Luke Guthrie is rated 12th in the latest Golfweek Collegiate Rankings
March 29, 2011
Urbana, Ill. - Illinois senior Scott Langley has garnered national and even international attention over the past year and deservedly so. An NCAA title, a top-20 finish at the U.S. Open and an array of international experiences have seen to that. While Langley continues to impress the golf world, with a possible selection to the coveted Walker Cup Team on the horizon this summer, junior teammate Luke Guthrie is posting Langley-like numbers for the Illini this year.
While Langley ranks ninth in the World Amateur Golf rankings, Guthrie has paced the team in stroke average and is the highest rated Illini on the latest Golfweek Collegiate rankings, which takes into consideration only this season's college tournaments, checking in at No. 12 this week. His career stroke average of 72.48 would be second in school history only to Langley (72.34) by a slim margin and better than current record holder Steve Stricker (73.15).
Guthrie came to Illinois as one of the top junior players in the country, earning AJGA first-team All-America accolades in 2008. He has been able to mold his game while sitting in the shadows of veterans, which included recent graduates Matt Hoffman and Zach Barlow and current senior Chris DeForest.
"When I was a junior (golfer), it was hard for me to comprehend the process and what it takes to make it all the way (to the top)," Guthrie said. "You have to come every day, enjoy practicing and the challenge to be better and seeing how good you can get. I've tried to get better every day and every year."
"He's improved in a lot of ways," Langley noted. "Emotionally, he's learned to keep it more in control and use his emotions to help him. His short game has always been pretty good, but his ball striking has definitely come around, and he's become a more consistent player for us."
"I have been able to see how well my teammates have carried themselves on and off the course," Guthrie said. "I've taken notes and I am going to try to follow in their footsteps."
To be sure, Guthrie has been a major force behind back-to-back Big Ten titles and a pair of NCAA qualifying teams. As a freshman, he sank a 60-footer for birdie to secure a 64 at the D.A. Weibring Invitational first round en route to the first of four top-10 finishes that year, including a ninth at the Big Ten Championship. The Quincy, Ill., native matched that total of top 10s as a sophomore, which included a fourth at the Big Ten meet and a first-team all-conference selection.
"His short game has improved a lot over the last couple of years," head coach Mike Small said of Guthrie. "He's always had great touch and the ability to score around the greens, but the number of shots he has in his arsenal around the green has increased. When his putting is on, he's as good as anybody. He's a better putter than even he thinks he is."
Guthrie has stepped on the stage during the summer months as well, reaching the round of 16 at the 2009 U.S. Amateur Public Links Championship, and following Barlow as downstate winners of the Illinois Amateur. The ever-competitive Guthrie topped his coach at last year's Illinois Open, finishing second at the tournament after leading much of the way.
Despite all that success, Guthrie entered the 2010-11 season in search of his first collegiate tournament title. As far as the regular season goes, it couldn't have come on any bigger stage - the Jack Nicklaus Invitational in October. At that event, Guthrie bettered the likes of the world's top amateur Peter Uihlein of Oklahoma State and helped the Illini to within six shots of OSU, the nation's number one team, and in front of many ranked opponents.
"That was a great week for myself and the team," Guthrie said. "The win took a little longer than I was hoping. To beat the players that I was able to beat there gave me a lot of confidence coming into the spring semester."
Like most good players in any sport, it is the intangibles off the field, court or course that are usually the difference. That has certainly been the case with Guthrie, where Small says his biggest strength of improvement has been just that - his strength.
"He's changed his body probably more than anyone on our team," Small said. "That strength has helped his golf swing a lot. He also has a better understanding of who he is. He's not trying to be someone else."
Because of his continued success as a player, including back-to-back PGA Professional National Championships, Small has a reputation for helping aspiring players with the mental side of golf, which often is the difference in reaching an elite level.
"(Coach Small) has taught me that although you're not going to have your best stuff every week, you have to be mentally tough enough to grind out rounds and have the will power to be able to play through your strengths," Guthrie said. "In your mind, you have to have the confidence to make that six-footer when you need it. Coach has done a good job of putting our team in a great frame of mind before each tournament."
But the teacher-pupil relationship is a two-way street and Guthrie has soaked it all up like a sponge.
"Luke's ability to learn is very steep," Small said. "He catches on to things pretty quickly, which is sometimes a demise to him. Because he wants to learn too quickly, he doesn't always show a lot of patience. He's definitely gotten better at it, however, and has grown up emotionally. As he's developed more patience, he has become a better player."
"I've become a lot better fundamentally and mentally since I came here my freshman year thanks to coach," Guthrie added. " I have my swing in as good of a position as I've had it. It's given me a better chance to play well every day and be more consistent. Becoming better at managing my emotions on the golf course and being more consistent out there are the next steps for me."
With Langley, Guthrie and senior teammate Chris DeForest, who annually gets hotter than a depot stove during the spring, the Illini have a top three that is beginning to rival even the big three at Oklahoma State - Uihlein, Kevin Tway and Morgan Hoffmann. Still, it takes a strong five to get it done. The emergence of freshman Thomas Pieters, who had as good a first semester on the course as any of the veterans their first years, and sophomore Mason Jacobs, who has proven clutch when the team needed it, give Illinois a shot at success later in the year when it counts most.
Guthrie's patience proved key in getting up and down on 18 to win his match against Jordan Russell and propel the Illini to a narrow 3-2 victory over Texas A&M at last week's Callaway Collegiate Match Play quarterfinal round. A day later, Jacobs had perhaps the most pivotal putts of the season so far, making back-to-back birdies in extra holes to win his match over Texas Tech's Will Griffin and send the Illini to the finals.
"Those two wins were awesome," Guthrie said. "Mason came up huge. It was some of the coolest golf moments I've ever been a part of."
The success by Guthrie individually and the Illini as a team has others taking notice. Illinois is up to No. 6 in the Nike/Golf World Coaches Poll and the Illini's success in the match play event has proven they have what it takes should they get to the top eight at the NCAA, where that format determines the winner. But ask Guthrie about it, and he's starting to sound like his coach.
"It's just a process," Guthrie said of the team goals, which include challenging for the Illini's third straight conference title and a better showing at the NCAA Tournament. "The Big Ten is getting better (case in point is Iowa hovering around the top 10 nationally). We're not hanging our hats on what we've done so far by any means."
The same is true individually for Guthrie, who last month became one of 26 players to be named to the Ben Hogan Player of the Year Watch List.
"People are starting to see his body of work for this year, but it's not over yet," Small cautioned. "He has to finish this year off, but he's looking forward to that challenge."
And if that happens, Guthrie could approach Langley's success of a year ago, something the reigning NCAA champion reminds him.
"The biggest thing for me is telling Luke that those things are a possibility for him." Langley said. "The place that he's putting himself is where I was able to put myself last year, right there for the Palmer Cup, right there for a lot of good stuff. Luke and I are very similar players. He's learning that if I can do it, he can do it."
"Luke's secret is his desire to be good," Small added. "He has a desire to be a success and nothing is going to stop him when he wants to do that."