Youthful Illini Look to Stay on Top This Spring
Jan. 23, 2014
CHAMPAIGN, Ill. - After recording a fall season school-record team stroke average of 282.75, head coach Mike Small's Fighting Illini men's golf team has its sights set on even more postseason success as the 2014 spring season begins Saturday with the Tinervin Cup, the team's annual match-play event against Illinois State. Illinois won two fall tournaments, posted the best 54-hole team score in school history and saw Brian Campbell notch a school record and the second-best 54-hole score in Big Ten history. That led to a final fall ranking of No. 5 in Golfstat and No. 6 in the Golf World/Nike Golf Division I coaches poll and the Golfweek/Sagarin rankings.
That stays consistent with the "Win tournaments in the fall, win championships in the spring," mantra that Small has preached throughout his 14-year tenure with the Illini. And this season's squad has already shown that it took many lessons from the 2012-13 campaign that ended with a fifth-straight Big Ten championship and a runner-up finish at the NCAA Championships. With four of the five top scorers back from that team, Illinois looks to remain a factor on the national stage.
"I've learned from my teams the past several years, you try to never expect anything out of a team," Small said. "We talk all the time about how expectations are bad for golf. You don't play with expectations. You play the best you can, you believe you can win, but you don't expect to. So to have expectations about my team is not fair to them. I wasn't going to limit them. I'm not surprised if they play well.
"In golf, you can never really bank on how you're going to be because there are so many facets to the game and it's such a mental roller-coaster of a season. I thought talent-wise, we had the ability to be good. (Finishing the fall ranked) fifth in the country says a lot about them, the effort they put into it and the way we played our game."
When 2012 NCAA champion and 2013 Big Ten medalist Thomas Pieters turned pro after the 2013 campaign, the leadership role on the team was up for grabs. But Illinois was paced by the trio of junior Brian Campbell and sophomores Thomas Detry and Charlie Danielson in the fall, with all three notching stroke averages below 71 for the four fall events. Campbell finished the fall ranked No. 18 in the Golfweek/Sagarin individual rankings, while Detry was No. 40 and Danielson No. 67, the top three Big Ten golfers in the rankings.
Campbell and Detry each earned their first collegiate victory, with Campbell carding a school-record 197 (-13) at The Macdonald Cup in early October and Detry posting a 209 (-4) to win the Wolf Run Intercollegiate in late September. Both recorded three top-10 finishes during the fall, Campbell was named Golfweek's Big Ten player to watch in the magazine's spring conference preview and Detry was named a second-team All-Amateur by the Global Golf Post.
During the fall, Danielson took third at The Macdonald Cup and fourth at Wolf Run. He also played two strong rounds at the Isleworth Collegiate Invitational to finish the fall, but missed the tournament's opening round with an injury, which kept him from being included on the individual leaderboard.
"Those guys led by committee, which is strong for a team to have," Small said. "Each one of them has the capability to be the alpha dog, so why can't they all do it? The reason we played well last fall is because we had a team effort. We had some guys step up and our No. 4 and 5 guys were really the key, too. Those guys grew up last fall and showed some promise in their games and their scores."
While scores from Campbell, Detry and Danielson didn't shock many around college golf, the results that may have surprised some were those coming from sophomore David Kim and fifth-year senior Jonathan Hauter. Kim competed in 23 rounds as a freshman but played as part of the team in only three tournaments. An under-the-radar recruit out of California, his 2012-13 stroke average of 74.22 may have made some wonder how soon he could crack the Illini lineup on a regular basis. And Hauter had only 26 collegiate rounds to his credit heading into the fall, with a tie for 25th place at the 2011 Northern Intercollegiate his best 54-hole finish.
Both golfers showed that they belong, though, as each carded two top-10 finishes and regularly shot par or better. Kim finished the fall slate with four rounds under par and one at par, while Hauter had four and one, respectively. Both impressed at The Macdonald Cup, as Hauter shot a 204 (-6) to place fourth and Kim posted a 208 (-2) to tie for eighth. Kim also took third and Hauter tied for seventh at Wolf Run.
"Jonathan and David have shown that they can play at this level, which was a big step for both of them coming off last spring and into the fall," Small said. "Their point of emphasis is they really need to chisel away at some deficiencies that limit them on some of the tougher golf courses."
"These two guys have to understand that they belong in Division I golf and they have to have their game gravitate toward the tougher fields and the better competition. Start contending against the top players in the country instead of just against the fields that aren't as tough. If they can understand that and keep working at their physical deficiencies, they can be good."
Add to that quintet junior Alex Burge, who had a rough fall but has shown that he also belongs on the big stage, tying for 17th at the 2013 Big Ten Championships and posting a career-best 54-hole score of 215 (+5) at the 2013 NCAA Championships, including a final-round 69. The Bloomington, Ill., native also defeated Texas' Cody Gribble 3 & 2 in the NCAA match-play quarterfinals last season, helping the Illini to a 3-2 win on their way to the NCAA championship match.
"He didn't play his best last fall and he knows that," Small said of Burge. "He's working on some changes - trying to fine-tune his game - and he's going to have a chance to play this spring. He's obviously been a big part of our last two postseason runs. He's got some leadership skills, which I like and which we need as part of the team. And he'll be given the chance to compete for one of the top five spots with the other five guys."
The Illini kick off the 2014 spring slate Saturday at the Tinervin Cup in Placida, Fla., their annual match-play event with Illinois State. Illinois is 10-0 all-time in the event after posting an 8-1 victory last season, sweeping the doubles matches and going 5-1 in singles. The Orange and Blue will take the six-man roster of Campbell, Danielson, Detry, Hauter, Kim and Burge to the event.
"This is a great start to our spring," Small said. "It gives us a chance to go down and play when people around here aren't thinking about golf. We're going to go down and play a competitive weekend against a good Illinois State team. It's going to expose things that we're good at individually and as a team, and things we're not. Then we'll come back and address those.
"We play a great course at the Coral Creek Club and then to have Jeff and Madalyn (Tinervin) - who we thank and who are a big part of our program - put on such a fun weekend for us, it's a trip our team looks forward to."
And the Illini, who are one of only six teams in the nation to qualify for the last six NCAA Championships, look forward to increasing that streak to seven by reaching the 2014 NCAA Championships at Prairie Dunes Country Club in Hutchinson, Kan., in May. The format of the championships will change this season, as the top 40 individuals following 54 holes of stroke play will advance to a fourth round of stroke play to determine an individual champion. The top eight teams after 54 holes will still advance to match play, but both the quarterfinal and semifinal rounds will be played on the same day, with the championship match held the next day.
The event also moves to a Friday-Wednesday (May 23-28, 2014) slot on the calendar from its previous Tuesday-Sunday window in order to accommodate coverage by Golf Channel, which will televise the final round of stroke play and both days of match-play competition.