Expectations were high for the University of Wisconsin men’s golf team going into the 2018-19 season, and with expectations comes pressure.
Perhaps not surprisingly, UW got off to a slow start in the fall, finishing 10th in its own Badger Invitational and 11th in the Northern Intercollegiate at Rich Harvest Farms in Sugar Grove, Illinois. More distressing than the placements were the Badgers’ team scores. They had failed to break 300 in three of six rounds.
Coach Michael Burcin knew what was wrong. He gathered his top three players — senior Jordan Hahn, sophomore Griffin Barela and junior Pete Kuhl — and told them their best golf wouldn’t come out until they relaxed, trusted their work and preparation and stopped trying so hard.
“After Rich Harvest, I had a heart-to-heart with Pete and Jordan and Griffin,” Burcin said. “They were as much at fault as anybody. We had to create more of a laid-back atmosphere. What I emphasized to the leaders is that if you guys are tight and not trusting yourself, the younger guys are going to see that.
“I think the switch turned pretty dramatically.”
The Badgers finally broke through with a final-round 283 at the Marquette Intercollegiate at Erin Hills in early October — 27 strokes lower than their second-round 310 — and went on to play some of the best golf in program history.
At the Fighting Irish Classic at Notre Dame, they broke the 54-hole school record with an 11-under 841 total. The previous record of 844 had stood for 20 years. Wisconsin got season-best performances from four golfers, including Hahn’s 9-under 203, the third-best 54-hole score in team history.
UW finished sixth in the power-laden 15-team field and two weeks later concluded the fall season by winning the 11-team Pinetree Intercollegiate in Atlanta with steady scores of 286-286-285.
“I think it helped their confidence a lot,” Burcin said. “We certainly didn’t get off to the start we wanted at the beginning of the year. Expectations were and are high. I think this is the deepest team Wisconsin has fielded in a long time.”
The Badgers hope to capitalize on that confidence and depth in the spring season, which gets under way with the Big Ten Match Play, Saturday and Sunday at Hammock Dunes in Palm Coast, Florida.
Last year, Wisconsin went 4-0 in the tournament, beating nationally ranked Illinois and Northwestern on the first day and Nebraska and Penn State on the second.
“Beating Illinois in match play, I think that showed who we are,” Burcin said. “You can’t be consistent unless you have depth. One is equal to the other.”
In Hahn, the Badgers couldn’t ask for a better leader. The 6-foot-6 senior from Spring Grove, Illinois, averaged 71.47 in 15 rounds in the fall, shot a 65 in the Fighting Irish Classic — tied for the third-best 18-hole score in program history — and tied for first in the Pinetree Intercollegiate.
Based on his world amateur ranking, Hahn was invited to play in the prestigious Patriot All-America over the holiday break. The tournament in Litchfield Park, Arizona, featured the top 84 amateur golfers in the country. Hahn tied for 26th on the strength of a pair of 69s and was one of just four players to shoot two sub-par rounds in the 54-hole tournament.
“I was fortunate (as an assistant coach) at South Carolina to recruit and coach against Dustin Johnson,” Burcin said. “You don’t want to compare but their games are very similar. Long levers, very tall. Jordan hits it crazy far, with tons of speed.
“He’s a big part of why the program is moving in the right direction. He’s a world-class talent. He’s one of the best amateurs in the world. A really solid individual.”
Barela averaged 73.13 in the fall, shot 3-under 210 at Notre Dame and finished ninth in the Pinetree.
“Polar opposite of Jordan,” Burcin said. “Griffin weighs 125 pounds. He’s tiny. He’s very solid, good putter, good short game. Really smart kid academically. We got a good one there. He’s just steady. He’s always in his round. He’s very low maintenance.”
One Badger who bears watching is sophomore Sam Anderson of Stoughton, who averaged 74.80, just behind Kuhl’s 74.07 mark.
“From a physical standpoint, Sam is probably as gifted as Jordan,” Burcin said. “He’s still figuring things out but he’s going to be a horse. He’s a little inconsistent at times, but I would put him right there with Griffin. He’s really, really talented.”
The Badgers also expect to get contributions from Kuhl, whom Burcin calls a “top-30 machine,” plus senior Brett Robinson, sophomore Tom Calbi and freshman Cameron Frazier.
After the Big Ten Match Play, UW plays in the Colleton River Collegiate in Bluffton, South Carolina (March 4 and 5); the Mission Inn Spring Spectacular in Howey-in-The-Hills, Florida (March 16 and 17); the Hootie at Bulls Bay Intercollegiate in Awendaw, South Carolina (March 24 through 26); the Boilermaker Invitational in West Lafayette, Indiana (April 13 and 14); and the Big Ten Championships at the Philadelphia Cricket Club (April 26 through 28).
“I think we see ourselves as a team that should be playing in the postseason,” Burcin said. “We’re really excited for the spring. There’s not an event we look at on our schedule that we can’t win.”