Team of the century: 2012-2013 Illini men’s golf make program history

Former+Illinois+Golfer+Thomas+Pieters+putts+the+ball.+Pieters+won+the+national+championship+in+his+2011-2012+season.

Photo Courtesy of Fighting Illini Athletics

Former Illinois Golfer Thomas Pieters putts the ball. Pieters won the national championship in his 2011-2012 season.

By Jonah Perez, Staff Writer

Illinois men’s golf found their greatest success in the history of the program in the 2012-13 season. The Illini were runner ups to the University of Alabama at the NCAA Championships in Atlanta, Georgia.

The season was full of ups and downs and was like the plot of any stereotypical sports movie.

“I thought that team that year improved more than any team I’ve had the last two months of the season,” head coach Mike Small said. “If you looked back at our season as a whole, we were trying to find ourselves most of the year and to find the lineup. A bunch of those guys that year, a couple of them didn’t play much a lot all year long. Thomas Detry and Charlie Danielson played a lot, not consistently. Brian Campbell, Thomas Pieters and even Alex Berg didn’t play as much. I guess you could say the lineup is in flux most of the year. And then the last month or month and a half of the season, we really got things going and had a lot of momentum leading into the Big Ten Championship, regionals and nationals.”

One guy who wasn’t in-and-out of the lineup was junior Thomas Pieters. From Belgium, he had won the second individual title in Illinois Men’s Golf History the year before, during the 2011-12 season.

He could have gone pro but instead opted to return and go for a team national title.

“Thomas Pieters, the year before, had won the individual national championship, and him coming back his junior year was a big plus,” Small said. “Cause you know, sometimes, these kids decide to go professional after they win such a big prestigious event … We had just lost Luke Guthrie, who was a two-time Big Ten champion, First-Team All-American. So you had some question marks. But we added Thomas Detry and Charlie Danielson, who were two highly recruited freshmen. We had a deep team. We had Mason Jacobs, who played a lot of the year as well. So we had six or seven really good players that year … I thought the potential was there to have a really good year.”

With most young players, there are going to be some struggles; that’s why a good head coach is necessary. They can get the most out of their players and succeed at the highest level.

This team was extremely young and just needed some time before blossoming. The main lineup that season had only one upperclassman.

“I think the talent was always there, and I think they just had to have a maturation of their games and their minds and just getting comfortable in college golf,” Small said. “A junior, two sophomores and two freshmen is what our lineup was. We had no seniors (in the main lineup) and (we) were young and were just trying to figure things out … A young team that was full of talent, they just needed to figure things out and mature, and they did a really good job of that.”

Every great sports movie has a low point where all hope seems lost. Where the men are separated from the boys and they bounce back in a big way.

The 2012 -13 Illini were a memorable golf team that showed just how important mentality and belief in your team and teammates really is.

Small said they did not do well at the tournament in Arizona that year, so they had to recalibrate their purpose and goals to do better in the championship in Atlanta.

“I tell people all the time, that team really showed a lot of resilience and commitment to turn their mindset around and build some momentum towards the end of the year,” Small said.

Greatest Individual Season: 2010 and 2012

During the 2009-10 season, junior Scott Langley had a run like no other Illinois men’s golfer, winning the individual national championship.

“Winning the NCAA championship has definitely been one of the defining moments of not only my college golf career but my entire golf career,” Langley said. “I owe a lot to Coach Small and my teammates for teaching me how to compete and always pushing me to get better.”

It was an incredible year for someone who works so hard. At the time, he held the record for a single-season stroke average with 71.37 and the best career stroke average with 72.45. The career average record had stood for two decades before he broke it.

He was Big Ten Player of the Year and also qualified for the U.S. Open as an amateur and placed 16th.

“My fondest memory was the heroic par that my teammate Chris DeForest made on the last hole of the NCAA regionals to help our team advance to nationals,” Langley said. “He had lost his first tee shot in waist-high grass and gone back to the tee on the drivable par four 18th hole at Gold Mountain in Washington. He hit another drive (his 3rd shot) to five feet and made the putt for par. It was unreal. We ended up advancing to the NCAA’s just barely, and the rest is history.”

Even in a sport as individual as golf, teammates are there to uplift their peers in times of need. For Langley to win the national title, the Illini needed to qualify for nationals and his teammates made it possible.

During Pieters’ special 2011-12 season, he won the national championship by three strokes, becoming just the second Illini to do so, and was a First-Team All-Big-Ten.

He was the team’s top finisher at seven of 12 tournaments and won his first one of the season at the Jack Nicklaus Invitational with a score of seven below par. This dominance is what fueled his drive to come back for the last run and win a championship for Illinois.

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