Feb. 21, 2005
The Illinois golf program has made a name for itself nationally under the direction of head coach Mike Small. The Illini have been the Big Ten runner-up the past three seasons, have participated in NCAA Regionals for three straight years, and have advanced to the NCAA Championships twice in the last three years. The success has allowed Illinois to put together one of the more competitive schedules in the nation. The Illini face top-level competition each time out, while playing some of the most challenging courses on the collegiate circuit.
The success over the past three seasons has also brought heightened expectations for the program. And despite a relatively young squad, the Illini once again have high aspirations in 2005.
Leading the way are two experienced seniors in Garrett Chaussard and Mike O'Neal. Chaussard is one of the most seasoned golfers in school history, having played in every tournament of his collegiate career, a streak of 43 consecutive events entering the spring. He played the best golf of his UI career this past fall when he was Illinois' top finisher in all five tournaments and recorded four Top-10 finishes. He led the Illini with a fall stroke average of 72.0 and was medalist at the Northern Intercollegiate, posting a winning score of 5-under par. Chaussard finished the fall ranked 38th nationally in the Golfweek/Sagarin ratings.
"Garrett obviously stepped up in the fall and played well and showed maturity," Small said. "He has continued to work on his fundamentals, he's more subtle in his golf swing, and he's playing with a lot of confidence. He's using his experience to his advantage."
O'Neal has also been a mainstay in the UI lineup during his career. He has shown flashes of brilliance, including at last year's Big Ten Championships when he tied for second place. Now that he's a veteran member of the squad, Small is hoping for more consistency from O'Neal this spring.
"We're looking for Mike to step up and play the way he did at the end of last season," Small said. "He's proven that he can do it, and we need him and Garrett to lead the way. Since we have a young team, we're really going to need leadership, optimism and maturity from our two seniors."
Four of Illinois' top six contributors during the fall were new to the team, and a fifth newcomer joined the team at the semester break, meaning there are five new faces on this year's Illini roster.
Blair Harkins, a transfer from Saddleback College, was second on the team with a 74.7 fall stroke average and had a pair of Top-15 finishes. Touted freshman Danny Zimmerman played in every fall tournament and had a 74.9 scoring average. He quickly made a name for himself when he tied for second place at the Northern Intercollegiate, finishing 3-under par in just his second collegiate tournament. Freshmen Andy Mack and Frank Alafoginis also made Illinois' traveling lineup during the fall.
The newest member of the squad is sophomore Kyle Hosick, who just arrived at Illinois after transferring from Southern Illinois University. Hosick was an All-Missouri Valley Conference selection as a freshman last season after finishing third at the MVC Championships. He is eligible to compete with the Illini immediately.
"We have a very good supporting cast. They all have the potential to play well and to have success," Small said. "The main thing with young players at this stage of their development is they have to believe in what they are doing and what they're working towards, and believe in their ability. It's a great group with a bright future."
Illinois' traveling lineup looks a bit different than many anticipated going into the season. That's because All-American and two time All-Big Ten honoree Patrick Nagle has decided to sit out this season as a redshirt, in order to match his athletic and academic timetables. Nagle will now be able to have two more seasons of competition in 2005-06 and 2006-07 as he finishes up coursework towards his degree the next two years.
"This was a wise choice by Patrick and is really in his best interests for his long term goals of both earning his degree and pursuing professional golf," Small said. "He loves school and enjoys living in Champaign, and he is really taking advantage of this year to practice and improve his game. We'll see the benefit of this decision in the next two years."
It's an exciting time to be a part of the Illinois golf program. In addition to the upcoming spring season, the men's and women's teams eagerly await the construction of a state-of-the-art indoor golf center. A groundbreaking ceremony was held on Sept. 18 to kick-off construction of the Demirjian Golf Practice Facility, which is scheduled to open next winter.
"The Demirjian Practice Facility will play an integral part in our goal of developing top-rated student-athletes," Small said. "Everything about it is first-class and when it's finished, I believe it will the best facility anywhere in college golf."