Illinois men’s golf continues rise to elite national ranks

By Rich Mayor

The Illinois men’s golf team may just have made the jump in this week’s Windon Memorial Classic.

The Illini obliterated the 15-team field at North Shore Country Club in Glenview, Ill., besting second-place Indiana by five strokes and third-place Tulsa by 22. The Illini continued the ascent they had started after a surprise victory against a loaded field at the Fighting Illini/Olympia Fields Invitational on Sept. 21. That victory raised eyebrows and tagged Illinois as a team to watch.

However, there were still doubts going into last weekend. But those doubts were squashed, and the jump from team-to-watch into force-to-be-reckoned-with was made.

“From our results, yeah I think we’ve made a jump,” head coach Mike Small said. “But that’s really no guarantee on the future. I think we’re commanding a lot more respect from people, but it doesn’t matter if we don’t keep playing hard and getting better in the future.”

Illinois benefited from a complete team effort in the Windon Memorial, as all five members of the squad finished tied for 25th or better, including four in the top-13. The Illini’s quick start – ahead by nine shots after two rounds, including an opening round of 276 – afforded the group some breathing room Monday.

The team was paced by some outstanding individual performances, including a first-round 65 from junior Matt Hoffman and a final-round 64 from sophomore Chris DeForest. The sophomore’s score vaulted him from a tie for 18th to third when the grass settled, and Hoffman slipped from first to a tie for seventh in the final round.

“(Balance) is one of the team’s strengths, I’ve been saying it all along,” Small said. “We have guys that will pick each other up, somebody’s going to play well and today Chris came in and saved it. Next time out it may be somebody else. Depth is definitely one of our strengths.”

Sophomore Scott Langley finished tied for 11th at one-over par, and junior Zach Barlow managed a tie for 13th at two-over. Freshman Luke Guthrie also impressed his teammates and coaches, firing three consistent rounds of 71-73-74, finishing tied for 25th at five-over par. This victory marks the first time the Illini have won two fall tournaments since 2002.

“I think you need to look at everybody,” Small said. “I could go down the list. Hoffman had a great day yesterday, that 65 out of the box was a huge start. Langley’s been under the weather all week, he’s sick, but he came out and fought and had a few great finishes. Barlow, who was coming off that win (at Olympia Fields), backed it up and played really solid golf. Luke Guthrie, in his first college event ever, played well and really helped us out. When I say it was a team effort I mean that.”

This tournament marks the second consecutive event in which the Illini were paired with Indiana in the final group, and for the second time in three weeks, Illinois finished first and the Hoosiers second. Indiana All-American Jorge Campillo took medalist honors at eight-under par, however.

“We’ve been really competitive with them,” Small said of Indiana. “They’re regarded as a top team, and they played really well today, but we were able to hold them off, which is a very encouraging thing.”