Mission Inn Resort
With an eye toward achieving the highest individual and team finishes in program history, the Linfield College men’s golf team departs McMinnville Saturday, bound for the NCAA Division III Championships at Mission Inn and Resort and Club in Howey-in-the-Hills, Fla.
Under 11th-year coach Greg Copeland, the Wildcats are making their second consecutive and fourth overall trip to the national-championship tournament.
Practice rounds are scheduled for Sunday on the El Campeon and Los Colinas courses. Forty-one teams, plus five leading individuals, begin competing Tuesday and Wednesday. After the first 36 holes, the field is pared down to 15 teams, plus the next highest five individuals not affiliated with an advancing team.
Linfield, which placed 30th at last season’s championship event, takes one of its most experienced rosters into national competition. Among the five players on the traveling delegation, three bring national-tournament experience.
Leading the way is senior Alex Fitch, who takes a Division III-leading 72.6 scoring average into the major tournament.
In Copeland’s eyes, “the sky’s the limit for Alex.”
Fitch, who has been crowned tournament medalist in seven events over the 2011-12 season, “has the demeanor to play for the national title.”
Clearly, Fitch is within reach of attaining the highest individual finish by a Linfield men’s golfer in NCAA Championship tournament play. That lofty distinction is shared by Fitch’s older brother, Andrew, and former teammate Tyler Nelson, who together tied for 44th place at the 2008 NCAA Championships in Braselton, Ga.
Fitch will be competing at the NCAAs for the third time in four seasons. Returning to the national-championship stage for a second time are veterans A.J. Taylor (Jr., Kirkland, Wash.) and Tommy Schmitz (Jr., Gresham, Ore.). Experiencing the heightened pressure of the big tournament will be first-year golfers Taylor Klopp (Soph., Eugene, Ore.) and Connor Magnuson (Soph., Albany, Ore.).
“Our goal is to make the cut,” said Copeland, whose team averages a combined score of 302.4 per round. “If Alex plays to his ability, he could help carry the team quite a ways. We just need the rest of our guys to perform consistently.
“There are going to be a lot of good teams competing,” he said. “If we shoot close to what we have been averaging going in, we should place in the top 15. Every player is going to experience tough holes and every team is going to face challenges. The courses are designed to be difficult in order to separate the men from the boys.”
Copeland likes Linfield’s blend of veteran leadership, skill and youthful exuberance.
“This is a good group,” said Copeland. “They are not easily excitable and pretty even-keeled. They like to battle until the very end, which is what you hope for as a coach.”
Though he has not viewed the two course layouts first-hand, Copeland has learned “the courses feature fairly long holes. The greens are going to be quick and have been compared to Augusta National Golf Club. If that’s the case, it’s going to be very challenging for all the teams. One course is known for having a lot of water and there will be a lot of trouble to avoid. We just have to play smart and stay out of trouble as best we can.”
Linfield’s collective strength lies in its power off the tee. “Our guys tend to hit the ball a long way and don’t necessarily always need to use their drivers. Instead, they can use a more accurate club and still get the ball out far enough for a decent approach shot.”
Real-time results will be provided at NCAA.com once play begins on Monday. Greensboro College is the defending Division III champion.
NCAA Championship Delegation
Magnuson, Taylor, Fitch, Klopp, Schmitz
Director of Sports Information
McMinnville, OR 97128