Golfer Brian Campbell shatters records; wins first tournament

Editor’s note: The Daily Illini sports desk sits down Sunday nights and decides which Illinois athlete or coach is our Illini of the Week. Athletes and coaches are evaluated by individual performance and contribution to team success.

Illini golfer Brian Campbell had ambitious goals coming into his junior season and spent all summer working toward those goals. Playing an important role in his first two seasons on the team, he knew it was time to step up and fill the No. 1 roster spot after Thomas Pieters’ European Tour departure.

Both of his goals — obtaining a tournament win and setting a personal record — were accomplished last weekend at the Macdonald Cup.

The Macdonald Cup, which takes place at The Course at Yale in New Haven, Conn., is considered one of the best and most challenging college courses in America. It is known for its very large and tricky greens, which posed an immense challenge for Campbell.

“We did a lot of short game stuff (in practice) … because we knew that it was going to be a tough course for the short game especially,” Campbell said.

Despite being different than other courses the Illini have played, it was an advantage for Campbell, who is known for his exquisite short game.

Because the Illini were inexperienced with the course, they played two practice rounds instead of the usual one to acclimate themselves.

“We mainly focused on the good places to be on the greens and around the greens because the most difficult part was going to be managing your game around the greens,” Campbell said.

In the first round, Campbell played his best 18 holes of golf as an Illini, posting a 64, which beat his personal record at Illinois by 3 strokes and tied the second-best score in school history. Campbell attributed his first-round success to his course management.

“I knew where to place the ball to get a birdie, and my short game and my wedges were pretty good,” he said.

But leading by just 1 stroke after the first round, Campbell knew he would not be able to coast to a win.

“You cannot play like you are protecting anything, you have to play like you are in last place trying to get to first no matter what,” he said.

In the second round, Campbell posted a 67, which took him to a tournament best 9-under-par.

Despite playing the day before from 5 a.m. to 6 p.m., Campbell continued his torrid pace with a 66 in the final round.

“I just kept grinding out there, trying to pick up shots wherever I could,” Campbell said.

This brought him to 13-under, giving him his first tournament win as an Illini by 4 strokes. Also, his three-round total of 197 marked the first sub-200 54-hole score in Illinois history, which also broke Illinois alumnus Scott Langely’s 54-hole record by four shots.

Campbell knew that with the departure of Pieters to the PGA Tour at the end of last season, he would need to step up his game to lead the team. He tried to balance out his game over the summer by focusing on his longer game.

“I definitely worked on my longer irons, my driving, hitting fairways and just being consistent that way because my short game has been what is holding me up the last couple of years,” Campbell said.

Campbell doesn’t believe Pieters’ departure will be detrimental to the team’s success.

“It does not add pressure, but it gives me an opportunity to take his role and become that better player,” he said.

Campbell emphasized the importance of continuing to stay focused and playing each day one at a time. He also said each round pushes him closer to fulfilling his dream of following in Pieters’ footsteps and competing professionally.

Steve Stricker, another Illini with a successful PGA Tour career, has also been an influence in Campbell’s game.

Campbell admires Stricker’s playing style, especially his skill around the greens.

“He is a very dynamic player with his short game, and I have kind of adapted my short game to his, especially with my wedge play,” he said.

Even with accuracy around the greens this past weekend, Campbell is the first to admit that he was not always playing his best golf while at Illinois.

“I kind of struggled my freshman year, especially in the fall … but then I built myself up over the winter … and I think one thing that changed the most was my mental game,” he said.

Golf at Illinois was not always a walk in the park for Campbell, but he fully embraced it. The one thing that is for sure about his future is that Campbell will not get complacent and will keep working diligently for more tournament wins.

Kieran can be reached at [email protected]

Editor’s note: A previous version of this article incorrectly stated Thomas Pieters departed to the PGA Tour. He departed to the European Tour. The Daily Illini regrets the error.