Guthrie Uses Illini Success as PGA Tour Springboard
March 18, 2014
Former Illinois golfer Luke Guthrie has had a whirlwind first year-and-a-half on the PGA Tour since graduating and turning pro in 2012. Originally from Quincy, Ill., Guthrie chose to pursue golf and his education as an Illini, and spent most of 2013 ranked inside the top 100 of the Official World Golf Ranking, peaking at No. 58. After setting records and helping Illinois win four Big Ten Championships in college, he now calls Jacksonville, Fla., home and, although his life has completely transformed from what it used to be, he knows that he owes the smooth transition into professional golf to his time in Champaign.
"It was a combination of a little in-state pride and wanting to play for my own school and Coach Small, who brought a lot of expertise to the game," Guthrie said about his decision to come to Illinois. "He's still such a great player and with all of the experience he had with the game, I figured I could learn a lot about golf. More than just mechanically, but how to play the game and mentally be more ready to come out to the PGA Tour because that was always the goal and dream of mine."
THE TEACHER Illinois head coach Mike Small continues to be a draw to high-caliber junior players and, as a former Illini himself, his expertise stems from his time as a professional player.
"I didn't come in my freshmen year playing my best golf, and he was probably thinking, `What the heck did I recruit?" Guthrie said of Small. "But we went to work right away and he helped me not only mechanically get better but also understand all the other factors. He helped me with what was happening with my swing.
"It's a pretty difficult thing to do. It's tough to work on your own game and a golf swing is a complicated motion. It's hard to understand what's happening or what's wrong with it sometimes, but I definitely got better at that under him. On top of really learning how to play the game, he taught me discipline on the golf course and to not short-sight yourself, but to play golf the right way to put a score on the board. You can see the greatest golfers of all time definitely follow those rules and play golf properly and how it should be played. Normally, that equals better scores and I definitely learned that from him."
Small continues to impact Guthrie's career even now that he's moved on from Illinois and is on the PGA Tour. Guthrie frequently talks to Small about his golf game and his swing, and says that he never really had a teacher, but if anyone is his golf instructor, it's Small.
"He might put you in an awkward situation to see how you will react," Guthrie said. "I was a little bit of a shy person coming into school and I grew up a lot my four years there. At the Steve Stricker fundraiser event my sophomore year, we had to go up there with all the boosters and all the people around the program. It's an intimidating scene for a college student to go up there and the reason those people are there is to support you. You've got to put on a good face and that was tough the first couple years to do that. By my senior year, I knew some of the people and I was able to hold a conversation with them better, and it was a situation that really made you grow as a person. It was invaluable."
While studying business management at Illinois, Guthrie had one of the most celebrated collegiate golf careers in history. In addition to receiving multiple All-American honors, Luke was recognized as the 2012 Big Ten Player of the Year. He was a seven-time collegiate champion and notched back-to-back Big Ten individual championships in 2011 and 2012, becoming the first player to earn back-to-back Big Ten Individual titles since Luke Donald in 2000-01.
In 2012, he led Illinois to the Big Ten team title for the fourth year in a row, making him the first Illini to win four championship rings, and helped Illinois advance to NCAA Championships for a fifth consecutive year. Throughout college, Guthrie also maintained excellence in the classroom and was an Academic All-Big Ten selection. He also was honored for his combination of athletic and academic achievement by being named Illinois' Big Ten Medal of Honor recipient in 2012.
Guthrie's success wouldn't have taken off without the help of his Illinois teammates: Scott Langley, Thomas Pieters, Zach Barlow, Chris DeForest, Matt Hoffman and Mason Jacobs. Langley also is on the PGA Tour - and finished third at last weekend's Valspar Open - and Pieters is a member of the European Tour, having turned pro following his junior season in 2013. Barlow, DeForest, Hoffman and Jacobs all are pursuing a full-time career in professional golf as well.
"We were all such close friends, so it was a great situation and the team environment was really cool to be around," Guthrie said. "We were a pretty good team with some pretty good individual players. We were all trying to beat each other but then we'd leave practice, go to dinner and be friends. It was a great environment to get better and it was great to have those guys there."
"It's been a lot more golf than ever in my life before," Guthrie said. "Normally at college and before that, we played a tournament, and normally it was only three rounds and we played here or there one practice round before a four-day trip, then you come home and have one, two and sometimes three weeks off before your next event. Out here, you arrive Monday or Sunday night, and you don't leave until the following Monday or Sunday, so it's a seven-day week. Then you travel to the next event.
"Last year, I played 11 weeks out of the first 12 and it kind of ruined the rest of my year because I was burned out and tired, and I got a little frustrated. I'm still trying to adapt; it's a lot of golf that we play and I try to be prepared as much as I can."
Guthrie is one of only nine players in history to earn his PGA Tour card without attending qualifying school, a list that includes Tiger Woods, Phil Mickelson and Justin Leonard. He did so by finishing second on the Web.com Tour in 2012, posting seven top-10 finishes in only 10 starts, including two victories, one second-place finish and one third-place finish to end up with $410,593 in winnings. He also finished tied for fifth at the John Deere Open in addition to two other top-20 finishes in PGA Tour events in 2012.
In 2013, Luke played a full season on the PGA Tour, finishing fifth in rookie earnings, along with earning low rookie honors four times. He also placed in the top-25 six times, which was third-most of all PGA Tour rookies, and he was one of only three rookies to qualify for three of the four major championships, earning spots in the U.S. Open, British Open and PGA Championship, and made the cut at the PGA Championship.
"As a whole, it would have to be playing in the majors last year," Guthrie said of his favorite golf moments so far. "The first tee shot I hit (at the U.S. Open), I was pretty nervous, but it was pretty cool. Playing the British Open was awesome as well. It was a great experience. Honestly, some of my greatest memories so far have been with the team winning the Big Ten Championship my last year [at Illinois]. Most of the guys I played with were gone by then, and I felt a little pressure to win the fourth in a row and keep it going. It was pretty cool to win that tournament that year as a team. It was just great to celebrate with those guys."
With surely more amazing things to come in his golf career, Guthrie still reflects on his time at Illinois as one of his most treasured memories. And he has a few words of advice for current and future Illini.
"Just enjoy college and try to get better every day," Guthrie said. "Have your fun because college is awesome. I'm so happy I stayed all four years. It never even crossed my mind to leave early. If somebody comes in and wants to leave early, I'd tell them to stay all four years and just enjoy it and try to get better. With the team environment, it's fun. You never really get that in golf again, unless you get to the Ryder Cup. It's a really cool dynamic because it's mostly an individual sport, so it's fun to be rooting for other people and be a team."
Guthrie loves coming back to Champaign when he can, but having achieved his dream job already, he knows he's exactly where he's supposed to be.
"I love golf, I love competing. It's the best place to be in to see the best golfers in the world. If you're competing out there, you're doing something right."