Illinois men’s golf concludes magical fall season in Florida

Erica Magda

Erica Magda

By Rich Mayor

When the fall season began, the Illinois men’s golf team was an afterthought, excited to generate even a few preseason Top-25 votes. Three tournament wins and one second-place finish later, it now has its sights set just a bit higher.

The Illini are ranked No. 1 in Golfstat – the equivalent of college football’s Bowl Championship Series – for the second consecutive week, ahead of preseason favorites and collegiate golf factories No. 2 Oklahoma State, No. 3 USC and No. 4 Georgia, all of whom received four or more votes for the No. 1 preseason ranking.

Looking back a year, however, not even Miss Cleo could’ve predicted this success.

“Last fall, we really struggled,” sophomore and reigning Big Ten Freshman of the Year Scott Langley said. “For me it was kind of good because it was a wake-up call. I realized that in order to play at the level that I wanted to in college golf, I was going to have to work a lot harder. Our team definitely did that, and then last year we played well in the Big Ten tournament and Regionals, pretty well at Nationals, which I think gave us some confidence. We gained very valuable experience and I feel like we’ve carried that over.”

Illinois finished the spring season by missing the final 15-team cut by three strokes at the NCAA Championships. The team still finished tied for 17th place – a tremendous leap that continued throughout the summer.

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    During the summer months, players were busy winning hardware. Junior Zach Barlow won the Illinois State Amateur title, junior Clayton Parkhill won the Twin City Open in a playoff, and Langley won the Metropolitan Open and qualified for the U.S. Amateur Championship.

    “I think we’re starting to learn how to win,” head coach Mike Small said at the beginning of the fall season. “Many of our guys are playing bigger and better summer tournaments, and they’re improving.

    “They’re learning more about their games and learning more about the game of golf, and that’s something that hopefully will translate to some better scores.”

    The Demirjian Golf Practice facility, unveiled in 2006, has also helped better the Illini’s scores. Demirjian is a state-of-the-art facility, built for year-round practice, training, instruction and research.

    This season it helped Small reel in arguably his best recruiting class. Luke Guthrie was the nation’s seventh-ranked junior player when he signed with the Illini, and Mason Jacobs was a three-time Illinois state champion.

    Besides providing an edge on the recruiting trail, Demirjian’s versatility helps the program overcome its place as a “cold weather school” in a sport traditionally dominated by teams from warmer climates.

    “If you look at the top rankings, even in the coaches’ poll where we’re ranked No. 4, of the top 18 teams we’re the only cold weather school,” Small said. “Golf is golf, the game of golf doesn’t know where you come from.

    “If you get good players and you discipline the kids, they can play golf. This year we just have depth on our team, and sometimes what the cold weather schools have lacked in the past is depth and that’s one of our strengths.”

    The Illinois program has another ace in the hole: Small himself.

    “The coaching staff was a huge factor (in choosing Illinois),” Langley, a Missouri native, said. “(Assistant coach Zach Guthrie) wasn’t part of the picture when I was getting recruited, but coach Small definitely was and he’s somebody that I can learn a lot from. He’s done what I want to do – he’s played on the PGA Tour, he’s played professionally for a long, long time. That’s something I want to do after I graduate.”

    Players said Small deserves a lot of the credit for helping the team peak a half-season, maybe an entire season, earlier than logic would lead one to believe.

    The primary rotation for the Illini includes juniors Barlow, Parkhill and Matt Hoffman, sophomores Langley and Chris DeForest, and the diaper-dandy freshman, Guthrie. This is a young lineup with a tremendous blend of talent, consistency and newly acquired experience in big tournaments. The preseason rankings didn’t quite recognize the Illini’s potential, though.

    “I think (this fall) shows that we’re better than the preseason rankings,” Small said. “I mean we finished 17th in the (NCAA Championships) last year with a bunch of young players, so we’ve been able to carry some momentum back from there and last spring into this fall.”

    The biggest tournament Illinois has played so far, the Olympia Fields/Fighting Illini Invitational, was also its first victory. The team was coming off a second-place finish at the Wolf Run Intercollegiate.

    But Olympia Fields was an entirely different animal. The Illini won their first event in a tournament that included seven of the top-25 teams at the time.

    The orange streamers and paper plates were broken out, and it ended up being the coming-out party for the Illini, as they took the tournament by an eye-opening 11 strokes. Barlow also tied for medalist honors, firing a one-under par to pace the team’s 12-over par victory.

    “It was definitely a confidence booster,” Small said. “It showed us that down the stretch we could beat really good teams.”

    After shocking the collegiate golf world, Illinois was able to maintain its edge and win the Windon Memorial Classic two weeks later. The Illini defeated second-place Indiana by five strokes, and the next closest team, third-place Tulsa, by a whopping 22 shots.

    The Illini, freshly anointed with Golfstat’s No. 1 ranking, then took on their weakest field of the season at the D.A. Weibring Invitational. The team didn’t choke, showing enough mental toughness to defend its title by 18 strokes ahead of host Illinois State. Langley was the medalist, finishing the tournament at nine-under par.

    Rumblings that the Weibring’s weak field might drop the Illini in the rankings, even if they were victorious, proved untrue, as their blowout victory proved to be enough to keep them in the top spot.

    “As I said a few weeks ago, it shows we’ve been playing well,” Small said of the No. 1 ranking. “It shows that we’ve competed well and shows that the work we’re putting in has paid off.

    “It also means that there’s no guarantee for the future either. We’ve been playing well in the past and it’s a great confidence booster, but there are no guarantees.”

    One fall tournament remains for the Illini – the Isleworth Collegiate Invitational in Windermere, Fla. The three-day tournament kicks off Sunday, and includes a field more loaded than Olympia Fields. Eight of the top nine teams in the country will compete, and Illinois is glad to be one of them.

    “We plan on winning the Big Ten and the National Championship,” DeForest said with a laugh before the season began. “But really we’re just planning on trying as hard as we can all year and see where that takes us.”

    Doesn’t seem so funny anymore, does it?