Down 15 strokes and closing in on the lead on the final day of the Ivy League Championships, the Harvard men’s golf team hadn’t felt this type of pressure in a long time—the pressure that each shot could be the decisive factor in who wins and who loses the league crown. Team pressure more so than individual pressure.
With leaders Dartmouth and Columbia falling and Penn surging alongside the Crimson, Harvard had a chance to take the tournament for the first time since its only championship in 1975.
But the Crimson’s late surge was unable to overcome its early deficit, and Harvard finished in fourth place, just five strokes behind the victorious Quakers. It was the team’s closest finish since winning the event 37 years ago.
“The big thing this year at Ivies is that we finally felt pressure on ourselves, which was honestly just an unbelievable feeling,” captain Tony Grillo says. “In the past you never had that, and you didn’t know what you were missing. When Coach [Burke] came up to me and said, ‘We have a shot at this,’ all of sudden you have those nerves, and you kind of buckle down a little bit.”
The Ivy League Championship was a culmination of improved play for the Crimson over the spring season, as Harvard sharpened its game with each week coming off its spring break trip in Florida.
“We definitely underperformed in the fall and had a bunch of mediocre finishes,” Grillo says. “But in the spring, these last two weeks, we absolutely pulled together and played good golf.”
Two weeks before the league championships, the Crimson finished fifth out of 14 teams at the Princeton Invitational. The following weekend, Harvard finished second at the Century Intercollegiate, ahead of all other Ivy League teams in contention.
The performance put the team in a strong position heading into the final weekend, but the Crimson was not able to get over the hump. Harvard was a fairly consistent team this year, Grillo noted, rarely shooting very low or very high scores.
“In my eyes, that was the issue with our team this year: We just didn’t really have that jump which we needed at Ivies to overcome that lead,” Grillo says.
The fall was not as strong for the Crimson, as Harvard’s five fall tournaments resulted in mostly middling results.
Its best performance in the fall was a fifth-place finish out of 14 teams at the MacDonald Cup at Yale. In addition, the Crimson placed second out of three teams at the HYP match, eighth out of 18 at the McLaughlin Invitational, 12 of 22 at the Big 5 Invitational, and 11 out of 17 against a tough field at the Windon Memorial Classic at Northwestern.
But a defining mark of the 2011-12 team was the depth it possessed.
With the consistency of Grillo and fellow senior Mark Pollak, a strong sophomore class, and the addition of freshman Akash Mirchandani—who was named second-team All-Ivy along with Grillo—Harvard had a number of players who could compete with anyone in the league.
“We had the deepest team we’ve had since I’ve been here,” Grillo says. “[We] had [sophomores] Michael Lai and Kevin McCarthy, who were playing great golf in the spring. It could have been two or three other people on the team who could have gone [to Ivies].”
Grillo and Pollak ended their careers as two of the top players in recent program history, especially in terms of scoring average and national rankings. Grillo and Pollak’s averages of 72.53 and 73.33 this year, respectively, along with Grillo’s 73.28 two season ago, were the lowest since 1993-94.
“Tony and Mark’s consistency in tournaments I’ve almost come to take for granted,” says sophomore Theo Lederhausen, who will captain the team next season. “There will definitely be a void next year without them, especially with their leadership on the team.”
Lederhausen also notes, though, that many Ivy League teams are losing key contributors to graduation, so relatively, the Crimson will be just as strong, returning three starters at Ivies in Lederhausen, Mirchandani, and sophomore Seiji Liu.
Harvard plans to build upon this experience at Ivies next year as the team looks to remain in contention for the title.
“We were right there,” Lederhausen says. “And it’s always helpful to be in contention because next year, we’ll use that experience to build on that. I look forward to next year, and hopefully we’ll be one of the stronger teams again.”
—Staff writer David A. Mazza II can be reached at email@example.com.