Three's Elite Company for Fighting Illini
May 1, 2011
West Lafayette, Ind. -
Flying home after Illinois won the 2009 Big Ten title, his teammates had trouble wrestling the conference trophy away from then freshman Luke Guthrie. Two years later, the Quincy, Ill., native along with seniors Scott Langley and Chris DeForest are now responsible for three of those trophies, while Guthrie can now also add Big Ten medalist to his list of accomplishments.
Guthrie fought off defending champion David Lipsky of Northwestern and Iowa's Chris Brant for a one-stroke victory, while he and the rest of the 11th-ranked Illini pulled away in dominating fashion in winning the school's third straight Big Ten crown and 10th overall in school history. Guthrie becomes Illinois' first Big Ten medalist since 1999, when Larry Nuger won the title the last time it was held at Purdue.
Legendary course designer Pete Dye drew up the Kampen Course to play long and be challenging for championship caliber golf. Sunday Dye was in the gallery to see the Illini shoot seven-under par as a team and post a +8 overall team score in winning the tournament by 19 strokes over second-place Northwestern (+27), who also shot seven-under par 281 as a team in the fourth round. Iowa finished third at +29.
The win marked the first three-peat in the Big Ten Championship since Northwestern won three straight from 1999-2001 and just the seventh time a team has won three straight in the history of the tournament, which dates back to 1920. It's also just the eighth time in the last 50 years that an Illinois team has won three straight conference crowns in any sport with men's golf joining men's gymnastics, which won its third straight Big Ten title a few weeks back. Illinois men's golf now has 21 team tournament titles in the last four years.
"For me, it's about getting the right kids around you - that are competitive and want to work hard," Illinois head coach Mike Small said. "They embrace the motto we have for this team and that is see how good we can be. The last two days we expanded on our lead and played solid golf. To go out and shoot seven-under par today on this golf course is pretty impressive."
Illinois began the day with a 15-shot lead, while enough for some margin for error, Small reminded his players of 2010, when coming into the final day with a similar lead, the Illini had to hold on to win by three strokes.
Sunday, the team championship was all but wrapped up at the turn, thanks in part to Langley, who had five birdies and shot 32 on the front nine. Langley got to within two strokes of the lead in second place at one time and finished in a four-way tie for fifth at +4 for the championship, his second top-five in his career in the Big Ten Tournament, after firing a three-under 69.
DeForest had three birdies and just one bogey on the day, while coming up just short in a few other birdie opportunities en route to a two-under par 70. The senior from Cottekill, N.Y., improved by two strokes in each of his round 76-74-72-70 to also be a part of the fifth-place tie at +4 and post his fourth career top-10 finish at the Big Ten Championship. Freshman Thomas Pieters gave Illinois four players in the top 10 individually, tying for 10th after his second even par round of the tournament. Sophomore Mason Jacobs tied for 32nd in the 55-player field after shooting 76 on Sunday.
"I will remember how we closed it out today," Guthrie said. "We came out here and took care of our business. Last year we needed a good back nine to win it. This year we had a good front nine to just put it away."
With the team title basically decided, fans could turn their attention to the individual race, which was as good as it has been in recent memory. For starters in team golf, it's not often that three title contenders were in the same paring, but Guthrie, Lipsky and Brant, the top player on the top three teams heading into the final round, were all members of the last group.
Lipsky began the day at +6 then posted five birdies in the first 10 holes to pull to within one stroke of the lead. Guthrie used an eagle on the par-five fourth to get to -1 before bogeying five to sit at even par after those same 10 holes. The tournament's first and second round leader Brant stood at +2, two shots off the lead.
Guthrie birdied 12, then made a long putt for bogey on 13 to remain at even par. Lipsky, who shot a 67 Sunday, saw his title hopes fade with bogeys on 11 and 14, but Brant made a charge. Back-to-back birdies by Brant at 15 and 16 saw him also get to even.
Guthrie sent his drive on that par five 16th into the fairway bunker, hit his second shot to within 70 feet of the green, used a wedge to get to within three feet of the cup and sank the putt to match Brant's birdie and get to -1.
After Brant and Guthrie each pared 17, both men face tricky two putts on 18, needing to both clear a steep ridge, Guthrie was first and played the ridge perfectly, needing only to tap in for the win at -1. Brant, also pared the hole and placed second at even par, while Lipsky finished his round with a birdie on 18 to end the tournament third at +1.
"When I recruited Luke, I felt he could win the Big Ten Championship," Small said. "I feel that he could win the national championship some day. I'm very proud of him. He played steady all weekend. There wasn't anything flashy, but he made a lot of four- and five-footers. Luke's a competitor. These types of courses set up pretty well for him."
"I had a lot of good players on my heels," Guthrie said. " I just wanted to go out and play a good solid round of golf. Even after Lipsky made his charge, I figured if I posted red numbers on the back nine, I was going to be fine. (The eagle) kind of got my round going. I was hoping to have some more birdies behind it. I couldn't convert on a lot of putts, but I stayed patient and it worked out in the end."
Illinois players will now focus on final exams before NCAA regional sites are announced on May 10. Those regionals will be held May 19-21 with the top five teams at each site advancing the NCAA finals May 31-June 5 in Stillwater, Okla.