Illinois Opens Fall Season at Olympia Fields
Sept. 11, 2013
CHAMPAIGN, Ill. - Just over three months removed from its historic runner-up finish at the 2013 NCAA Championships, the University of Illinois men's golf team opens its 2013 fall season at the eighth-annual Olympia Fields Country Club/Fighting Illini Invitational Friday through Sunday against an eerily familiar field.
Defending NCAA champion Alabama will be there, along with Texas, which Illinois eliminated by a 3-2 margin in the NCAA quarterfinals. Also in the field are 2013 NCAA Championships participants Arkansas, Florida, Florida State, Oklahoma State and Texas Tech. The 15-team field will compete at the par-70, 7,142-yard Olympia Fields Country Club North Course, which has hosted two U.S. Opens, two PGA Championships, five Western Opens and a U.S. Senior Open among many other championships.
"Olympia Fields has become a home away from home for us, so we're excited about opening the season there," Illinois head coach Mike Small said. "It's a great course and it should be a great test for everybody. Olympia Fields does a great job of hosting and it should be a good weekend."
Nine of the top 25 teams in the Golf World/Nike Golf preseason coaches' poll are in the field - No. 1 Alabama, No. 3 Texas, No. 7 Arkansas, No. 8 Oklahoma State, No. 9 Stanford, No. 13 Florida State, No. 14 Illinois, No. 18 Florida and No. 21 SMU - while Clemson, Texas Tech and Northwestern are receiving votes.
"It isn't normal for us to start our season with this event," Illinois head coach Mike Small said. "Usually, we have another event before it, but we couldn't with the way the schedule worked out this year. It's going to be a good test. We've won this event in the past and we've also finished 13th or 14th.
"How you do in these tournaments isn't representative of your team for the year, but you want to get off to a good start. These next two weeks are really going to give us the ability to evaluate what we have, see where our games are, see where our team is in relation to other teams and give us an idea of where to continue our work."
The momentum of the Illini's run to the NCAA title match carried through the summer for many of the returning players, as sophomore and 2013 All-American Charlie Danielson reached the round of 16 at the U.S. Amateur and finished second at the Wisconsin State Amateur behind Oklahoma State sophomore Jordan Niebrugge. Sophomore Thomas Detry found success in a number of events on his home continent, winning the European Challenge Trophy at St. Andrews, the European Alps Tour Andalucia event and the Belgian International Amateur. He also finished fourth at the European Amateur.
Junior Brian Campbell finished eighth at the Southwestern Amateur and tied for 16th at the Trans-Mississippi Championships, while also qualifying for the U.S. Amateur. And fifth-year senior Jonathan Hauter raised a few eyebrows by qualifying for the U.S. Amateur Public Links Championship and advancing to the match-play portion after finishing 17th in stroke play. He also tied for 24th at the Spirit of America Championship and qualified for the Illinois State Amateur and Illinois Open tournaments.
"What they did during the summer was very positive and it's vital in their development as players," Small said. "The summer is an important time for them to continue to get better and improve on their game; it's just golf for three months. When they come back in the fall, it's time to readjust their thinking and get back in the team atmosphere. We've had a very strong chemistry, a very strong culture and a very strong environment in our team over the years. We feed off each other in a positive way and that's what we need to get into now."
Illinois returns four of the five members of its lineup from last year's postseason events, and five of seven letterwinners overall. Campbell, Danielson, Detry and Alex Burge were key figures in the Illini's fifth-straight Big Ten championship and NCAA runner-up finish. Hauter, sophomore David Kim and redshirt-freshman Nick Robles also are in the mix for spots in the lineup.
Thomas Pieters turned pro after his junior season and has split time on the European Tour and European Challenge Tour this summer, and four-year letterwinner Mason Jacobs graduated in May after posting 115 total rounds in his career.
"We've got almost everybody back, yet we're a young team," Small said. "Last year, losing Thomas and Mason, those guys had played a lot of golf and Thomas was the team's leader. Now, who's going to lead this year? I think we're going to lead by committee. We've got three guys (Campbell, Danielson and Detry) playing in the first tournament who played a lot last year, but they need to develop consistency in their games. Then we've got (David) Kim and Hauter playing this week and they haven't played as part of the team in a while."
With the fall season counting in team and individual rankings, the familiarity among the Illini may be a strength. It can help the squad navigate a mostly familiar fall slate that includes the Wolf Run Invitational and Isleworth Collegiate Invitational, as well as a new event, The Macdonald Cup hosted by Yale University in early October.
"This fall, we're trying to establish roles," Small said. "We're laying a foundation in the fall that we can use as a springboard in the spring. This fall is a tough schedule; whether it goes great or doesn't, to me, is not the big issue. It's whether we show improvement and keep getting better. But we need to lay the foundation with leadership and our environment so we can be great in the spring."
Being great in the spring has become a hallmark of the Illinois program. Winners of five consecutive Big Ten titles and one of only six teams in the nation to reach the NCAA Championships in each of the last six seasons, the Illini continue to push forward. As former Illini Steve Stricker and D.A. Points vie for crucial FedEx Cup points in the BMW Championship at Conway Farms in Lake Forest, Ill. - the next-to-last event on the 2013 PGA Tour schedule - the current squad embarks on a new season in Olympia Fields, Ill., its home away from home.
2012 champion: Arkansas (854, +14)