Illini men’s golf looks to repeat at Big Ten Match Play Championships

By Dan Bernstein

The 7,470 yard, par-72 Concession Golf Course in Bradenton, Fla., is not by any means an easy course. The course, designed by Jack Nicklaus and Tony Jacklin, holds the highest slope rating by the United States Golf Association at 155 (slope rating measures the difficulty of courses based on speed of greens, width of fairways, etc.).

After defending the Tinervan Cup title for the 11th straight year to kick off the 2014 spring season, the Illinois men’s golf team looks to defend the Big Ten Match Play Championship title this weekend. All 12 Big Ten teams will be represented in Bradenton, but the No. 1-seeded Illini continue to be the team to beat in the Big Ten. Illinois will face the winner of Michigan and Michigan State after getting a first round bye, which Illinois can use to observe the course.

“(The course) challenges all aspects of the game,” senior Jonathon Hauter said. “It is very important to be disciplined out there. The greens are great. It’s an awesome designed course, especially off the tee.”

In stroke play, one bad hole can ruin your entire round. Match play is a lot different. If a golfer has a bad hole, his opponent only wins that specific hole. It is essential for the Illini to keep their composure and continue to compete.

“In match play, putting is one of the biggest things,” Hauter added. “You can hit it all over the place, but if you can get on the green and make a putt, it saves a lot of strokes.”

After the Illini’s 2012 NCAA champion and 2013 Big Ten champion Thomas Pieters turned to his professional career, head coach Mike Small is not looking for one specific golfer to step into a leadership role; he expects his entire team to continually progress throughout the season in order to develop a team of leaders.

“We are looking for leadership by community,” Small said. “We don’t have a captain on our team for a reason. All of my guys have leadership qualities.”

Knowing the ins-and-outs of a golf course can be key to a player’s success. Some golfers just seem to play one or two courses better than they player any other. Take Tiger Woods, for example. Woods has won 79 PGA Tour events during his storied career, but no golf course seems to fit his game better than the host of the WGC-Bridgestone Invitation, Firestone Country Club. He has won there 8 times during his career since 1999.

Sophomore Charlie Danielson understands the importance of experience on a golf course, and is confident in his team’s ability to repeat as champions.

“We dominated the field last year,” Danielson said. “We took care of business and believed in each other. We’re going to carry that same mentality into the tournament this year.”

While the Champaign-Urbana area continues to experience one of the worst winters to date, the Illini golf team will enjoy every bit of Florida’s hot sun, with the goal of returning with another championship under its belt.

Dan can be reached at [email protected] and @yaboybernie11.