Thomas Pieters had three birdies and just one bogey on Thursday.
June 2, 2011
Stillwater, Okla. - And then there were eight. Illinois is one of those eight teams that leave the Karsten Creek Golf Club Thursday with a chance to win the national title. The Illini finished the 54-hole stroke play round at the NCAA Championship tied for third in the 30-team field and will be the fourth seed in the eight-team match-play tournament, which begins Friday morning in Stillwater, Okla., to determine the NCAA team champion. Illinois will take on No. 5 seed Georgia beginning at 10:45 am.
On a day when the dreaded Karsten Creek winds finally reared its head, Illinois got a career best two-under par 70 from freshman Belgian Thomas Pieters and a two-over par 74 from senior Chris DeForest to post a 13-over par 301. The Illini tie top-ranked and host Oklahoma State for third with the Cowboys claiming the tiebreaker, which is cumulative dropped score for the three rounds.
Three teams from the state of Georgia and two from the Big Ten highlight the eight qualifiers. The rest of the quarterfinal match-ups feature No. 1 seed UCLA vs. No. 8 Duke; No. 2 Georgia Tech vs. defending national champion and No. 7 seed Augusta State, and No. 3 Oklahoma State vs. No. 6 Ohio State. In total, four Big Ten teams finished among the top 11 with Iowa and Michigan tying for 10th in the stroke play portion of the competition.
After the round, junior Luke Guthrie was named one of 15 PING All-Americans and joined DeForest on the all-tournament team as top-15 finishers. Guthrie shot a five-over par 77 on Thursday to tie DeForest for 13th overall at +2. Only Scott Langley (1st in 2010), Steve Stricker (9th in 1988) and D.A. Points (12th in 1999) finished higher individually at an NCAA Championship competing for Illinois than Guthrie and DeForest.
Illinois assures itself of its best NCAA Tournament team finish since 1950 when the Illini were eighth. The best finish in school history came in 1941 when they placed fourth.
Each match consists of five individual head-to-head match-ups against an opponent. Parings for the round are based on year-long computer rankings. The Illinois-Georgia match will consist of Illinois' Mason Jacobs vs. Bryden MacPherson at No. 5 (10:45 am tee time), Pieters vs. T.J. Mitchell at No. 4 (10:54 am); Chris DeForest vs. Hudson Swafford at No. 3 (11:03 am); Langley vs. Russell Henley at No. 2 (11:12 am) and Luke Guthrie vs. Harris English at No. 1 (11:21 am).
"It was a pressure-packed day with a lot of wind," head coach Mike Small said. "It added to the travails on this golf course, but we got through. Now it starts over again for this week. All eight teams have a chance to win. What it means for the program is we're climbing the ladder. We're getting better and better every year."
While Illinois entered the day in third place and more importantly 12 strokes ahead of the No. 9 spot, it didn't hurt to add to the cushion with a strong start from Pieters, who finished 20th in the 156-man field at +4 overall. The freshman drained a 40-foot birdie putt on the fourth hole, the fourth toughest on the course on Thursday, and chipped in from the fringe on No. 5. He had just one bogey on his round of 70, tied for the best round of the day by any player.
"I made two unusual birdies early on then I basically didn't make any mistakes," Pieters said of his round. "I made good decisions and hit all the fairways which really helps here."
As far as posting his best career round, Pieters added, "It had to come some time. It's nice that's in the final stroke play round of my freshman year in the NCAA."
"Thomas did it today," Small said. "He should be proud of himself. He played solid from the first hole to the 18th hole. He didn't waver at all. Two under par on this course under these conditions when the scores were going big was big-time for us."
The semifinal matches are slated for 10 am and 10:45 am, respectively, on Saturday with the championship match at noon on Sunday. Illinois has had some success in match play this season, finishing second at the 16-team Callaway Collegiate Match Play in March. Langley and Guthrie also have done well in national amateur match play events during the summer.
As far as what it will take to have success this weekend, Small said, "Each man has to take care of himself and take ownership of their own match."
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