To appreciate how far the University of Wisconsin men's golf team has come in the last four years, one need only to enlist Eddie Wajda III as a barometer.
The senior will be back in the Badgers' lineup Friday when UW opens the spring season at the Big Ten Conference Match Play Championship at Hammock Beach Resort in Palm Coast, Florida. It follows a prolonged and what, to the casual observer, might look like a somewhat curious absence, considering UW's abundance of youth on the roster.
Then again, as Badgers coach Michael Burcin is quick to point out, times have changed since Wajda arrived on campus in the fall of 2014.
Whereas Wajda played a team-high 31 rounds as a freshman, averaging 74.86 for 18 holes, his similar stroke average this season (74.17) made it tough to crack the lineup last fall. UW had five others averaging between 73.78 and 74.81 (with several of those averages ballooning during a lackluster showing at the Windon Memorial Classic in Skokie, Illinois, where the Badgers were 12th out of 15 teams).
"Eddie and I talked a lot about, coming out of the fall, was he can still finish this thing out really well," Burcin said Thursday in a telephone interview this week. "It really wasn't a so much a thing of what Eddie wasn't doing; Eddie's a valuable part of this program and I think him coming to Wisconsin was really the beginning of things turning the corner in the right direction.
"It was just depth. I think Eddie would tell you he didn't have a great spring, didn't have a great summer; was kind of stuck in neutral his first couple weeks of the fall. We had some talented freshmen and we're just deeper. Eddie and I have talked about it; when he came to Wisconsin, he was our best player and his stroke average was 74. He's essentially averaging the same thing and he's sixth. There's just a lot more depth."
Indeed, the Badgers welcomed two impact freshmen in Griffin Barela of Lakewood, Colorado, and Sam Anderson of Stoughton. Barela (73.78) was second on the team, based on average, behind junior Jordan Hahn (73.78) and the domino-effect of his strong play early prompted Burcin to make the tough decision to bump Wajda from the lineup by the third tournament of the fall — the Marquette Intercollegiate at Erin Hills, where Wajda had won the 2015 Wisconsin State Amateur Championship and seemingly had infinite course knowledge.
Barela, Hahn, Anderson, Pete Kuhl and Nick Robinson will join Wajda in the starting lineup for the Big Ten Match Play with Brett Robinson competing as an individual.
But it appears Wajda will be given every chance to stay in the lineup throughout the spring. In fact, Burcin talked of Wajda following in the footsteps of Ben Skogen, a senior last season who wrote the book on saving his best for last.
"You saw how Skogen went out last year," Burcin said of the former Onalaska golfer who struggled much of his senior season before shooting 75-69-68 and tying for 10th place at the Big Ten Championship, tops on the team. "Hopefully, Eddie follows that track and goes out with a bang."
A steady Wajda this spring would go a long way toward the Badgers reaching their goal of earning an NCAA Regional Tournament berth, something that hasn't happened for the UW men's program since the 2007-08 season.
Clearly, the pieces of the puzzle are there to make an NCAA run. Four golfers led the Badgers in their five meets last fall — including their two freshman in the first (Barela) and last (Anderson) meets on the fall schedule.
However, it's going to take some work for UW to improve its No. 92 ranking in the Golfstat.com NCAA Division I rankings for that to happen. There are 10 teams of the 13 others in the Big Ten ranked ahead of the Badgers, who will play two of them — No. 12 Illinois and No. 44 Northwestern — in addition to No. 161 Nebraska during the pool-play portion of the match-play event.
"We've got full intentions on going to postseason," Burcin said. "Could we be in better position? Sure. We haven't been in this position and the program hasn't been in this position for a long time so let's move on that. We were maybe a little up-and-down in the fall, more than I would have hoped for, but did we expect Griffin to come in and do what he did right away? Probably not. I probably would have expected Eddie to play a little bit better. At the end of the day, did it kind of even out? Probably. But we've got to concentrate on what we can accomplish and there's a lot to accomplish. We're super-excited."