Illinois men’s golf kicks off the season at future national championship course

By Chris Kennedy

It will be a mix of old and new for the Illinois men’s golf team at the season-opening Northern Intercollegiate this weekend. Among the field Illini will face-off with UCLA, who they defeated in the NCAA Championship quarterfinals last season in thrilling fashion.

Four of the five players from Illinois’ NCAA Championship line-up return this year, including Nick Hardy — the freshman phenom who clinched the comeback win against UCLA with a clutch putt last year.

Illinois and UCLA, Virginia and Houston among others, will battle it out. The tournament will be played at Rich Harvest Farms in Sugar Grove, Illinois, where the national championship will be held in 2017.

“Teams are starting to already jockey for position to get into the golf course, to see it, to take a run around the place,” said head coach Mike Small. “That’s why we’re going. It’s a good tournament for us, first one of the year, but it also gives our young guys — our freshmen, sophomores — a chance to see the golf course that they’re going to see the year after this.”

The Illini haven’t played in the Northern Intercollegiate since 2011. For the past two years, they’ve kicked off the season at their own Olympia Fields Fighting Illini Invitational. This year, they’ll open up at the tournament hosted by Northern Illinois. The Illini go into the tournament as the nation’s No. 1 team in the preseason Bushnell/Golfweek Coaches’ Poll, just ahead of reigning national champ LSU. UCLA goes into the tournament ranked No. 7 and Virginia at No. 24.

“Our expectation every week is to win the event we go play in, that’s the number one reason why we’re going,” Small said. “We want to compete with the golf course first, but then, secondly, the teams that we’re going to be evaluating ourselves against.”

Illinois has a very experienced group of five starters for the season opener. Hardy, Dylan Meyer, Charlie Danielson, Thomas Detry and Alex Burge. The first four all return from the Illini’s Final Four run last year. Detry took third at the NCAA Championships, and last fall Danielson got off to a hot start, finishing in the top-10 in all four of the team’s fall tournaments.

Burge spent last year as a redshirt — after playing his first three seasons in Champaign uninterrupted — and Small said he spent the year developing his game. After a big summer and taking second place in the Illini’s pre-season qualifying, he re-enters a starting line-up — where every member has played in the national championship.

Joining Illinois’ starting five in an individual competitor spot is Italian freshman Edoardo Lipparelli. It’ll be Lipparelli’s college golf debut. It’s an important experience for Lipparelli as Small says a big part of the fall season will be incorporating the team’s younger players into the program.

And while it’s a veteran-heavy bunch that’s starting this week and looks good enough on paper to be the preseason No. 1, Small says the line-up is subject to change and that a preseason ranking isn’t anything more than a demonstration of the team’s potential.

“I expect our competition and our spots on our team to be fluid almost all year. I think that’s the sign of a healthy program, healthy bunch of guys competing against each other,” Small said. “You got to show up and play and let your golf ball do the talking.”

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