Thomas Pieters sinks his final putt on No. 9 to win the 2012 NCAA title by three shots. (AP Photo/Pierson Clair)
May 31, 2012
PACIFIC PALISADES, Calif. - University of Illinois sophomore Thomas Pieters fired an even-par 71 Thursday at Riviera Country Club to win the 2012 NCAA Championship by three shots with a 54-hole total of 208 (-5). The Nijlen, Belgium, native becomes the second Fighting Illini golfer to claim the individual NCAA title in the last three years, joining 2010 champion Scott Langley, who was the first in school history. Pieters also garnered the Arnold Palmer Award presented by Callaway for earning medalist honors and picked up PING first-team All-America honors, giving Illinois a first teamer for the third-straight year.
"It feels great and finally sank in once everyone got done out on the course," Pieters said. "The whole week was pretty solid. I hit a lot of fairways and greens again today. My mindset was to make a lot of pars and let other people make mistakes. Coach always tells me that if you play a steady round of golf, you won't have a lot of people finishing in front of you. I was disappointed we didn't make it to match play, but all my teammates are really happy for me, so it's pretty exciting."
Pieters, who was the lone golfer to shoot par or better for all three rounds, held his own during the final round and parred his way to victory over his playing partner Tyler McCumber of Florida and TCU's Julien Brun, who tied for second at 2-under. After starting on the back nine, he two-putted for par on his finishing hole (No. 9) to enter the clubhouse with a three-stroke advantage. His lead held up as the sophomore waited for his second career victory to become official while the final golfers finished.
"It made for a great day," head coach Mike Small said. "I couldn't be happier for Thomas. He played well all week and deserved to win. He was the clear cut winner and played better than everyone else. This is something the whole Illini nation is proud of."
Pieters began his final round on the back nine with five consecutive pars before bogeying his sixth hole on No. 16. He bounced back immediately by chipping in for birdie from the bunker on the par-3 16th. He then birdied No. 1 for the third day in a row and posted pars on seven of the last eight holes to remain in front of McCumber, who never got within more than two strokes down the stretch.
"It was a pretty straightforward bunker shot, and it went in, so it was good for me to gain a lot of confidence back," Pieters said. "It was good to play with Tyler because I knew how I was doing. I like to know where I'm at, so I checked the scoreboards every couple holes. I knew if I parred my way in, I'd be fine, and that's what happened."
With the individual victory, Illinois becomes 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).
"Hopefully people think of Illinois golf and excellence and having a chance to win a national championship," Small said.
As a team, Illinois faded to 21st place and finished with a 54-hole total of 887 (+35) after a 19-over par 303. The Illini entered the day tied for eighth place and in contention for a spot in the eight-team match play bracket, but failed to make the cut by 12 strokes.
"It was a downer day for the team," Small said. "It was something we didn't expect to do today, but it happened and we will move on from it. We didn't play well, but Thomas made it a good day, so now we will just get ready for next year."
In his final competition in orange and blue, senior Luke Guthrie carded a 3-over 74 and tied for 45th at 219 (+6). The Quincy, Ill., native wrapped up an illustrious career by competing at nationals all four years, being a part of four Big Ten team titles and winning back-to-back medalist honors at the Big Ten Championships.
"It was a quick four years, and I love the Illini," Guthrie said. "I was a little disappointed with how I played this week. I couldn't get enough putts to fall, but I hit the ball well overall and can take some positives from it. I am looking forward to the next level and getting that next part of my career started. I am also so happy for Thomas. He is a great player and finally starting to realize how good he is."
Guthrie's final season stroke average of 71.19 broke his own school record from last year, while his career average of 72.08 is the best by an Illinois golfer in program history. He will turn professional and next compete at a U.S. Open sectional qualifier in Memphis, Tenn., on June 4.
"Luke is going to go down as one of the greatest in Illinois history," Small said. "His record rivals Steve Stricker and what he did here. We wish Luke the best in his next endeavor, but we will miss him and his leadership."
While the collegiate season is over, three Illini will be in action on Monday to attempt to qualify for the U.S. Open. Small and Pieters will play at a sectional qualifier in Chicago, Ill., while freshman Brian Campbell will play one in his home state of California.
NCAA Championship Final Results
Riviera Country Club (Par 71 - 7,292 yds.)
21st of 30 ILLINOIS 295-289-303 = 887 (+35)
1st Thomas Pieters 69-68-71 = 208 (-5) *NCAA champion | Scorecard
T-45th Luke Guthrie 73-72-74 = 219 (+6) | Scorecard
T-123rd Brian Campbell 77-73-80 = 230 (+17) | Scorecard
T-123rd Mason Jacobs 76-76-78 = 230 (+17) | Scorecard
155th Alex Burge 81-87-80 = 248 (+35) | Scorecard