Boasting Strongest Field Yet, Gopher Invitational Kicks Off 2018-19 Season at Windsong
September 8, 2018
By Nick Hunter
Since John Carlson took over the helm of the University of Minnesota men’s golf team in 2013, he has shown that he’s not fond of easing into the fall schedule. Each season Carlson has wasted little time facing the teeth of his team’s schedule and it has always started with the Gopher Invitational.
Drawing top programs from across the country for several years, the 14th installment of the championship this week will be no different. In fact, it showcases the toughest field to date as defending Gopher Invite champs Arkansas, Oklahoma and Texas travel to Windsong Farm this week, all ranked inside the top-20 nationally to begin the 2018-19 season.
“This field is so talented. From top to bottom, many of these teams played at the [NCAA National Championship] last year,” said Carlson, who has now moved into the role of Director of Men’s Golf. “Bringing them to a course we’re familiar with, hopefully, not only can we beat a few but represent. It’s a good opportunity and a lot of the players coming here this week will be playing in PGA Tour events.
“We have built the field to this level mainly as a reciprocal for other tournaments. Our strength of schedule is as high as its ever been and we recruit to that. We want to play against the best teams each week and the only way to really do that is to invite them to your tournament.”
Arkansas, who won its first Gopher Invite in 2011, cruised to a 10-stroke victory over Baylor University last season, and 11 strokes better than the two-time champion Oklahoma Sooners, ranked No. 2 by Golfstat at the end of the 2018 spring season, Minnesota will look to improve on a 12th-place finish from a year ago. The Gophers won the inaugural event and have notched four top-5 finishes during the tournament’s 14 years, but have not finished better than fourth dating back to 2010.
While the Gopher roster consists of only two seniors this year, both Carlson and Associate Head Coach Justin Smith said they will need to depend on a core of younger, but experienced players to once again return to the top of the leaderboard this week at the team’s only home event.
“Not only talent-wise and how young this group is, I think the energy and there’s an excitement that’s just different,” Smith said Thursday. “They can’t wait to get out there—not that they haven’t in the past, but we’ve got some youngsters that don’t know anything but being No. 1, whether it was in the country or state.
“It’s going to be exciting and it’s going to start today to see who wants to be on that top team. They’re all ready to go and they’re ready to compete. It’s just a really cool energy right now.”
The Gophers are searching for their first victory since the 2013-14 season, winning three times during the season before capturing the Big Ten Championship. Led by freshman and highly touted international player Jose Mendez, Carlson draws a number of comparisons to this season’s squad.
“In 2014 we had a team that was very similar to this year, it was a little more veteran, but from a talent standpoint, we had a lot of talent and we have a lot of talent now,” Carlson said. “We won early and then we won again and all of the sudden you think you’re going to play in the final group every week.
“As a coaching staff, our goal every year is to position ourselves to get into an NCAA regional. I’d like to taste a team victory with coach Smith and we want to taste that together. Not only are we coaching colleagues, but we’re running a tremendous program together, and we’re really proud of that.”
Minnesota will be without the services of Riley Johnson and Runar Arnorsson this season, two key components to the program for the last four years. Both Carlson and Smith said they will need strong performances from Thomas Longbella and Angus Flanagan in order to find success on the golf course once again.
“[Longbella and Flanagan] have the ability, even in the Gopher Invite on a course like this, to win,” Smith said. “I think these two can win any tournament they play. Once they believe it and get in the mix a few times, which will happen, I’d love to see those two piggyback off of each other and go into any tournament, no matter who we’re playing, who might be chasing us from behind, the sky is the limit.”
“There will be some surprises no doubt, but we’ve got a group—between Evan Long and Harry Plowman-Ollington, Lincoln Johnson, Will Grevlos and Noah Rasinski, who transferred in. We’ve got some really good predictability there and hopefully we can time it and guys are playing well at the right time. Before you know it, we can beat some of these teams. With a good, young core, I think that we’ve got five or six guys that could surface as key players.”
This week marks the only time the Gophers will play a home event this season, and while Smith will be watching the leaderboard closely when the championship begins Sunday, the camaraderie between his young Gopher team will be equally as important to begin the season.
“I hope these guys feel a real sense of pride the only time we compete in our hometown and on our home soil,” Smith said. “We’re going to put a good product out there, but at the end of the day, I want to see these kids play with passion and excitement. Being out there, all five of them, talking across the fairway, fist pumping and feeding off of each other.
“We know execution comes and goes and we continue to address that every day so they’re as sharp as they can be. We expect this group to be in contention and win some tournaments. We’re going to play against the best and keep growing. Being a young group, sometimes they don’t know just how good they are or how good they can be, and there’s no reason that can’t start right here.”
Now in its 14th season, the Gopher Invitational has blossomed into one of the nation’s best tournaments, helped along the way by a number of people within the program, as well supporters of Gopher golf, such as the Meyer family, owners of Windsong Farm.
