WALLA WALLA, Wash. Ė Armed with potential aplenty and rising expectations, the Whitman College menís golf team kicks off its spring season this weekend with a 36-hole tournament in western Oregon.
"This group has more talent, cohesiveness and team spirit than weíve had in a few years," veteran coach Peter McClure says. "The potential is definitely there for us to compete at a higher level. We have two players who have the ability to finish in the top 10 in any of our tournaments, and we have other guys with the potential to make strong contributions to our team score."
Whitman gets its first spring taste of tournament action in Sundayís opening round of the Pacific University Invitational, which gets started at 11:30 a.m. at the Meriwether National Golf Club in Hillsboro, Ore. Round two tees off at 8 a.m. Monday on the Ghost Greek Course at the Pumpkin Ridge Golf Club in North Plains.
McClure, in his 11th season as head coach, has Brian Barton, a 6-foot-4 freshman from nearby Pasco (Wash.) High School, pegged to play as Whitmanís No. 1.
"Brian has the talent to be an all-conference player," McClure says. "He is a very patient player who knows his way around a golf course. He can hit some very creative golf shots. Heís an excellent putter, he drives the ball a long way, and he hits a lot of fairways.
"Brian was a very good player on his high school team, and he has played extensively in Washington Junior Golf Association tournaments as well as other local tournaments."
Barton shot even par last Friday, offsetting two bogies with two par-5 birdies when he and his teammates played nine holes at the Walla Walla Country Club.
"That was an excellent score for someone who had not played much since the start of the year. Other than 18 holes in the Tri-Cities and nine holes at Veterans Memorial here in Walla Walla, he had not played at all since the fall. Brian is just getting started this spring, which is the case for just about everyone on our team."
Early last October, Barton placed sixth at the Northwest Conference Northern Colleges Fall Tournament. A few weeks later, he tied for 12th at the NWC Fall Classic.
"As a freshman at Whitman last fall, Brian didnít have time to play a lot of golf, but he still competed at a high level in the fall tournaments," McClure says. "And he was playing on courses where he had little or no experience."
Paul De Barros, a sophomore co-captain who fills the No. 2 spot for Whitman, also has all-conference potential, McClure says. "Paul had a very good freshman year for us a year ago. He struggled at times last fall, but heís starting to hit the ball more consistently, and we expect good things from him this spring."
For De Barros, the highlight of his freshman campaign came at the NWC Fall Classic, when he fired a 1-under par 71 to finish in a fifth-place tie. "Paul needs to play with more consistency to regain the form he had a year ago," McClure says. "He wasnít off his game by that much last fall, but it kept him from putting two good rounds together. Iím sure that with more practice and tournament experience Paul can play at a consistently high level. Heís a very talented player."
Chris Huong, a sophomore, and Noah Jolley, a freshman from Freeland, Wash., will fill the No. 3 and No. 4 spots for Whitman. "Itís very promising to start the season with two sophomores and two freshmen in our top four," McClure says. "It gives us a great foundation to build around."
"Chris is still untested in that he didnít play many tournaments as a freshman, but heís a good player with real potential to improve," McClure says. "He also brings a very high fitness level to our team."
"Noah is also relatively inexperienced, but heís a strong player who hits the ball with authority," McClure says. "He was scoring in the same range as Paul and Chris last fall."
Juniors Kyle Buckingham and Jared Burns will play No. 5 and No. 6 for Whitman at this weekendís tournament.
Buckingham, a co-captain, missed last fallís tournaments while studying abroad. "Kyle hasnít played as much this academic year, but heís definitely a more mature player who has taken a leadership role with the team," McClure says. "His desire to play is higher than it was in his first two seasons, and thereís no reason for him not to lower his scores this spring. Kyle didnít break into the 70s during his first two seasons, but he was right there at times in the low 80s."
"Jared hasnít had as much experience, especially in tournament situations, but he also has a lot of potential," McClure says. "He has remained very motivated and has continued to work on his game on his own time."
Rounding out the spring golf roster are brothers Grant and Garth Brandal, each of whom played on Whitmanís varsity basketball team this past winter. Both are unavailable for this weekendís tournament, but they will compete for tournament time later in the month.
"We can enter six players in each tournament, and our top four this weekend will make the travel squad for the NWC Spring Classic at the end of this month," McClure says. "Weíll play qualifying rounds in a few weeks to see who gets the last two spots."
Grant Brandal, a sophomore, is a "good player who hits the ball a long way," McClure says. "He still needs to work on his short game, but his physical attributes and potential are excellent. As he improves his short game and gets more accustomed to tournament play, he could lower his scores dramatically."
Garth Brandal, the only senior on the roster, is also "very strong and athletic, and heís only going to get better with more experience," McClure says. "Garth hasn't been playing competitive golf very long, but he can help us this spring."
This springís NWC Championships are set for April 19-20 at the Apple Tree Golf Course in Yakima, Wash.- 30 -