Thomas Pieters will participate in the World Amateur Team Championship later this month.
Sept. 13, 2012
Champaign, Ill. - Illinois has fully established itself as a national contender in men's golf. The Illini have won four straight Big Ten titles and produced two of the last three NCAA individual medalists in Scott Langley (2010) and Thomas Pieters (2012). The program is one of just six to advance to each of the last five NCAA championships.
As the new season approaches, Illinois must replace the most prolific player in program history in Luke Guthrie. Guthrie did about as much as one can do in a college career. He was a part of all four Big Ten team championships, claimed two straight individual Big Ten titles and an NCAA Regional championship. Guthrie has the top two single-season stroke averages in school history and finished with the best career scoring average (72.08) by an Illinois player.
"It's going to be hard to replace Luke," head coach Mike Small said. "We need to do that by committee. I think we can be a stronger team than last year if the guys who return can improve their game like I believe they can do and the freshmen can come in to strengthen our lineup. I think we can be deeper than we were last year."
This is not the first time, though, that Illinois has to replace key personnel with the graduation of Matt Hoffman and Zach Barlow in 2010 and Langley and Chris DeForest a year ago. Yet, Illinois has maintained its stranglehold atop the conference and continues to be in the hunt nationally. Small believes that is a sign that the program has fully established itself as one of the best in the country.
"The mindset has been established around here to continue to have success," Small said. "The guys are preparing to end the season on a positive note. In order to do that, every player is committed to getting better every day. They know if they do that, the chance to achieve their goals are strong."
Without Guthrie, Illinois will build its line-up around Pieters, who, burst on the scene last season. As a freshman in 2010-11, Pieters posted just two top-10 finishes, but emerged last year as a sophomore by besting a loaded field at the Jack Nicklaus Invitational in October, a week after repeating his second-place finish at the D.A. Weibring Invitational. Pieters had a tremendous spring in 2012, finishing outside the top 10 just once, tying for fifth at the Big Ten Championship, finishing second at the NCAA Regional and making a run to the national title. Over the summer, Pieters represented Europe in the Palmer Cup and advanced to the round of 32 at the U.S. Amateur. He enters the fall as the ninth-ranked amateur player in the world and is among the top 10 collegiate players to watch according to Golf World magazine.
"Winning the national championship really put him in people's eyes," Small said. "But if you look at it, Thomas has followed the model we go by in terms of progression. He's improved every week, every month and every semester. We're so happy for what he has done, but there are different challenges for him this year because of his success. There are higher expectations for him and the competitor in him has to learn to deal with that."
Senior Mason Jacobs is the veteran on a relatively young team. He redshirted as a sophomore and thus has been on the roster (along with Guthrie) on all four Big Ten championship teams. Jacobs has been a regular in the lineup for the past two seasons, posting four top-10 finishes, including a tie for seventh at the 2011 Illini Spring Classic. Last season, he fired a career-best 67 in the second round of the Augusta State Invitational en route to a ninth-place finish and was named second-team All-Big Ten.
"Mason has had a solid career, but this is a chance to end it on a really good note," Small said. "I think he can get better and I think he's looking forward to the challenge of being the so-called veteran of the team. Being a fifth-year guy, he's seen a lot. He can really add some value and maturity to this lineup."
Sophomores Brian Campbell and Alex Burge were instrumental in the Illini's run to the conference title a year ago after neither made the lineup in the fall. Campbell posted three top-20 finishes, including a tie for 15th at the Big Ten Championships and a tie for 10th at the NCAA Norman Regional, and tallied four rounds under par. Burge, meanwhile, competed in the final six tournaments of the season and was a counter in the third round of the Big Ten Championships.
"Winning the Big Ten and getting through to nationals was a total team effort," Small said. "Having Brian and Alex elevate their games was a big key to what we were able to accomplish. I think they both learned a lot last year as freshmen in the spring and continued to make strides over the summer. If they improve along with the freshmen we have coming in, I think we can be a better team."
Small has brought in a large freshman class in terms of size and stature. Charlie Danielson has the early lead in qualifying for the opening season tournament. Danielson won the Wisconsin state high school title in 2010 and 2012 and placed runner-up in the state in 2011. He won the PGA Junior Series Nebraska tournament in 2011 and the AJGA Las Vegas Tournament in 2012. Thomas Detry follows Pieters as a top Belgian junior player coming to Illinois. Detry won the Belgian National Championship in 2010 and 2011 and claimed the Belgian National Match-Play title in 2011. David Kim gives the Illini two rising stars from California, having qualified for the match play round of the 2011 U.S. Amateur. Nick Robles was the runner-up at the 2010 Illinois High School Association state championship in 2010 and tied for third in 2011.
"We needed an impact class with players who could come in and contribute right away." Small said. "Thomas Detry is a very mature and organized freshman as a person. As a golfer, he has the skills to be really good. He hits it hard, has a good short game and has had a great record as a junior player. He has a world-class resume, but now he's in a totally new atmosphere. We're excited to see how he continues to develop. When we recruited Charlie two years ago, we knew he was a talent. Physically he was good and brought a good resume. David Kim has shown the potential to be really good and I think his future could be really strong. He's a very disciplined and determined player. Nick Robles also has had some success and we expect him to be able to contribute as well."
Senior Ross Frankenberg and redshirt junior Jonathan Hauter have been key contributors over their careers at Illinois and could be counted on to bolster the depth of the club. Frankenberg tied for 15th in his first ever collegiate tournament at Wolf Run and has participated in 12 tournaments in his collegiate career. Hauter tied for third at the 2011 Illini Spring Classic and competed in six tournaments a year ago.
"We'd all like to win our fifth Big Ten championship, but there are no guarantees," Small said. "There are some good teams in the conference that have made some improvements and are getting better, and 40 percent of our team is new. The old guys need to get the young guys to believe what we're all about and how we handle every day at a time. We handle our deficiencies every day, yet continue to build confidence in our successes."
Illinois begins the season Sept. 15-16 at the Wolf Run Invitational in Zionsville, Ind., a place where the Orange and Blue have had some success, winning the invitational three times and finishing runner-up once in its four previous appearances from 2007-2010. The Illini also placed second at the 2011 NCAA Wolf Run Regional.
"It's a great event for us to start off the season," Small said. "We're going to a course that requires some good preparation and a good practice round. It's a course that's going to show me more about our team."