“We really want the teams that come here to have a tremendous experience and we want them to walk away from the state of Minnesota thinking that this is about as good a place as you can play in September,” Carlson said. “The vision of this tournament continues to grow and we would like to have grandstands and a big following, but we’re fortunate that Windsong is all-in when it comes to this event. The Meyer family wants to see the tournament thrive. It not only helps us recruit, but it helps us grow as a team.”
The Gopher Individual takes on a new identity this year as it will be hosted by the University of St. Thomas and called the Pioneer Creek Collegiate. Teams at the Gopher Invitational have the option to play individuals at the Pioneer Creek Collegiate, while the championship will resemble a Minnesota collegiate championship of sorts, featuring Division III teams from across the state.
“The University of St. Thomas was looking to host an event around the same time and we figured we’d join forces. It’ll provide a better experience with the 30 individuals that are playing with teams at the [Gopher Invite],” Carlson said. “It’s going to be a field of 80-plus players and I think it’s going to be a great experience.
“The intention of the Pioneer Creek event is to give the teams playing the [Gopher Invite] the ability to make an early team trip and bring as many guys as they want. From our end, I’d like to see all the best teams from the Midwest be at that tournament. In the future, I think we’re going to see the best Division II and Division II teams wanting to play that event.”
The 2018-19 season kicks off when the Pioneer Creek Collegiate gets underway Saturday beginning at 2 p.m. at Pioneer Creek Golf Club. The 2018 Gopher Invitational begins Sunday with tee times beginning at 7:15 a.m. at Windsong Farm.
THE 2018-19 GOPHER MEN’S GOLF TEAM AT A GLANCE
Campbell Fisher (senior, Eatonton, Ga.)
One of just two seniors on this year’s team, Fisher was named team captain prior to the 2018-19 season and both Carlson and Smith expect him to play an integral role in the leadership of a young Gopher squad.
Though he’s played in four tournaments during his time at Minnesota, Fisher has been named the Gophers’ 2002 National Championship Team Teammate of the Year and has earned Academic All-Big Ten honors. At the St. John’s University Fall Invitational last year, Campbell finished in a tie for 44th.
“Campbell Fisher is the ringleader of this team; he's as passionate as anyone and no one exemplifies a student-athlete more than him,” Smith said. “He's been a Student-Athlete of the Month here before, so the whole department loves him, we love him and his teammates love him. He's going to play a huge role in making sure the cohesiveness is there.”
“He’s had strong academic success here at Minnesota and that’s really carried over into the way he’s led,” Carlson said. “He values student as much as he does athlete and he’s going to be able to lead in so many different ways this year, both on and off the golf course.”
Angus Flanagan (sophomore, Woking, England)
Flanagan entered his freshman season looking to make an immediate impact and did not disappoint, playing in 11 events and posted a 73.22 scoring average. He notched four top-35 finishes, including a fifth-place finish at the Maui Jim Invitational in just his second collegiate start.
Prior to joining the Gophers last fall, Flanagan’s accomplished international resume included winning the 2016 Carris Trophy and a third-place finish at the 2017 Peter McEvoy Trophy tournament—events a number of English golf stars, including 2013 U.S. Open champion and Olympic Golf Medalist Justin Rose, have claimed.
In Late June, Flanagan placed in a tie for 25th at the British Amateur Championship at Royal Aberdeen before falling during the first round of match play.
“He’s had a great summer and had as good a fall season as any freshman in a long while,” Smith said. “Coming from halfway across the world, I think he’s settled in great and this year he’s almost going to be looked at as a veteran in a way.
Ben Frazzini (redshirt freshman, Wayzata, Minn.)
A prep standout from Wayzata High School, Frazzini led the Trojans to a pair of Class AAA team championships in 2015 and 2017. Frazzini redshirted during his freshman campaign following his finish at the Gopher Invitational tied for 31st. This spring, Frazzini fired a 5-under par 67 at The Wilds Golf Club to earn medalist honors in U.S. Open Local Qualifying.
“Ben has all the upside and his best assets are his driver and his ability to get to par-5’s. He also has great touch around the greens,” Carlson said. “Once his game management gets to more of a predictable level, I think that he could be a guy that vies for a spot in the lineup every single week.”
Will Grevlos (freshman, Sioux Falls, S.D.)
Grevlos claimed the 2017 South Dakota Golf Association State Junior Championship for a fifth time and claimed both individual and team titles while at Washington High School. Collecting victories in nine different states, Grevlos has four top-15 AJGA finishes to his credit, including a pair of top-5 finishes.
“An extremely talented player who has dominated in the state,” Smith said. “Just seeing him yesterday, he’s got more length than he did earlier. We love his ability to play because he’s got incredible natural ability.”
“Will gained 30 yards this summer and he doesn’t attribute it to anything—he maybe got a little strong after his high school season, but he’s got his swing where the ball is coming off the center of the club every time,” Carlson added. “He had to rely on getting his way around the golf course—low, high, right, left—and now he’s got a few shots he can rely on.”
Lincoln Johnson (freshman, Chaska, Minn.)
