Even during his years on the Nationwide Tour, John Carlson didn’t experience this level of celebrity. Last winter, while the Gophers golf coach was watching freshman Jose Mendez compete in a tournament in Nicaragua, Carlson got an up-close look at the influence his young Costa Rican prodigy was having on his sport.
“It was amazing to see the thrill on the faces of the young kids when they got to meet him and see him play,’’ said Carlson, in his third year as head coach. “I’d be in the elevator at the hotel, and the parents would say, ‘You’re the coach of Jose Mendez!’ That’s something we just don’t see very often. I think he’s starting a transformation in his country, and that’s really neat to see.’’
The only thing more gratifying to Carlson is witnessing the transformation Mendez has started with the Gophers. The 18-year-old has powered his team to three tournament titles this season, its best showing since 2003-04, and his two victories are the most by any Gophers golfer since Clayton Rask won a pair of tournaments in 2007-08.
Mendez’s fame grew considerably last July, when he won the Callaway Junior World Golf Championships — whose past champions include Tiger Woods, Phil Mickelson and Ernie Els. That earned him recognition as Costa Rica’s athlete of the year, a major accomplishment in a country with only 14 golf courses. His next ambition is boosting the Gophers into the top three at the Big Ten Championships, which begin Friday in French Lick, Ind.
“Our team is playing really good,’’ said Mendez, who leads the Gophers with a stroke average of 72.07 over the fall and spring seasons. “It feels amazing to help your team win a tournament, and it’s a lot of fun to compete and win with your teammates.
“I really wanted to go to college and get a degree and play golf. I know I have to improve a lot, and I’ve already made a lot of progress.’’
So have the Gophers. A program that won the NCAA title in 2002 had fallen off in recent years, finishing eighth at the Big Ten tournament in 2010 and 2011 and seventh in 2012. Carlson has revived it with a team of diligent, committed athletes who shared his belief that the Gophers should expect to be among the top three in the conference every season.
They got there in 2013, as Minnesotans Jon DuToit and Jon Trasamar helped them finish second. Mendez has lifted them further, with a well-rounded game and an easygoing manner.
Mendez said he chose the U because he wants to get a business degree before turning pro, and its academic offerings best suited him. Once he arrived, the coaching staff faced some uncharted territory — and so did Mendez.
“The amount he won as a junior golfer made it easy for him to step right into the lineup and be our top player,’’ Carlson said. “We knew it was going to be a challenge for us to deal with someone who really didn’t have any weaknesses in their game, which is very uncommon for a 17-year-old.
“But it’s a humbling experience when you come to the U.S. and play against the best players in the U.S. In the fall, he was finishing between eighth and 20th place, and he’s not used to that. We had to tell him that he would progress in his game, and he would see that in the spring.’’
Mendez said he has improved his strategy and consistency while honing his superb short game. He scored victories this spring in the Duck Invitational in Oregon and the Rutherford Intercollegiate at Penn State.
His celebrity also is spreading in a new country.
“We have young players in the top 100 rankings in the U.S. calling us,’’ Carlson said. “We had to knock down their doors the last couple of years to get them to think about us. I really want us to get back to relevance on the national scene, and we have.’’