Men's Notebook: Scodro shines as Irish senior

Notre Dame senior Max Scodro

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DAVENPORT, Fla. – In Jim Kubinski’s eight years as head coach at Notre Dame, never has his team been able to practice outdoors before March – the Indiana winters were too harsh. That changed this year, however, when the Irish teed it up three times last week at Knollwood Country Club, Kubinski’s home club, despite a few patches of snow, frozen turf, 38-degree temperatures and layers of thermal underwear.

For many Notre Dame players, those rounds represented their first exposure to outdoor golf in months. They had been limited to the team’s extravagant indoor practice facility – complete with hitting bays and an extensive short-game area – so bundling up for the elements still was a welcome reprieve.

Yet not every Irish player’s practice has been restricted to artificial turf and X-out golf balls. For tri-captain Max Scodro, those rounds at Knollwood were merely the extension of an active offseason geared toward polishing off one of the program’s finest careers.

In December, when many of his teammates headed home for the holidays, Scodro teed it up in Arizona at the Patriot All-America Invitational, a top amateur event where he tied for 44th. Afterward, the Chicago native stayed an extra week in the desert, playing a few casual rounds with his parents, who own a second home in Scottsdale. With a lenient class schedule during his final semester on campus – no classes on Friday – Scodro twice has flown to sunny Scottsdale to play on the long weekend, a college golfer’s dream setup. In five rounds at the Tom Fazio-designed Mirabel Golf Club, he hasn’t shot worse than 70, including two 63s and a 65.

Though Scodro was unable to repeat that kind of performance at The Match Play event held earlier this week near Orlando, he still won two matches to help lead the Irish to their first team title of the season. That the victory came here, on the Watson Course at Reunion Resort, only added to the good vibes surrounding the Irish program; the Big East Conference championship will be held on this track in late April. Said Scodro, No. 72 in the Golfweek/Sagarin College Rankings: “It’s reassuring to see our guys with this much confidence in February.”

In short, they simply are following their leader. Scodro, the Big East’s reigning Player of the Year, led the Irish in scoring in each of their five fall events, with three top-10 finishes and no result outside the top 25. “Boring golf,” he said. Told later of this analysis, Kubinski laughed and said: “Well, he’s playing solid every week.”

Scodro’s career is fascinating to chart. Kubinski remembers attending an AJGA event outside Chicago in 2006, Scodro’s sophomore year of high school. The hometown kid was laughing and smiling, and he had a fluid action. “My first thought was, ‘Who is this kid? He’s going to be good,’ ” Kubinski said.

And Scodro has been, winning an event during his freshman season, losing in a playoff at the Big East Championship the next season and, last year, at Innisbrook, capturing the individual conference title. Along the way, he has developed a delicate touch around the greens and an appreciation (and aptitude) for the simple shots. Kubinski recalled a pivotal moment from the 2009 Fighting Irish Gridiron Classic, at which Scodro secured a victory for the home team by sticking a seemingly impossible flop shot on the 18th to tap-in range. “He’d hit the dramatic shots, like that, but couldn’t execute basic chips,” Kubinski said.

Scodro is more well-rounded now, though that simply may be the natural evolution of his game under instructor Jeff Mory, who transformed Scodro from an “inside-out slinger” to an upright, powerful, complete ballstriker who primarily plays a cut.

Said Scodro: “Now my game is in great position to take it to the next level.”

The Irish certainly hope that means the NCAA Championship, and beyond.

• • •

PAC-12 PICK-EM: Washington’s victory Feb. 14 at the San Diego Intercollegiate further demonstrated the Pac-12 Conference’s incredible depth this season.

Who’s the best team? Well, that’s difficult to answer. Consider the top six teams in the Pac-12, all of which likely will be ranked in the top 10 at the start of next week:

UCLA is the top-ranked team in the conference at the moment, impressive considering that the Bruins have yet to benefit this season from an individual title from sophomore Patrick Cantlay. Nonetheless, UCLA won the U.S. Collegiate and has no finish outside the top 5, keeping the Bruins a serious NCAA contender.

USC arguably has the deepest team in the conference, with three players ranked inside the top 50 in the Golfweek/Sagarin College Rankings (No. 28 Steve Lim, No. 43 Anthony Paolucci, No. 49 Jeffrey Kang). The Trojans have been playing well of late, too, with a victory at The Gifford and back-to-back runners-up at the Amer Ari Invitational and San Diego Intercollegiate.

Stanford has tailed off after a blazing start at Olympia Fields last fall. Freshman Patrick Rodgers has been terrific, but Andrew Yun, David Chung and Cameron Wilson all need to pick up their play.

• Three wins last fall vaulted Oregon to No. 2 in Golfweek's rankings, but the Ducks turned in a humbling 12th-place finish in their spring opener in Hawaii.

California won twice in the fall, including the Alister Mackenzie, and Max Homa and Michael Kim have established themselves as the Bears’ go-to players. Let’s see how they fare this weekend in Hawaii, at the John Burns Intercollegiate.

Washington rebounded from a disappointing final day in Hawaii (that led to a seventh-place finish) to top a good field in San Diego. Walker Cupper Chris Williams and standout freshman Cheng-Tsung Pan can carry this team, though how far remains to be seen.

Perhaps USC coach Chris Zambri summed it up best when he said recently: “It’s fun to be around players who I’m going to be able to watch on TV the rest of my life.”

• • •

SHORT SHOTS: UCLA’s Cantlay and Texas’ Jordan Spieth are playing at this week’s Northern Trust Open at Riviera Country Club. Sure, it’s an opportunity to test themselves at a PGA Tour event, but it’s also a chance for two of the nation’s top college players to get a sneak preview at the site of the 2012 NCAA Championship.. . . . Rob Shutte, former women’s coach at Lehigh, has been named men’s coach at Rutgers. . . . Texas Tech won the UTSA/Oak Hills Invitational for the fourth consecutive year, and Baylor senior Joakim Mikkelsen prevailed in a three-hole playoff to win medalist honors over Texas Tech’s Clement Sordet.

• • •

A LOOK AHEAD

What: John Burns Intercollegiate

When: Feb. 15-17

Where: Turtle Bay Resort, Kahuku, Hawaii

Why it’s important: Nine teams in the field are ranked in the top 65 in the Golfweek/Sagarin College Rankings, led by No. 10 California and No. 12 Texas A&M. Cal won last year’s event at 30 under par, six shots ahead of the Aggies. New Mexico junior John Catlin is coming off his first individual title, at the Arizona Intercollegiate.

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