Illinois men’s golf opens season at Fighting Illini Invitational

It’s been 18 months since Jonathan Hauter has competed for the Illinois men’s golf team.

Hauter last played in a tournament for the Orange and Blue on March 6, 2012. He golfed as an individual in a tournament two and a half weeks later, but hasn’t suited up for the Illini since.

The fifth-year senior has been on the sideline for four Big Ten Championships and four appearances at the NCAA Championships. He has seen two different teammates win national titles and witnessed Illinois finish as national runner-up in June.

Now, he’s ready to show what he can do.

Hauter will be in the five-man rotation for the Illini at this weekend’s Fighting Illini Invitational in Olympia Fields. The tournament, Illinois’ first of the year, has a stacked field of seven top-25 teams, including defending NCAA champion and current No. 1 Alabama, which defeated Illinois in the NCAA final.

Hauter said he noticed one thing that has set his teammates apart over the years: work ethic.

“They were all the best players in the country when they were here, and they put in more work than anyone else, so it’s something I’ve learned,” he said. “Just the perseverance that they showed. Everyone goes through ups and downs, even they did.”

Head coach Mike Small said he thinks Hauter’s experience could come in handy, but it doesn’t guarantee anything.

“Just because he’s the oldest doesn’t mean he automatically assumes leadership,” Small said. “He wants to end on a good note. He did a good job competing this fall for us so far in qualifying. He needs to keep it going. We could use all the help we could get. It’s his turn to step up.”

Though Hauter is Illinois’ only senior, the Illini return a lot of experience, including four of its five starters from the NCAA Championships, with 2012 NCAA champion Thomas Pieters being the only departure. Small said he wasn’t sure whether to build off the momentum from last year or to just put it behind the team.

“The big difference is Thomas Pieters is gone. He turned professional, so now you don’t have that lead dog in there anymore taking people with them,” Small said. “We talked about that already, where these guys have to figure out who’s going to be that lead dog and who’s going to jumpstart the team themselves instead of waiting on someone else to do it.”

Small said junior Brian Campbell has assumed the role of No. 1 golfer. As a junior, Campbell has seen current PGA Tour member Luke Guthrie and Pieters lead the Illini. He realizes he has big shoes to fill.

“It feels pretty good,” he said. “I’ve been able to see how it’s done, like Luke Guthrie and Thomas Pieters, it just takes hard work. I’ve just followed their footsteps. Anyone can do it; you’ve just got to work hard and put time into it.”

Of Illinois’ four returning starters, junior Alex Burge is the only one to not crack the rotation this weekend. Small always has his players qualify for every tournament, despite past performances.

Instead, his role will be filled by Hauter and sophomore David Kim, who played last year but didn’t make the final cut for the Big Ten or NCAA championships.

The Illini tee off for the three-day tournament Friday morning.

Johnathan can be reached at [email protected] and @jhett93.