Illini men’s golf looking to start season strong

In many college sports, big name teams will ease their way into a new season by scheduling a few easy early matchups.

Head coach Mike Small has his Illinois men’s golf team doing the exact opposite to kick off his 15th year at the helm. The Illini will play their first tournament of the season this weekend in Olympia Fields at the Fighting Illini Invitational, widely recognized as one of the country’s premier tournaments. 

Although the Illini will be facing stiff competition in their first tournament of the season, Small doesn’t want the team’s goal to change. 

“We’re going there to win that tournament,” Small said. “It’s one of the best college events in the country, it’s one of the strongest fields so it’s going to be difficult but we’re going to win the event, that’s our first and foremost goal,”  

Yet another appearance in the NCAA Tournament by Illinois last year has brought buzz and expectations to Small’s squad during the offseason. Between the Golf Channel, Golf Week Magazine and the GCAA polls, the lowest the Illini appear in the rankings is No. 6 nationally. 

The main reason for the hype around Illinois coming into the season is their already proven lineup. Brian Campbell, the reigning Big Ten Player of the Year, and All-Big Ten first team members Charlie Danielson and Thomas Detry all return. Campbell and Danielson were recently acknowledged at the national level by being named to the Golf Channel’s players to watch list for the upcoming season. 

“It definitely means a lot because I’ve worked hard for it, but at the same time, I’m not going to focus on that at all,” Danielson said. “I’m not worried about any type of rankings or recognition, I’m just going to go out there and try to win as a team,”  

Although much of the Illini’s top-5 will already be locked in with returning players, Illinois’ freshman class also gives reason to their lofty preseason rankings. Nick Hardy out of Northbrook, Illinois. and Dylan Meyer from Evansville, Indiana. were two of the biggest recruits Small was able to bring in for this season. 

“As a team we had great chemistry and a great group of guys that got along last year and fought hard for each other, so that doesn’t need much improvement, although we need to infuse the freshman into that mindset. So that’s a big goal,” Small said.

The preseason publicity, although nice, won’t mean anything for Illinois when this weekend’s tournament tees off. They will go up against the likes of No. 2 Texas and Stanford, the team who knocked Illinois out of last year’s NCAA Tournament. 

In an individualized sport such as golf, much of the players’ off-seasons were spent playing in separate individual tournaments. Small will have to take the first few weeks of the season to observe his team and see what new challenges this season will present. 

One of the players who succeeded over the summer was Danielson, who finished tied for sixth at the Sunnehanna Amateur and advanced to the match play round of 32 at the U.S. Amateur Public Links.

“I tried to get my swing a little more consistent, I tried to get a little tougher mentally and just tried to make some more putts,” Danielson said. 

With everyone ready to move past the preseason excitement and get back on the course this weekend, there was one guy who may have had the most successful play of the summer by far. 

That was Small, 2014 Illinois PGA Championship winner.

Small laughed about the win giving him bragging rights over his players and said “I think they’re happy I won but I want all of them to be beating me.” 

Brett can be reached at [email protected] or @Blerner10.