Fall Season Review: Illini Ranked 19th
Nov. 2, 2012
Champaign, Ill. -
Illinois men's golf coach Mike Small has a saying, "Win tournaments in the fall, win championships in the spring." Based on that analogy, the fall season was a successful one for the Fighting Illini, opening the year with a pair of tournament victories then ending the season in the hunt at a prestigious tournament.
After graduating conference player of the year, Luke Guthrie, the four-time Big Ten champion Illini began the year unranked, but end the fall 19th in the Golf World/Nike Coaches poll and fifth (Golfstat) and 18th (Golfweek), respectively, in the major computer rankings.
"I think we showed that this team has potential, but one semester does not make a season," Small said of his team's continued national stature during the four fall tournaments.
Illinois began the season with repeat wins at both the Wolf Run Invitational and the D.A. Weibring Intercollegiate. Missing two starters, defending national champion Thomas Pieters and freshman Thomas Detry (The duo represented Belgium at the World Amateur Team Championships), the Illini dipped to a 10th-place finish at the Olympia Fields/Fighting Illini Invitational. However in a tournament that featured eight ranked teams, including the the top three teams in the country, Illinois finished a respectable fifth in the 15-team Isleworth Collegeiate Invite.
"We showed this fall that we have some depth and ability," Small reiterated. "We're still a top-20 program despite having three freshmen and a sophomore in the line-up the majority of the time."
Indeed, Illinois sent freshmen Charlie Danielson, Thomas Detry and David Kim along with sophomore Brian Campbell and fifth-year senior Mason Jacobs to Isleworth. Illinois played with the lead group, which included No. 1 California and No. 2 Texas, the second and third days, staying in contention for the title until the midway through the third day. Campbell paced Illinois with a ninth-place finish in the event, which included rounds of 71 and 72 on the challenging 7,544-yard, par-72 Isleworth lay-out.
Danielson ends the fall with the second best stroke average on the team, a 72.67, and finished in the top 12 in three of the four tournaments, placing seventh at D.A. Weibring, 10th at Wolf Run, and 12th (the top Illinois finisher) at Olympia Fields. Detry, meanwhile, had finishes of 10th, 12th, and 16th in his three tournaments with the team.
Illinois took seven men to the first two events, five scoring for the team plus two playing individually. Six of the seven finished 13th or better at Wolf Run as the Illini edged host Indiana by three strokes. The next week, Illinois successfully defended its title at D.A. Weibring, finishing 21 strokes better than the field.
Having two extra players allowed Kim to get a chance to prove himself. Playing as an individual, Kim tied for 13th at Wolf Run and 10th at D.A. Weibring to earn a spot in the line-up the last two tournaments. Kim was tied for ninth at Olympia Fields after a first-round even par 72. Despite a final round 74, he couldn't overcome an 82 in round two to tie for 52nd overall, however, and placed 33rd at Isleworth.
"The freshmen were more up and down than they are going to be in the future," Small said. "But they have shown that they can play at this level. Do they need to get better? Yes. However, I have confidence in their talent level to be a big part of this program in the future."
Illinois had success despite Pieters, the 16th rated amateur player in the world, playing in just two events. Pieters posted a pair of top-10s (a sixth and a ninth) while holding a team-best 72.00 stroke average so far this season.
"Thomas Pieters' best golf is ahead of him," Small said. "He is trying to play as the national champion. This fall was is a big experience for him. He's going to be a better player mentally this spring because of what he has gone through in the fall."
Last spring, Campbell and Alex Burge emerged as valued members of the Big Ten championship team. As sophomores, they have combined with three freshmen and Jacobs to give Illinois seven legitimate players who have proven the ability to compete at a high level, according to Small. Of those, five will represent the Illini during the post-season.
"I believe competition makes you a better player if you're a strong person and you understand that concept and embrace it," Small said. "I believe depth has increased competition within the team and competition is going to increase our talent level and make us better players."
The first major tournament of the spring season has been the Big Ten Match Play over the past few seasons. The seeds for the tournament are based on rankings in the fall and once again Illinois will be the top seed, proving the Illini's national prowess despite the loss over the past two seasons of Guthrie, who earned his 2013 PGA Tour card, 2010 NCAA champion Scott Langley, and Chris DeForest, who has had success on the Web.com tour.
"We're a solid nationally-ranked team," Small said. "Putting those seasons together hasn't traditionally been done by Big Ten programs. If we come out in the spring better than we are now and continue to improve, it hopefully bodes well for another solid post-season."
In other words, winning championships.