Illini in 'Seventh Heaven' after capturing Big Ten Men's Golf title
May 3, 2009
State College, Pa. -
Illinois men's golf has proven its ability to close out tournaments all season long. The 2009 Big Ten Championship was no different. The Fighting Illini, leaders by seven shots coming into the final round, extended that advantage and finished with a 13-stroke victory to capture the Big Ten title.
"I told them we've done this all year," said head coach Mike Small of his words of wisdom heading in Sunday. "We've been able to close out tournaments. We're not going to do anything different. It's proven well all season and we wanted to keep the same mindset."
For Small, who played on Illinois' last Big Ten title in 1988, it's a culmination of many close calls. In his previous eight seasons as head coach, the Illini have three seconds (in 2002, 2003 and 2004) and one third (in 2008). Illinois wins its seventh conference championship overall and do so without a senior on the squad.
The Illini also won their seventh tournament of the campaign, not only a school record, but also the most of any top 25 team this season.
"I got a little tired of all my colleagues putting on these shirts," Small said afterward pointing to the Big Ten championship T-shirts his squad received. "Our players have worked hard for it. When you surround yourself with seven quality guys and win seven times in one year, it's pretty special."
"We came out with a strong desire," said sophomore Chris DeForest, who tied for third individually. "We knew if we played our game and stuck to our game plan we would have at least a chance to come out on top. I'm just glad for my teammates that we composed ourselves and came away with a championship."
Illinois was eighth at +8 after the first round, but responded with the best score of anyone in both round two (four over par 288) and round four (one over par 285) and the second-best score in round three (even par 284).
Illinois, ranked 12th in the latest Golf World/NIKE Coaches Poll, finished at 13-over par 1149, tying the second-best 72-hole score in school history and well ahead of second-place Minnesota (+26) and third-place and 10th-ranked Indiana (+31). Ohio State, who entered final round play just seven shots behind Illinois at +19, finished tied for fourth with host Penn State at +34 in head coach Jim Brown's 36th and final season.
The victory, as it has been all season, was a total team effort. After a first round 76, DeForest put together rounds of 70, 69 and 71 on the 7,202-yard par 71 Blue Course to finish at +2 (286), just three shots behind individual medalist Eric Chun of Northwestern (-1) and two back of Penn State's Kevin Foley (E).
"I got mentally focused for the last three rounds," DeForest said. "We're a tough team that loves to play no matter the conditions and love fighting to the end."
Junior Matt Hoffman, whose 69 in round two was key for getting Illinois in position to make the charge, finished seventh at +4 (288). Freshman Luke Guthrie, whose tournament was highlighted by an eagle on nine in round three, tied for ninth at +6 (290) after a final round of even par 71. That gives Illinois three players in the top ten.
Still it was the first player out Sunday that really set the tone. Junior Zach Barlow jumped 27 spots in the final day into a tie for 17th at +11 after a three-under par 68, which tied Chun for the best round of the tournament.
"We couldn't have asked for a better guy to lead it off," Small said of Barlow. "We needed a catalyst today and he was it."
"Coach gave me a huge confidence boost coming into today," Barlow said. "I got off to a good start and just kept it going throughout the round."
Sophomore Scott Langley also finished in 17th at +11, giving Illinois all five guys inside the top 20.
"It's unbelievable how we pick each other up and feed off each other," Barlow said. "That makes it even more special."
On Monday, Illinois will find out which of the six NCAA Regionals it is headed to on May 14-16. The top five teams at each Regional qualify for the NCAA Championships May 26-30 in Toledo, Ohio. Small hopes his team can continue the same fight into the next few weeks.
"I'm impressed with how we went out and won the tournament and didn't back into it," Small said. "We didn't hit it particularly well this weekend, but we competed well. We didn't putt well early, but we putted well at the end and took care of the par fives today and yesterday. That's the theme we want to have for our program -- that we just go get it."