Johnson earned Minnesota State High School League All-State honors thanks to his fourth-place finish at the 2017 Class AAA championship. His scoring average of 73.0 as a junior is second in Chaska High School history, behind only former Gopher Jon DuToit. He qualified for a pair of U.S. Junior Amateur Championships.
“Lincoln has only continued to get better,” Smith said. “He comes in with a little bit of a chip on his shoulder—he was lying in the shadows of some other players in the state for a long time. He doesn’t know anything but being the guy.”
“He’s probably made the biggest strides as an incoming freshman from their sophomore to senior year of high school,” Carlson said.
Peter Jones (senior, Owatonna, Minn.)
As the only other senior on the team, Jones is looking to build on a strong start to the season a year ago when he finished tied for sixth at the Maui Jim Intercollegiate before notching a career-best 54-hole score at the Alister MacKenzie Invitational (206), helped by a career-low round of 67 for a pair of back-to-back top-10s. Jones played in four events during his junior season, finishing with a 72.67 scoring average.
“Peter had a tremendous fall for us last year—really carried us through two or three events and from a ranking standpoint, put us 58th after the fall season,” Carlson said. “He has all the ability to make things happen on the golf course. He’s now seen a lot of these courses, which helps, and I know he would like to leave a mark on the program both on and off the course, because he has also done very well academically also.”
Evan Long (sophomore, New Castle, Pa.)
Long appeared in three events during his freshman season with Minnesota a year ago, posting a scoring average of 76.00. He finished tied for 18th as an individual at the St. John’s University Invitational and made an appearance at the Big Ten Match Play Championship.
“Evan was competing against amateurs and professionals in Western Pennsylvania Golf Association events. That’s high-level golf over there. Their Mid-Amateur, Nathan Smith, does a lot on the national scene and Evan was able to play with those players all summer long, which is going to transfer when we tee it up on Sunday,” Carlson said.
“We wouldn’t be surprised if you fast forward nine months and Evan is leading the team in stroke average,” Smith said. “The style of his game is tailor-made for college golf on difficult courses. He will par it to death and doesn’t make the big mistakes. With a hot putter, he will be right up there.”
Thomas Longbella (junior, Chippewa Falls, Wis.)
Longbella played in nine events for the Gophers during his sophomore year, posting a 74.22 scoring average while claiming one top-10 finish and firing a career-low round of 63 at the Ka’anapali Classic. Longbella finished tied for 29th at the Big Ten Championships and tied the Gophers’ all-time low Big Ten Championships round with his 66 during the opening round.
“Thomas is one of our assistant captains—he’s a leader and one of the most experienced players and he’s taken an incredible leadership role,” Smith said. “He’s got an explosive golf game and shot some crazy low numbers this summer. He lost in an eight-hole playoff in the Wisconsin State Amateur.
“He’s ready to win a big tournament and he’s been there so he’s not afraid of who’s coming to town because he’s ready to go.
Gus Minkin (redshirt sophomore, York, Pa.)
Minkin redshirted during his freshman year and made two appearances during the 2017-18 season, including a 37th-place finish at the Maui Jim Intercollegiate as an individual.
“From a ball-striking standpoint, Gus is consistent and efficient. He’s a great teammate and there’s some things we’re going to continue to work on, but he’s a kid who will do anything you ask him to do,” Smith said. “He played well here last year and earned his way down to the Maui Jim Intercollegiate, so he’s familiar with the course.”
Harry Plowman-Ollington (freshman, Surrey, England)
Plowman-Ollington was a member of Surrey’s men’s league-winning and U18 teams. He placed 10th at the Carris Trophy, The England Boys’ U18 stroke play championship, and won the HMC Singles. He advanced to match play at the British Boys’ Championship and was a high school teammate of Angus Flanagan.
“Harry’s upside is incredible. We’ve seen him play at [Baltusrol Golf Club] in crazy conditions last spring and has ability to do what he wants will the golf ball. He’s got it all and to see him come into this arena right away, we’re really excited about it,” Smith said. “Whether he leads our team this week or is in the top-10, we’re probably going to lean on him a lot this year.”
“I think most coaches would say that you want to harbor your expectations on a freshman coming in, but he’s as highly touted as a freshman as we’ve had with Angus Flanagan and Jose Mendez since the Erik Van Rooyen and Donald Constable era. He has those accolades,” Carlson added.
Noah Rasinski (junior, Credit River, Minn.)
A transfer from Concordia University-St. Paul, Rasinski joins the Gophers following two seasons with the Golden Bears in which he was top scorer with a scoring average of 74.35. He notched three career victories, including the Northern Sun Intercollegiate Conference championship this spring.
“We’re excited about Noah—he’s quiet and I think he will surprise others, but I don’t think he would surprise us,” Carlson said. “We wouldn’t take on transfers if we didn’t think they wouldn’t make immediate impacts. We want them to further their skills in our program and I think this opportunity to play against the level of competition that we play with every week, is going to be his alley to the next level.
“He has goals that are high and felt at the Division II level that he had reached a lot of those goals. Now we’re excited to see what he can do at our level and we’d expect him vie for a spot every single week.”