Without a star, balance leads men’s golf

BY JESSIE SMITH | MARCH 02, 2010 7:30 AM

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Most teams have a go-to player, someone a squad depends upon when its success is in jeopardy.

But not the Iowa men’s golf team.

Eight of the nine players on the Hawkeyes’ roster have seen tournament action, and the Iowa coaches find it impossible to predict who will lead the way in a given match.

“Last fall — I think except for two instances — the same five guys played,” head coach Mark Hankins said. “But within that five, we’ve had different guys step up and be our No. 1 man at different times.”

Hankins attributes both his team’s success, as well as the jump in the national rankings, to a balance in talent. Before the Mount Pleasant native took charge as coach in 2007, the Hawkeyes ranked 155th out of 300 Division-I teams.

But now, they are 42nd in the nation, according to Golfweek rankings.

The third-year coach also credited the balanced roster to the graduation of last season’s lone senior Cole Peevler.

“He was our No. 1 player for our first four or five events,” Hankins said. “In the fall, he basically carried us with some really top finishes.”

The team now turns to its only two upperclassmen, juniors Vince India and Brad Hopfinger. India won his individual match, 2-1, to help lead the Hawkeyes to a third place finish in the Big Ten Match Play Championships on Feb. 13.

Hopfinger has had success by filling the No. 1 spot in the team’s first two match-play events.

Sophomores Brad George, Barrett Kelpin, Dusty Koth, and Chris Brant round out the top returnees for the Hawkeyes.

“I think we’re all pretty close [in ability],” Hopfinger said. “It makes it more competitive, day in and day out. If you have a big dispersion of what guys are shooting, some guys I don’t think would try as hard to improve.”

When preparing for upcoming tournaments, Iowa’s nine golfers duel to qualify for a spot in the top five.

Hankins said just because the spot is earned one week doesn’t mean it’s permanent. The players need to continue to improve, he said, because the team boasts plenty of worthy candidates.

This competition is what keeps the golf team motivated to work hard during an off-season that is more than three months long.

“Right now, we have rotated mainly five guys but up to eight guys, so when you have that, you have intrasquad competition, where you have to get better or else you don’t play,” Hankins said.

This closeness in ability helps ensure not only those in the top five don’t get too comfortable, it also keeps the other four battling to earn a spot. The players believe that unlike in other sports, where the top priority is “playing as a team,” the Iowa golfers instead worry about their individual performances first, which will determine their team’s fate in the end.

“We see these guys every day. We’re pushing each other,” Brant said. “We see the light at the end of the tunnel that we want to play over them, and they want to play over us. It just makes the whole team better.”

This team-wide balance makes for intense qualifying rounds in practice. However, the nine players on the roster hold a mutual understanding that this competitiveness will help the team’s overall success.

Hankins encourages his young team’s competitive edge and builds his program with that in mind.

“You recruit people asking them, ‘Do you plan on being the No. 1 player here at Iowa? If you don’t plan on being the No. 1 player, then why are you even coming?’ ” he said.

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