as daunting. We only had to make up three shots a person instead of twelve.”

Senior Mark Baldwin led the second-day charge for Notre Dame, shooting a 6-under 66.

The performance propelled Baldwin to a fifth-place overall finish with a three-round total of 4-under-par 212.

But Baldwin was not the only Irish player in the red Tuesday as senior Scott Gustafson fired a 5-under-par 67, senior Tommy Balderston carded a 4-under-par 68 and junior Cole Isban posted a 1-under-par 71.

Although his score on Tuesday did not count, freshman Josh Sandman played a crucial role in the team’s victory as he shot a team-low score of 141 (3-under) through the first two rounds, in addition to his birdie on the playoff hole.

By winning the Big East Championship, Notre Dame gains an automatic berth in the Central Regional of the NCAA tournament, which will begin May 18 in Chardon, Ohio.

The top four teams in the regional automatically advance to the national championship beginning May 31 at the Crosswater Golf Club in Sunriver, Ore.

“We were just out of the top four teams last year,” Kubinski said. “We want to take the next step this year.”