Men’s golf gets back into competition with Big Ten Match Play

When the No. 9 Illinois men’s golf team returns from its winter hiatus Friday, it will be welcomed back by the other 10 Big Ten schools in the Big Ten Match Play Championship in Coral Springs, Fla., at the Heron Bay Golf Club.

The Illini won the Big Ten Championships last year, and with that comes the No. 1 seed for the first conference competition this season. However, the Illini were also the No. 1 seed at last season’s match play and ended up taking fourth place — something junior Scott Langley is aiming to improve on.

“It’s important for us to play well at this tournament because last year we played OK but didn’t really get the finish we wanted out of it,” Langley said. “We’re looking to go back down and definitely improve on how we played last year and make a statement for the rest of the year.”

To do so, Illinois will need to shake off some of the rust that has built up since its last tournament more than two months ago.

“It’s going to take a little bit of time,” senior Zach Barlow said. “You’re going to hit some shots that you normally wouldn’t hit if it were mid-summer. You just have to bounce back.”

Barlow added that although the team is looking to win, it is also focused on improving and getting back into the swing of competing.

“It’s a big week for us for a lot of reasons,” Barlow said. “We’re going there to win for one, but for two, we’re going there to find things that we need to work on to get better for the upcoming tournaments.”

Head coach Mike Small views the tournament as a chance to gauge the team’s progress over the winter and focus in on different areas that need improvement.

“The purpose of this event is two-fold,” Small said. “It’s to play early and get some repetition in for the spring and to evaluate ourselves. But also, to learn to play some match play for the national championship.”

As opposed to stroke play, in match play golfers fight to shoot a lower score than their opponent on each individual hole rather than the entire match. The golfer with the lowest score on each hole wins that hole, and the one with the most holes at the end of the round earns a team point for his squad. Each team has six golfers compete.

Last year the NCAA reformatted how the NCAA Championships are played by incorporating match play. The top 30 schools play a 54-hole stroke play tournament, and from that, the top eight schools are put into a bracket and match play determines the winner.

Small emphasized the goal of the season is to prepare for the Big Ten Championship and the NCAAs, and that’s another reason why this weekend’s match play is important.

To remain competitive in the Big Ten, the Illini will need to work on areas that plagued them during the fall season, like putting and chipping — areas that will be a large factor at Heron Bay.

“Since this (tournament) is match play, it’s going to be more of a focus on tightening your short game up around the greens and making sure that you have all the shots needed for every situation you could possibly think of,” Barlow said.

The Illini won two of the five tournaments they competed in this fall, yet Barlow believes the team wasn’t at its best.

“We just need to get into a little groove, I guess,” Barlow said. “I felt like we were never really able to hit our stride during the fall.”

Small is ready to move forward from the fall season and begin focusing on what the team needs to do to get better now.

“Our goal is to become better players every time we go out,” Small said. “We really need to be honest with ourselves and challenge ourselves in areas that we know we’re not the best at. If we do that, then we’ll be OK.”