Members of the Saluki men’s golf team hit the course hard this offseason and improvements have started to show as the season approaches.
The team finished a disappointingly low eighth out of nine in the Missouri Valley Conference Championships May 5, effectively ending an otherwise stellar season. After that, members of the team vowed to work harder than ever in the summer months to get back on track.
“I know I, as well as the majority of the guys on the team, played every day this summer,” senior Jeff Miller, said. “We played in a lot of tournaments, as well as hitting balls all day … working on putting. The work really paid off.”
Miller said he and several of his teammates competed in six tournaments throughout the summer. On off days, they would play 18 or 36 holes at courses in the area.
The upperclassmen also found something else when they got to practice Monday: competition from incoming freshmen, particularly Drew Novara.
Novara finished ninth overall at the Illinois State Amateur Tournament Aug. 10, to go with Miller’s fifth place finish and a 17th place finish from two-time all-conference senior Jake Erickson.
“The depth is there,” Coach Leroy Newton said. “We had three kids finish in the top 20, out of 702 that tried to qualify. Five years ago we couldn’t get one kid to qualify, let alone make the top 15.”
Newton said the added depth and competition will only make the team better. Novara, he said, will be ready to compete for a top spot on the team immediately.
Newton, who enters his 17th year at the helm for the Salukis, said one quandary he will encounter early on will be to decide his top five players.
The Salukis will compete prior to tournaments for the top five spots in what Newton called practice qualifiers. The top five scores from the qualifiers will be the players that go to the tournaments, Newton said.
“This is the first time that we’ve had a group of kids that I truthfully can’t say ‘these are my top five,’” he said. “This year it’s wide open. Jeff, Jake and Brandon (Cauldwell) are our seniors and I expect them to go to the tournaments. But we have good freshmen and underclassmen coming in that will compete (for a top spot).”
One facet of training that team members worked on this summer was to keep in shape. While it may not seem like a high priority to the casual golf fan, Erickson said it is important for team members to come into Miller said an 18-hole golf course averages out to be around 4.5 miles, a lofty distance to lug a 40-pound bag.
Newton said his golfers abide by a less strenuous training regimen than other athletes, but in the end it can be just as toilsome.
“I think every athlete would love to be a golfer because it’s a unique sport,” he said. “It can be a pretty long day walking up and down hills and through sand traps with a golf bag, so they are in better shape than the other athletes may think.”
While the entire team is prepared and ready for the competition and vigor of a new season, Newton said a major goal for his squad will be to remember they are a team.
“I think the only thing that could hurt us is that we have a large squad this year, so there could be a little bit of jealousy and we could forget the team concept,” he said. “That could split us apart. We are focusing on being one team.”