Hungry for more: Illinois men’s golf secures seventh consecutive Big Ten title

The+Illinois+men%E2%80%99s+golf+team+pose+with+their+Big+Ten+Championship+trophy+at+the+Pete+Dye+Course+at+French+Lick+in+Indiana+on+Sunday.+The+Illini+secured+their+victory+on+the+third+day+with+a+score+of+%2B19.+%0A

Photo courtesy of Illinois Athletics

The Illinois men’s golf team pose with their Big Ten Championship trophy at the Pete Dye Course at French Lick in Indiana on Sunday. The Illini secured their victory on the third day with a score of +19.

By Matthew Sinele, Contributing Writer

Illinois men’s golf won its seventh consecutive Big Ten title following an unprecedented comeback in the third round of the Big Ten Championships in French Lick, Indiana on Sunday.

The word ‘rallied’ is the key word for this Illinois tournament win. The team edged out No. 46 ranked Michigan State by just one stroke as the tournament came to a close. This marks the smallest margin the Illini have won the Big Ten tournament by in this seven-season stretch. This win was a sigh of relief after all of the pressure and expectations were lifted off the golfers’ shoulders.

In the first round of the tournament, senior Adrien Dumont de Chassart led the way, shooting just one shot behind the championship record and closing out the first round atop the leaderboard at 64. The current record belongs to former Illini Dylan Myer at 63 in 2017.

The rest of the team had a bit more trouble on the first 18 holes. Junior Jerry Ji finished one over par (73) in the first round, followed by sophomore Piercen Hunt (74), freshman Jackson Buchanan (75) and senior Tommy Kuhl (76). Despite a rocky front nine, the Illini were able to recover in the back nine, which was enough to put the team in third place heading into the second round, trailing Wisconsin by two strokes, and Michigan State by ten strokes.

Saturday marked the second day of the tournament and saw a much more balanced look for the Illini. Each member of the squad shot 73 through the second 18 with the exception of Hunt, who finished just two strokes behind with 75. The team combined for +4 on the day, which was just one stroke back of the best score in round two, posted by Maryland. This effort was enough to cut Michigan State’s lofty first-round lead to just one stroke as Illinois headed into round three. 

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    Ji’s second straight round shooting 73 pushed him up the overall leaderboard 12 spots, tying him for 12th overall. Dumont de Chassart remained at the top with 7 strokes under par through two rounds.

    Sunday, the third and final round, provided an unprecedented challenge from mother-nature. Head coach Mike Smalls deemed Sunday a “slobber-knocker,” as Illinois battled the wind, the course and the rest of the pack. 

    “The biggest opponent was the wind,” Smalls said. “But we had to stay in the present; stay in the next shot and put our energy out in front of us.” 

    The Illini were able to do just that. In an 18-hole spectacle, the team battled the Spartans, coming into the day just one stroke back. The Spartans finished the round at +21, while Illinois was able to post a score just two strokes better at +19 for the day, crowning them as the Big Ten champions after three rounds that forced the golfers to adapt to their conditions.

    Hunt had a round that was nothing short of masterful, as he conquered the winds and posted a 72 in the final round, which led the way for the rest of the team and was good enough to earn him 9th place overall. Dumont de Chassart posted a 79 in the last round, which resulted in a 2nd place finish and his third time medaling at the championship. The rest of the team was rounded out by Kuhl finishing tied for 27th, Buchanan at 33rd, and Ji at 36th.

    When asked how the team intends to improve in May before the NCAA tournament, Dumont de Chassart responded positively, saying the team is still learning from every round of golf and has its eyes set on a national championship victory at the end.

    “I think just playing this course with this wind, we learned a lot from it,” Dumont de Chassart said. “You have to stay patient. It’s championship season. Even though the championship isn’t as big as nationals or regionals, it still matters a lot to us. We play as hard as we can and I think we’ll learn a lot from it and get better.”

    Sunday’s round was a mental battle, testing more than just golf skill. Mental toughness was required to earn this year’s Big Ten title.

    “This was about who could survive until the end and avoid the big numbers,” Smalls said. “And we did that at the end. I’m happy for these guys that put up with the expectations and embraced them.”

    Seven Big Ten titles in a row is no small feat, and it is a testament to how much discipline runs through the veins of the program. However, Coach Smalls is not satisfied with just a conference victory. He remains hungry for more.

    “This is a young team… we’re still learning,” Smalls said. “But we have to get better in the next couple weeks if we’re gonna compete at the national level.”

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