BURLINGTON, Iowa – As Iowa’s Vince India put down his golf bag outside the clubhouse at Spirit Hollow Golf Course, he smiled and flashed a thumbs-up to teammate Chris Brant.
A simple gesture, but very telling. India and Brant had just tied for medalist honors at the Golfweek Conference Challenge. More importantly, they led the Hawkeyes to a dominating victory that brought unprecedented attention to the team from Iowa City.
Brant (64-75-67) and India (70-66-70) tied at 10-under 206, one shot ahead of North Carolina State’s Brandon Detweiler (69-71-67). It was the first college title for both Brant and India.
Iowa shot 31-under 833 to win by 15 shots over North Carolina State. Liberty finished third at 9 under par, after a school-record 271 in the final round. The Hawkeyes led by 15 shots after a school-record, 20-under 268 in the first round. They entered the final round with a 19-shot advantage.
“I’m extremely excited about how we continued to compete throughout the week,” Iowa coach Mark Hankins said. “A lot of that is attributed to having five guys that contributed.”
Every Iowa player had at least two rounds of par or better. Three players shot 66 or lower. Brad Hopfinger, who tied for 15th at 3 under par, shot a first-round 65.
The Golfweek Conference Challenge was a marked improvement over the Hawkeyes’ first tournament of the year, in which they finished a disappointing sixth at the Gopher Invitational.
“We were surprised at the way we played last week, and our finish,” Brant said.
The Hawkeyes have high expectations this year. All five starters returned from last year’s team, which finished second at the Big Ten Championship and sixth at the NCAA Central Regional, one shot out of a second consecutive NCAA Championship berth.
Four of Iowa’s starters competed at the 2009 NCAA Championship, where the Hawkeyes finished 17th. U.S. Amateur quarterfinalist Jed Dirksen will join the team in the spring.
Hankins, in his fourth season, receives a lot of credit for the Hawkeyes’ success. “He runs a pretty tight ship,” Brant said. “He pushes us every day, gives us something new, something different to push us to the next level.”
India said Hankins helped the team maintain a positive attitude after the struggles in its first event of this season.
A positive attitude allowed Brant to shoot a bogey-free 67 in the Conference Challenge’s final round. “I went out there completely loose,” he said. Brant was coming off a second-round 75 that was the result of trying too hard to replicate his opening 64, he said.
Hankins also helped Brant solve some swing issues that arose at the Gopher Challenge. Brant finished seventh at the Gopher with rounds of 69-75-76, but was unhappy with his ballstriking. “I hit some pretty wild shots,” he said.
A steep downswing caused him to hit the occasional high shot to the right, a shot that would have been severely punished in the inconsistent breeze that blew over the final two rounds at Spirit Hollow.
Hankins helped Brant fix the flaw a few days before the Conference Challenge.
Solid wedge play, and a well-timed break, was the key for India, winner of this year’s Illinois Amateur. All five of his birdies came with wedges in his hand, starting with a 93-yard shot to within a foot on the par-5 second hole. India made birdie on No. 4 after hitting a 99-yard shot to 2 feet. He hit a 103-yard shot to 3 feet for a birdie on the ninth hole.
He hit his next shot, a tee shot on the reachable par-5 10th, left toward a creek. Instead of going in the water, the ball plugged in ground under repair, about 5 feet from the hazard line. India layed up after taking a free drop, then hit a wedge to 10 feet and made the birdie putt. He hit another wedge shot to 10 feet on No. 11 and made that putt, as well.
India made bogeys on Nos. 14 and 15, just as Detweiler, who was playing in the same group, made his move. Detweiler made an 8-foot birdie putt on the par-3 15th, a 20-foot birdie putt on the par-4 17th and had less than 200 yards remaining for his second shot to the par-5 18th.
He hit the shot just short of the green, then ran his chip about 8 feet past and missed the birdie putt. Detweiler’s runner-up finish was his second consecutive top 10 to start the season, after placing 10th at The Invitational at Kiawah.
India had a chance to birdie the final hole for the victory. His third shot into the par 5 landed about 6 feet from the hole, but spun off the green and into the fringe. He got up-and-down for par.
“I stumbled a little bit coming in, made some bad swings and missed a few putts, but it was good enough to squeak out a good 70,” India said.
India was happy to share the title with his teammate, though. This week wasn’t about individual victories. It was all about the Hawkeyes.