June 23, 2006
EVANSTON, Ill. -- After missing out on postseason play in 2005, Northwestern head coach Pat Goss said that the key for the 'Cats in 2006 would be to play with a chip on their shoulder.
A year later, with a Big Ten title and an appearance in the NCAA Championships in tow, it is safe to say that the Wildcats took their coach's words to heart and in the process showed they deserve to be considered among the best teams in the nation.
Prior to 2006, the 'Cats' last NCAA Championships appearance came in 2000, when All-Americans Jess Daley and Luke Donald led the charge. But last summer, it became evident that the 2006 Wildcats would be much more competitive than in years past.
The Wildcats' lone senior, Dillon Dougherty, put Northwestern in the national spotlight with his amazing run to the finals of the U.S. Amateur. Dougherty joined Chick Evans as the only two Wildcats to ever make the U.S. Amateur final.
"Dillon was another example that if you have the ability and desire to be a top player in the country, Northwestern provides the resources necessary to achieve those goals," said Goss.
Not to be outdone, the "Dublin Duo" -- junior Chris Wilson and sophomore Kyle Moore -- showed that they were in line for big years as well. Wilson won the U.S. Amateur Sectional Qualifier at Conway Farms (Dougherty finished second), claimed the 99th Ohio Amateur title and reached the finals of the Western Amateur all in one summer. Moore earned a tournament victory of his own, winning the 49th Annual Eastern Amateur Golf Tournament and setting a scoring record in the process (13-under par 267).
The momentum from these impressive summer showings carried into the fall, as the 'Cats came together as a team and posted three impressive fall finishes. As the hosts of the Second Annual Big Ten/Pac-10 Challenge, the Wildcats took advantage of knowing their home course. Two strokes off the lead heading into the final round, the 'Cats rallied with a final round total of 7-under 285 to claim the victory by three strokes over Big Ten rival Minnesota. Northwestern also claimed the individual crown, as junior David Merkow birdied three of the last four holes to push past reigning NCAA Champion James Lepp and finish with a 54-hole total of 7-under 209.
The Wildcats were back at it the very next weekend, as they almost parlayed another final round charge into a tournament victory. Behind by 10 shots heading into the final 18 holes of the Coca-Cola Duke Golf Classic, a career-best, 6-under round of 66 by Dan Doyle pushed the 'Cats toward the top of the leaderboard, but Duke managed to hold on for a two-shot victory. Doyle led all Northwestern golfers with a sixth-place finish.
In the final tournament of the fall the 'Cats were in the hunt again. This time Dougherty led a very balanced effort at the CordeValle Collegiate as the Wildcats challenged perennial power UCLA for the title. The 'Cats came up just short, finishing six shots behind the Bruins, but still earned another second-place finish. Dougherty tied for fourth with a 3-under 213 total while Doyle (seventh), Moore (11th) and Merkow (23rd) all finished in the top 25 individually. Moore's second-round 65 at the CordeValle Collegiate would end up in a tie as the 'Cats' lowest round of the year.
After the three-month winter layoff, the 'Cats started the spring slowly, earning no better than a sixth-place finish in their first three events. For the last of these three tournaments, the Boilermaker Invitational, the Wildcats were without their captain Dougherty as he enjoyed the experience of a lifetime playing in the Masters at Augusta National. Although he missed the cut with a 36-hole total of 160, Dougherty's experience boosted the 'Cats' spirits.
After Dougherty's detour, Northwestern traveled to a familiar place for two of the 'Cats -- Dublin, Ohio. The familiar surroundings proved to be the perfect cure for a tourney title. Led by Dublin native Moore, the 'Cats conjured up another final round surge to claim their second team victory of the year. Playing at Muirfield Village Golf Club, home of the PGA Tour's Memorial Tournament, Moore earned the first individual victory of his collegiate career in his hometown, shooting a three-round total of 1-under 215.
Following a fifth-place finish in the final regular season tournament of the year, the 'Cats turned their attention to hosting another prominent event -- the Big Ten Championships. Without a course to call its own, Northwestern had not hosted the championships for the past 50 years. Tired of traveling elsewhere for this important event, the Wildcats decided to get back into the hosting rotation. They chose Conway Farms, which hosted the last postseason event held by Northwestern, the 1997 NCAA Championships, as the site for the 2006 Big Ten Championships.
"Along with hosting and playing well at the 1997 NCAA Championship, the 2006 Big Ten Championships will go down as a top highlight in my career," Goss said. "We started with the goal of running an event that would elevate the Big Ten Championship and be a great experience for the players, and we were able to accomplish those goals."
Excited about being close to home on a familiar course, the Wildcats jumped out to an early lead on a gorgeous Friday. Led by Moore's 6-under 65 in the first round, the 'Cats left the course Friday with a one-stroke lead over Michigan State after the 36-hole marathon day.
Saturday and Sunday proved far different than Friday. The weather gradually worsened, turning the competition into a survival of the fittest. As the conditions worsened, the 'Cats' resolve grew stronger. However, the Wildcats could not hold off Indiana and Michigan State on Saturday, and found themselves three shots behind the leaders heading into Sunday's final round. Wilson led the way for the Wildcats with a 54-hole score of two-under 211.
In a similar situation as previous events, the 'Cats called on their experience to lead them to victory. With horrendous conditions -- 50-degree temperatures, 40-mph wind gusts and rain -- trying to stop them, the 'Cats pushed forward and finished with the best team score of the final round (301) to win the Big Ten Championship over Minnesota by nine strokes. The Big Ten Championship was the 'Cats' first since 2001.
Like his teammate Merkow did at the Big Ten/Pac-10 Challenge, Wilson birdied three of the final four holes to shoot a final-round 69, his best round of the tournament, and beat Michigan State's Ryan Brehm by a shot for the individual crown. For their efforts throughout the season, Merkow was named Big Ten Player of the Year and first team All-Big Ten, while Wilson earned first team All-Big Ten honors and Dougherty rounded out the 'Cats' laurels with a second team All-Big Ten selection.
"To win the team championship and the individual championship in front of all of the people who supported our program and contributed to our success made it an experience of a lifetime," said Goss.
Thanks to the automatic bid they earned from this championship, the 'Cats could focus on fine-tuning their game heading into NCAA play. This focus paid off, as the Wildcats turned in another impressive performance at the NCAA Central Regional Championships. Only top-seeded and second-ranked Oklahoma State could best the 'Cats' 72-hole total of 861. Three different Wildcats led the way for one of the three days: Merkow with a first-round 68, Moore with a second-round 70 and Doyle with a final-round 69.
The second-place regional finish ensured that Northwestern would end the season where it wanted to: the 2006 NCAA Championships at Crosswater Golf Course in Oregon. Playing in their first Championships since 2000, Northwestern missed the 54-hole cut and stood in 25th place after three rounds.
"I was disappointed with our play at NCAA's and hope that it serves as a learning experience and building block for the four returning players," Goss said. "We have a chance for some players to become premier players nationally next year."
Although the season ended one day too short, the Wildcats took the program to several places it had not been in awhile. While Northwestern will miss Dougherty's experience, returning four out of five starters from a balanced squad that won the Big Ten Championship and qualified for the NCAA Championships suggests that 2006-07 could be another memorable year for the Purple and White.