Men’s golf cruises through NCAA Regional

By Wes Anderson

After a long dry spell, the Illinois men’s golf team has returned to prominence on the national scene.

On the heels of a strong performance at the Big Ten Championship last month, the Illini earned their first NCAA Championship berth since 2003 with a third-place finish at the NCAA Central Regional in Columbus, Ohio, this weekend.

The team’s combined three-day total of 891 (+39) was 12 shots behind winner Wake Forest and easily earned one of ten spots in the finals, which will be held at Purdue’s Kampen Course on May 28-31. It was a surprising finish for a program that had not competed in an NCAA Regional in four years.

Head coach Mike Small called the performance a turning point for the Illini.

“We seized the opportunity,” Small said in a press release. “This solidifies us as one of the top teams in the nation this year.”

Larry Blatt, a transfer from Mississippi in his first year with the team, shined at Ohio State’s newly-renovated, 7400-yard Scarlet Course, carding a pair of 74s and a 73 to shoot a team-best 221 (+8). The junior finished eleventh in the individual competition, seven strokes behind winner Kevin Tway from Oklahoma State.

“This is one of the toughest golf courses in collegiate golf, but (Blatt) didn’t let it beat him,” Small said.

Including Blatt, four Illini finished in the top 20 of the individual competition. Matt Hoffman fired a team-low 72 Friday en route to a score of 222 (+9), while Zach Barlow and Big Ten Freshman of the Year Scott Langley each shot 224 (+11) at the Regional.

“We can compete against the nation’s best,” Hoffman said in the release. “We entered the tournament seeded 18th but came out placing third.”

The performance was made all the more improbable by the team’s early-season struggles. Illinois had lackluster performances in high-profile tournaments during the fall, including the Olympia Fields Invitational in September, where the Illini finished 30 shots behind Oklahoma State and 17 back of Indiana, teams that also qualified for the finals.

During the spring, however, Illinois has surged and will carry considerable momentum into the season’s final tournament.

“Seeing the progression of this team since last fall has been fun to be a part of,” Small said. “It says a lot about this team to be strong in this environment.”