Big Ten Champions // 21st Place NCAA Championships
The Illinois men's golf team continued its winning tradition during the 2011-12 season, adding another NCAA and Big Ten individual champion to the record books along with a fourth-consecutive Big Ten team title and fifth-straight trip to the NCAA Championships. Head coach Mike Small guided a youthful squad, featuring two freshmen and a sophomore, to a successful postseason run in his 12th year at the helm. Small coached sophomore NCAA champion Thomas Pieters and senior Big Ten champion Luke Guthrie to the top of the leaderboard on both the national and conference stage.
Pieters won the NCAA title by three strokes at the Riviera Country Club, giving Illinois its second national champion in the last three years. The Nijlen, Belgium, native fired a 5-under par 208 to earn the Arnold Palmer Award as the individual medalist and join Scott Langley (2010) as the only other national champion in program history. Illinois became the first school to have two different national champions in a three-year window since Arizona State produced back-to-back champions in Phil Mickelson (1992) and Todd Demsey (1993). Pieters also was named a PING first-team All-American, becoming the fifth first-team selection at Illinois and third Illini honoree in the last three years.
As a team, Illinois finished 21st overall at the NCAA Championships and was one of just six schools to compete at nationals for the fifth year in a row, joining Florida, UCLA, USC, Texas and Texas A&M in the elite group. The Illini were in contention for the eight-team match play final with 18 holes remaining but dropped back during the final round in Pacific Palisades, Calif.
The Orange and Blue earned their fifth-straight trip to nationals after tying for third at the NCAA Norman Regional. The Illini, who were seeded seventh entering the regional, played well above their seed and finished behind only eventual national team champion Texas and regional champion Washington at the Jimmie Austin OU Golf Club. Individually, Pieters placed second after the regional champion made eagle on the final to win by one, and Guthrie (T-7th) and freshman Brian Campbell (T-10th) each finished in the top 10.
The start of postseason play saw Illinois capture its school-record fourth consecutive and 11th total Big Ten title, as it completed the fourth four-peat in Big Ten history with a thrilling finish over Indiana at the Pete Dye Course in French Lick, Ind. Guthrie carded a 5-under 211 and won Big Ten medalist honors for the second year in a row, making him the third repeat conference champion in school history and first at Illinois since Steve Stricker (1988-89). A chip-in eagle by redshirt junior Mason Jacobs and a 20-foot birdie putt by Pieters sealed the comeback victory after the Illini fell behind the Hoosiers down the stretch.
Following the conference competition, Guthrie was picked as the Big Ten Player of the Year, while Small garnered Coach of the Year honors for the fourth year in row and fifth time in his career. Guthrie and Pieters, who finished fifth overall, were both selected to the All-Championship team and tabbed as first-team All-Big Ten selections. Jacobs was recognized by the conference for the first time in his career with a second-team selection. Illinois also became just the third school in Big Ten history to pull off a four-peat, joining Michigan (1933-36) and Ohio State (1976-80 & 1982-87) in the elite club.
Illinois' other team title came during the fall season when they repeated as champions at the D.A. Weibring Invitational. Guthrie earned his first medalist honors of the year at the event in Normal, Ill., and added another first-place finish at the Boilermaker Invitational, the Illini's final regular season event. The Quincy, Ill., native earned his second career All-America honor with a second-team nod and wrapped up his career with seven total tournament titles along with finishing as the season (71.19) and career (72.08) stroke average leader at Illinois.