IOWA CITY, Iowa -- When the University of Iowa men's golf team tees it up Tuesday at the 2012 NCAA Championships, the level of anticipation among the five players will be a little different. Two student-athletes have been on the first tee at the NCAA Championships plenty of times, while the three others have never been there before.
Iowa's five-man roster consists of two seniors, Barrett Kelpin and Chris Brant, who have helped the Hawkeyes qualify for the NCAA Championships in three of their four years. The team's three other players, sophomore Steven Ihm, redshirt freshman Ian Vandersee and true freshman Joseph Winslow, have never played in college golf's biggest event.
It's an interesting dynamic, but this group of players is clicking at the right time.
The combination of Kelpin, Brant, Ihm, Vandersee and Winslow put together an amazing comeback at the NCAA Athens Regional, climbing six spots on the leaderboard on the final day to qualify for the NCAA Championships. Iowa shot a final round score of +1 (284) to edge out New Mexico.
"We've had a lot of intrasquad competition this year," head coach Mark Hankins said. "We've had eight or nine guys make the lineup. Right now, we are going with the three younger guys and the two seniors. These five guys have performed the best, together as a team. We're kind of gelling after that NCAA Regional finish and want to carry that forward into the NCAA Championships."
The accomplishments of Kelpin and Brant over their four-year careers are astonishing. They were a part of Hankins' first recruiting class five years ago and committed to a program ranked 155th in the country.
Fast forward five years, and the Hawkeyes have been ranked as high as ninth, made four NCAA Regional appearances and three NCAA Championships.
Among the over 300 Division I men's golf teams, only 22 have made the NCAA Championships in three of the last four years. Kelpin and Brant have made that possible for Iowa golf.
If golf teams kept a win-loss record, the senior class would be a combined 318-115-7 in their four-year career (.723 winning percentage).
"It has been fun to see the team grow and develop and it has been a lot of fun to be a part of," Brant said. "Barrett and I, along with coach Hankins, helped lead the team into an NCAA Championships contender every year. It has been a great experience."
Kelpin knows just how valuable it is to have numerous NCAA Championships rounds under his belt. He also has confidence in the younger guys to put up good scores.
"Chris and I are pretty experienced at the whole NCAA Championships thing now," Kelpin said. "We are really excited to be going back and the young guys will be just fine. They've played a lot of tournament golf and have stepped up in big moments."
Of the three underclassmen, Ihm may have the most national tournament experience. He was a member of a junior college national championship last year with Indian Hills Community College before transferring to Iowa in the fall. Even with that experience, Division I golf is a different level.
"The national championships in junior college last year was a big event," Ihm said. "But, I tell people that every single tournament we play in at Iowa is just as big, or bigger, than the junior college national championship last year."
Even though NCAA Championships experience is lacking, Ihm believes the amount of amateur tournaments that the underclassmen have played over the years will help this week.
"Barrett and Chris have done an awesome job this year of leading the team and showing the rest of us how to play," Ihm said. "Even though they have more collegiate experience, the underclassmen have just as much overall tournament experience. We're young, hungry and can't wait to get there."
Winslow, the youngest player in the five-man lineup, has tried to soak in everything the two senior leaders have provided.
"Barrett and Chris are two of the best seniors you could possibly ask for," Winslow said. "They've been awesome to me and the other guys with their leadership abilities."
Vandersee redshirted last season and has now spent two years with Kelpin and Brant. He's looking forward to passing on the knowledge and tradition of the program they shared.
"You have two really strong leaders in Barrett and Chris," Vandersee said. "That's really nice to have. Two of us are freshmen that haven't played in an event like this. Steven played and won a national championship in junior college last year.
"It's a unique dynamic. I think the three of us younger guys will get the opportunity to learn and teach that to the inexperienced guys next year."
The first portion of the NCAA Championships runs Tuesday-Thursday, with 18 holes of stroke play each day. The top eight teams on the leaderboard Thursday advance to match play, where the 2012 national champion will be crowned.
When it comes to setting goals for the tournament, Brant is leading the way.
"We'd like to make match play," Brant said. "We were close last year, and we have a great shot this year, judging by the field and how we are playing. Our heart is set on winning a national championship. We want to get to match play to get the opportunity first."
Hankins knew this group of seniors would be special as soon as they stepped on campus four years ago.
"They've been competitive since their freshmen season," Hankins said. "Barrett and Chris were on our first NCAA Championships qualifying team and that was a pretty good sign of things to come. They were tough as freshmen and that has continued."
Iowa's three young guns will have the chance over the next few seasons to continue Iowa's streak of qualifying for the NCAA Tournament. As for the seniors, this will be their last tournament with a Tigerhawk on their bag.
"Barrett and Chris have made it common place for Iowa golf to be in the NCAA Championships," Hankins said. "That's where we derive some of our confidence. These freshmen and sophomores are learning their stuff from these seniors."
8 Hawkeyes are bound for Des Moines for the NCAA Championships.