WALLA WALLA — Pete McClure is beginning his 17th season in charge of the Whitman College men’s golf program, and the Missionaries are coming off their best season during his tenure.
But four of the players who made it happen for the Whits last spring, when they finished second during the Northwest Conference’s regular season and sixth during the conference championship tournament, are missing this fall.
John Abercrombie of Portland, Ore., last year’s captain, has graduated. Juniors Andrew Welch and Jonathan Standen are studying abroad. And senior Peter Clark, who also plays basketball for the Missionaries, limits his golf experience to the spring portion of the season.
That said, McClure has never been more excited about a team.
“We have gotten a little stronger every year, and last year was definitely our best year,” McClure said in assessing his program’s progress. “But this year we have as strong a team as we have ever had.”
First and foremost, Scott Martin, a product of San Pasqual High School in Escondido, Calif., returns for his sophomore season. Martin was the Missionaries’ No. 1 player most of last year with a stroke average of 77 that led to his selection to the all-Northwest Conference first team.
“Scott was our most consistent player last year,” McClure said of Martin. “He is back, and he is doing really well.”
Also returning is senior Jeff Burks, who regularly finished among Whitman’s top five along with Martin, Clark, Welch and Standen.
“He has been a solid player for us for three years,” McClure said of Burks, whose 80 was second on the team in stroke average last season. Burks shot an even-par 72 recently to top the Whits in a qualifying round.
Also back from last year’s team is sophomore Nathan Fisher while junior Jordan Dixon has turned out for the golf team for the first time. They placed sixth and seventh, respectively, during qualifying.
But what really revs up McClure’s motor is a trio of freshmen who he believes have the talent and skill to boost his team over the top.
Evan Dyar, from Mead High in Spokane, the grandson of Clyde Dyar, a longtime Walla Wallan who died last year, fired a 1-over-par 73 in his first qualifying match and finished second, one shot behind Burks. Daniel Hoffman of Woodside Priory in Los Altos, Calif., finished third in the qualifying round with a 76. And Connor Hood, Sammamish High in Bellevue, Wash., finished fifth in qualifying with a 79, two shots behind Martin’s fourth place 77.
“These freshmen are really into the game,” McClure said. “They have been playing at a high level all over the place.”
McClure noted that Dyar recently survived the cut at the Pacific Northwest Golf Association’s Amateur Championships that were played at the Wine Valley Golf Club.
“Evan Dyar is really going to sparkle,” McClure predicted. “Right now he and Scott (Martin) and Jeff (Burks) are our three top players, and they are going to be very close all year.”
And Hoffman and Hood aren’t far behind, the coach suggested.
“Daniel is pretty darned good,” McClure said. “And Connor is getting it together.
“I think our freshmen are ready. And you throw Scott and Jeff in there, this is clearly the strongest team we have ever had.”
McClure pointed out that the team’s top four scores during qualifying — Burks 72, Dyer 73, Hoffman 76 and Martin 77 — totaled 298.
“And that,” McClure said, “is a really good score. I am anticipating these guys are going to flourish. I anticipate we will do well.”
And when you consider that Welch and Standen will be back on campus second semester after spending the first in Scotland, and that McClure also expects Clark back on the links once the basketball season is over, Whitman’s prospects burn even brighter.
“Prior to last year, we were always kind of in the middle of the bracket in the conference,” McClure said. “We would have good rounds, and then we would go a little bit high. We couldn’t crack into that top third until last year.
“It’s all about having better players, guys who have the experience and know what they are doing. These three freshmen are going to come in here and speed up the process.
“And the good thing is that these guys came to Whitman to be on the golf team, whereas in the past we have had guys come to Whitman and then decide to play golf.”