Iowa men's golf entrenched in UI winner's circle

Iowa men's golf coach Mark Hankins works with Barrett Kelpin during practice for the team at Brown Deer Golf Course in C
Iowa men's golf coach Mark Hankins works with Barrett Kelpin during practice for the team at Brown Deer Golf Course in Coralville on Friday October 15, 2010. (Cliff Jette/Sourcemedia Group News)

CORALVILLE -- University of Iowa sports has a winner's circle. There's football, of course. Wrestling is after its fourth consecutive national title. Women's basketball is coming off an NCAA tournament appearance.

Men's golf is right in the middle of all this.

In three-plus seasons, coach Mark Hankins has the Hawkeyes pointed toward success they haven't achieved since 1992, the last time Iowa claimed the men's golf title in the Big Ten.

"The passion of Iowa fans, look at that," Hankins said. "They love winners. They love wrestling, they love football, they'll love basketball again when we're back on top.

"We've been getting that kind of support since we've become winners in golf. It's nice to feel like it matters. Some places it just doesn't matter enough."

This isn't the Hawkeyes'  championship season, that comes in the spring, but this fall Iowa has made some waves. We're talking national waves, beyond the Big Ten.

Two weeks ago, Iowa won its third consecutive tournament. It wasn't a dual meet in Indiana. This was the Rod Myers/Duke Invitational in Durham, N.C. The Hawkeyes beat southern schools on their own turf. They topped No. 14 North Carolina State by five strokes (851-856) with No. 41 NC-Charlotte finishing nine back.

Iowa had low scorers. Brad Hopfinger, a senior from Lake Forest, Ill., finished second. Vince India, a senior from Deerfield, Ill., tied for fifth. Chris Brant, a junior from Edwardsville, Ill., tied for 20th along with Barrett Kelpin, a junior from Kalamazoo, Mich. Linn-Mar's Brad George rounded out the scoring with a tie for 30th.

"A strong fall will help our rankings," said Hopfinger, who transferred from Kansas. "It's all based on who you beat and how much you beat them by. Right now, we're playing well because we've come off a ton of golf this summer."

At Spirit Hollow in Burlington in late September, Iowa won Golfweek's second annual Conference Challenge, topping North Carolina by 15 strokes. Brant and India shared invidual medalist honors. The next week, Iowa finished first out of 15 teams at the Notre Dame's Fighting Irish Gridiron Golf Classic, finishing six strokes ahead of Notre Dame. Hopfinger finished third; India tied for seventh. 

"We've kind of grown up together in the Iowa program," Brant said. "We've learned to feed off each other and play together. We've developed as players and teammates. We've come a long way. There's still work to be done, but I think we have the capabilities to do big things this year."

This has been a three-year process since Hankins, a native of Mount Pleasant, came to Iowa from Michigan State.

The Hawkeyes program was a bit of a fixer upper. When Hankins left Michigan State, the Spartans were a national team with two Big Ten championships, including Hankins' final season in 2007. Then, he came to Iowa City.

"We were last in the Big Ten when I got here and we were first at Michigan State," Hankins said. "So, I went from first to last, basically. People looked at me sideways.

"It's more than that. I wanted to return home and build a program I felt had potential to be a top 30 program. That's what our goal is."

The progression has been through the roof.

The Hawkeyes were 155th in the Golfweek Rankings when Hankins took over the program. Going into their final fall tournament (Baylor Intercollegiate on Nov. 1-2), Iowa will be ranked No. 18 by Golfweek. Iowa went without a tournament title since 2004 before a breakthrough at the 2008 Landfall Tradition in Wilmington, NC.

In 2009, the Hawkeyes finished at the NCAA Championships. Last season, Iowa missed a return trip to nationals by one shot.

The Big Ten title is a big goal. Iowa is getting closer. The Hawkeyes finished second to Illinois in last season's Big Ten tournament. The Fighting Illini will be two-time defending champions this spring.

And, oh yeah, the Iowa golf team finished last spring semester with a 3.25 GPA.

"That's right up there at the top. That's unbelieveable," Hankins said. "We're getting it done in a lot of different ways."

These guys are competitive in their qualifiers and it, apparently, carries over to the classroom.

"We're competitive people. We don't like losing at anything," Hopfinger said. "So, doing well in school is important to a lot of us."

After the Baylor meet, the Hawkeyes are off until February, when the championship season starts with the Big Four Matchplay Championship in Scottsdale, Ariz.

Iowa will go into the season with three players who made it to the 2010 U.S. Amateur Championship. India, Kelpin and junior Jed Dirksen competed in the event that Tiger Woods won three times on his way to stardom. Dirksen, a Hampton native who's transferring in from Central Florida, made it to the quarterfinals.

Not many teams can say that.

"I think we're building respect," Brant said. "We have great confidence, but I think now with the finishes we've had over the last couple years, I think people are starting to take notice of the Iowa program."

The Iowa golfers can feel the support from the community. It helps to be in the UI winner's circle."We don't want to be the dud of the athletic department and not be any good," Hopfinger said. "We like being able to say we've accomplished all we've accomplished."