Top-ranked men’s golf concludes season against best in nation

By Rich Mayor

Heading into the final tournament of the fall season, No. 1 Illinois will find itself in an unfamiliar position among the elite teams in college golf: the hunted.

The Illini take to the Isleworth Collegiate Invitational in Windermere, Fla., just outside Orlando, Fla., for arguably their toughest test yet.

In their other test among the giants of college golf, the Fighting Illini/Olympia Fields Invitational, the then-unranked Illinois squad stunned the field, winning the tournament by 11 strokes and becoming the new Cinderellas of the links.

“We’re going to be the hunted, not the hunters,” junior Zach Barlow said after their Olympia Fields victory. “That’s what we’ve got to do, we’ve got to learn to play with everything to lose instead of nothing to lose.

“But at the same time, we need to keep the same mental state that these teams think they’re just going to stomp all over us.”

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Many of the teams the Illini stunned at Olympia Fields will be at Isleworth and will undoubtedly not overlook Illinois this time.

The field includes eight of the top nine teams in the country, including Oklahoma State and USC, according to the Golf World/NIKE rankings.

Golf World is parallel to the coaches’ poll in college football, whereas Golfstat’s computer rankings are comparable to the BCS.

To take the loaded Isleworth, the Illini will have to pull confidence from past experiences and compete consistently as a team.

“We need to learn to be that team that’s in contention all the time,” sophomore Scott Langley said. “The growing pains we went through (last year) were good because now we’ve won three times and we’re starting to become that team. We’ve learned that when one of our guys isn’t doing so well to not overreact and pick the guy up instead, coming through when we need to. For team golf that’s very important because not every guy is going to dominate every time out, one or two guys are going to struggle. We need to keep picking each other up.”

The Isleworth is recognized as one of the best tournaments in college golf.

The course is near the homes of many of the top professional players in the world, some of whom show up to follow the teams each year. Even Tiger Woods has a home in Isleworth.

The Illini, who are coming off three consecutive victories for the first time in 20 years, hope to give the pros a good show at the invite.

Does head coach Mike Small consider the team underdogs going into this tournament, even with their No. 1 ranking?

“Well yeah,” Small said. “We’re only as good as we play. If we play well we’ll be in a position to compete, and if we don’t play well we’ll struggle. It’s on us.”