DADE CITY, Fla. -- There are some moments that can only be classified as happening 'nowhere but Notre Dame.' On a bright and sunny Tuesday afternoon in central Florida, another one of those signature events in Irish athletics history took place, as the Notre Dame men's golf team charged from 12 strokes back in the final round of the BIG EAST Conference Championship and wound up defeating Louisville on the first hole of a sudden death team playoff at the Lake Jovita Golf & Country Club/South Course (par 72/7,031 yards) in Dade City, Fla. With the victory, the Irish won their third consecutive BIG EAST title (sixth in their 11 years as a league member) and locked up a third straight berth to the NCAA Championships, which tee off with regional play next month.
Notre Dame's comeback was record setting in several ways, starting with its final-round score of 16-under par 272, which shattered the old school record for a single round of 275, set at the 1999 Air Force Invitational (played at altitude in Colorado Springs). The Irish also carded the lowest 54-hole score in the program's 77-year history, a 22-under par 842 (281-289-272) that topped the previous standard by 12 shots (854 at the 2004 Nelson Invitational, played on a shortened par-69 course at Stanford). In addition, it established a new conference tournament three-round record, breaking Virginia Tech's mark of 865 set in 2002. Ironically, Tech was the last team to win three consecutive league titles (2001-03), although Notre Dame becomes just the second team to win three in a row on two separate occasions (1995-97, 2004-06), joining St. John's (1981-84, 1986-89) in that elite company.
'This was a statement win for our program and I couldn't be more proud of our guys,' said Irish head coach Jim Kubinski, who guided his charges to a second conference title in his two years at Notre Dame. 'We showed an incredible amount of maturity and resiliency to keep our heads, even after we found out we were going to a playoff. We didn't get overly excited, but we were confident and stayed positive with one another, and that turned out to be a big key to us winning this championship.'
What made Tuesday's rally even more special was the fact that all five Irish golfers made tremendous contributions to the victory. During regulation play, the bottom four players in the Notre Dame lineup all shot under par. Senior Tommy Balderston (Boca Raton, Fla./St. Andrews) was the first to finish up, shooting a four-under par 68 that equaled the best round ever posted by an Irish player in BIG EAST Championship play. That mark lasted all of 10 minutes, before senior tri-captain Scott Gustafson (Eden Prairie, Minn./Eden Prairie) rolled in with a five-under par 67. Yet, Gustafson's new record didn't stand much longer than Balderston's figure, as senior tri-captain Mark Baldwin (Laconia, N.H./New Hampton Prep) came along in the next group and drained a tricky eight-foot par putt on No. 18 to reset the school standard and match the conference record with a six-under par 66. Junior tri-captain Cole Isban (South Bend, Ind./Mishawaka Marian) then tacked on a one-under 71 to cap off the historic performance.
However, when it came to the playoff hole (par-4 No. 18), freshman Josh Sandman (Greensboro, N.C./Southeast Guilford) was the hero. The Irish rookie had shot the high round of the day for Notre Dame (76, +4), but playing in the second playoff pairing, he ripped his tee shot to the edge of a fairway bunker around 135 yards from the pin. Despite having a dangerous downhill lie on the front lip of the trap, Sandman confidently pulled out a wedge and stuck his approach shot to within 10 feet. He then strode to the green and sank his birdie putt, highlighting a one-under par showing for the Irish in the playoff (birdie, par, par, par), while Louisville went one-over in the same span (par, par, par, bogey) and was hampered when one of its tee shots found the lake next to the 18th fairway.
'I didn't realize what kind of lie I had (near the bunker) until I got right up there and saw my stance was going to be a little awkward,' Sandman said. 'But I wanted to help this team out after the round I had and I was able to put a good swing on and get it close. The putt was a little right-center of the cup, but I didn't have any thoughts other than just knocking it down to give us a little cushion in the playoff.'
'That was a huge shot sequence for any player to come up with, but Josh is really a freshman in name only,' Kubinski said. 'He played like a veteran today and coming up to that second shot in the fairway, he assured me everything would be fine and he was right.'
Entering Tuesday's round, Notre Dame was in third place, 12 shots back of Louisville and seven shots behind Marquette, and the Irish knew everything would have to go right and then some if they hoped to defend their back-to-back league titles. However, in an early-morning interview with a South Bend radio station, Kubinski paraphrased a statement made by 1999 U.S. Ryder Cup captain Ben Crenshaw before the Americans' legendary final-round comeback that year.
'I told the guys on the radio that I just had a real good feeling about our chances today,' the Irish head coach recalled. 'I don't know what it was, but I could sense that we had a great round in us. I can't say I saw this kind of score coming, but I certainly knew we had this kind of potential and I just thought our guys were ready to make that a reality.'
When the dust settled, all five Irish golfers finished this year's BIG EAST Championship among the top 20 in the 60-man field. Baldwin led the way with a tie for fifth place at four-under par 212 (69-77-66), setting a school 54-hole record for conference tournament play and also becoming the first Notre Dame player ever to be named all-BIG EAST three times. Gustafson and Isban tied for eighth place at three-under par 213, with Gustafson shooting round of 75-71 and a career-low-tying 67, while Isban carded steady marks of 70, 72 and 71.
'I was a little upset with myself coming off No. 18 today (after a bogey), but I didn't know how we had been doing,' Isban said. 'It was such an up-and-down round for us from an emotional standpoint, going from this great team score, to thinking about whether there would be a playoff or scorecard tiebreaker, to then going out and winning the playoff and conference title.'
Balderston was a late addition to the Irish lineup, having not played in a tournament all year long due to injury. In fact, one of his last events as a member of the Notre Dame travel squad came in February 2005, when he helped the Irish win the NOKIA Sugar Bowl Tulane Invitational at New Orleans on the first hole of a sudden-death playoff. His contributions this week led to another heart stopping win, as he finished tied for 13th place with a one-under par 215 (72-75-68), with his final-round score being one off his career best (67 at the 2004 John Dallio Memorial Invitational).
Despite his regulation struggles on Tuesday, Sandman closed out his first BIG EAST Championship in a 20th-place tie at one-over par 217 (70-71-76). That score is even more amazing when one considers that at this time last month, he had yet to play a college event. However, in the past three weeks, he has placed in the top 25 of all three tournaments Notre Dame has competed in (tie-25th at Augusta State, tie-2nd at Purdue, tie-20th at BIG EAST).
Tuesday's team playoff was the first in the 26-year history of the BIG EAST Championship. In fact, only one other time had the tournament needed a tiebreak -- in 1989, St. John's was awarded the crown (its most recent title) over Villanova based upon the second-round score of its fifth golfer, a tiebreaking procedure that is no longer employed by the league.
Notre Dame will play in one final tournament prior to NCAA regional action when it travels to Ardmore, Okla., May 13-14 for The Maxwell, which is considered one of the nation's premier tune-up events for regional play. Prior to that, the Irish will learn which of the three 27-team regional sites (Orlando; Chardon, Ohio; or Tucson, Ariz.) they will be sent to when the NCAA selection announcement is made at 5 p.m. (ET) on May 8. Notre Dame is likely to travel to the NCAA Central Regional, which will be held at the Sand Hills Golf Club in Chardon, Ohio. It will be the 33rd NCAA postseason appearance for the Irish, who will be seeking to make their first trip to the NCAA finals since 1966.