The Linfield College men's golf team is in the Sunshine State for this week's NCAA Division III Championships, but the Wildcats are not just there simply for the sake of experience.
Competing against the most qualified golfers Division III has to offer and on one of the best courses in the country, the 'Cats are a team whose talent is a force to be reckoned with. Linfield's national-championship delegation includes Alex Fitch, A.J. Taylor, Tommy Schmitz, Taylor Klopp and Connor Magnuson. First-round play begins Tuesday at the Mission Inn Resort and Club near Orlando, Fla.
“We’ve been working toward this, it’s been our goal this whole year,” says Fitch, the team’s captain who won seven of the team’s 11 tournaments this year. Armed the Division III’s lowest scoring — 72.6 — he all but guaranteed a slot at the national tournament.
“I knew my average was pretty low, but I wanted the support of the team,” he says.
Fitch’s outstanding performances have been a steadying influence for this year’s team. Linfield’s golfers finished at the top of the Northwest Conference after the championship tournament three weeks ago. Despite a shifting tournament roster from fall to spring because of some injuries, the surprisingly young team has remained strong.
“Two freshmen who didn’t play at all in the fall are the reason we’re going to the national championship,” notes head coach Greg Copeland.
“Taylor and Connor have really come through for us,” says Fitch. “They are experienced beyond their years.”
Magnuson, who also plays tight end for Linfield’s powerhouse football team, says that he loves to compete and loves the challenge the game of golf represents. “It’s obviously really different from football, but I knew it would be just as competitive.” The self-taught golfer started strong when he joined this spring by qualifying right away for the team’s first tournament, the Lutes Invitational, in March. Nationals, though, is another story altogether.
“It’s exciting. This was one of our team goals,” he says about the trip to Florida. “I’m glad to contribute.”
Klopp, Linfield’s other first-year nationals representative, has been playing golf with his family his whole life. He confesses that he originally wanted to attend the University of Oregon to join his beloved Ducks, but ended up choosing Linfield because he wanted to be able to play golf with a solid Division III program.
Even though he didn’t qualify for any of Linfield’s tournaments during the fall portion of the season, Copeland says Klopp stepped his game up in the spring. The freshman surprised himself by being named a first team Northwest Conference all-star after only his first year. “I was blown away,” he says. “If you had told me a year ago that I’d be playing right alongside some of these guys, at their level, I’d have said you were crazy.”
He and several of his teammates firmly believe that their competitive nature brings out the best in their games.
“We push each other to improve,” Fitch says.
Their coach certainly isn’t complaining. “The guys are competing with each other all the time, even with things such as volleyball or soccer or ping pong. It’s a fun group to be around.”Copealnd remembering some fierce card games the Wildcats have waged while they’re all on the road. “They’ all team up and try to keep Taylor from winning,” he laughs.
Schmitz, a sophomore chemistry major, is one of the team’s few returners. “He can be pretty intense,” Fitch says, “but he likes to joke around, too.” Schmitz holds a strong spot on the team, turning in consistently low scores for the Wildcats.
He and Taylor are both benefiting from their trip to the NCAA Championships last year. “It helps to have that experience under their belts,” says Fitch.
“We know what to expect,” echoes Taylor, who is excited for a second run at nationals. “We could make a better mark than last year.”
Taylor, who has the lowest average on the team aside from Fitch, is also crucial to the team’s success. “A.J. is really solid,” his coach says. “He’s a key component.”
Though he has only played golf seriously since he was 14, Taylor relishes the technicality and mental demands of the game. “I got addicted,” he says with a smile. “It’s the most fun of any of the sports I’ve played.”
Fitch feels similarly. “I tell the guys all the time that if you’re not enjoying it, you shouldn’t be playing golf.” For his teammates, who all said they plan to continue playing in one way or another after college, that doesn’t really seem to be a problem.
Fitch has the passion and talent for the game that is evident to anyone who knows him. Even those who only know him from news releases are impressed with his statistical record. Once he completes his bachelor’s degree in business and finance in a few short weeks, Linfield’s golf team will bid goodbye to one of the finest players in program history.
“You don’t replace four years of experience plus the scores he’s posted this year,” Copeland says.
Fitch is a leader by example. “It’s nice to be in that leadership role and really fun,” he says.
“One thing I really like about Alex is that he’s always looking to improve,” says Taylor. “We always try to beat him and he’s always trying to work on his own game and get better.”
According to his teammates, Fitch encourages a friendly team dynamic and is happy to share what he’s learned. “Part of my own success is reliant on the help and knowledge I received from older teammates as a younger player,” he says. He especially points to recent graduates Yutaro Sakamoto, Tyler Nelson, and Fitch’s older brother, Andrew, currently Linfield’s volunteer assistant coach.
“Andrew’s part of the reason I came to Linfield in the first place,” says the younger Fitch. “And having the alumni help has been great. I’d like to keep that going.” Fitch is even considering the possibility of becoming an assistant coach himself once he graduates.
Next year, the team says, things will be “wide open.” With this spring’s injured players returning to the roster, younger players coming into their own, and some promising new recruits, Linfield’s golf program should remain healthy despite the loss of its star.
“We’ll keep moving forward,” Fitch says. “It’s exciting to see the future we’re building toward.”
“Lots of promise,” agrees Taylor. “This is a game about always getting better.”
Mostly, though, the team is focused on its immediate future. Magnuson, who comes up with slogans for each tournament, has inspired his team with a goal to “shock the nation” with their performance in Florida.
“We’re hoping to bring home some hardware. It feels great to be going back and to be going with this team. We have a good group this year,” Fitch says. “And we get along really well, too, so it’ll be a fun trip.”
Copeland is also eager to put his team out on the course. “I’m excited to see what they’ll do under pressure.”
So far, the pressure of competition has only brought them together. This is a team whose members strengthen and help each other to achieve their highest potential. The next week of Nationals is just the beginning.
- Lexy Chapman '15