Illinois men’s golf with best start since 1988-89

The first half of the Illinois men’s golf season proved to be monumental for Illini golfers, coaches and the rest of the college golf community. 

Ranked No. 6 in the preseason, the Illini jumped to the No. 1 spot of the Golf Coaches Association of America coaches poll after topping one of the toughest fields in the country at their season-opening tournament, the Olympia Fields Fighting Illini Invitational. After taking their first and only loss of the fall at the season-concluding Tavistock Collegiate Invitational, the Illini finished the fall season ranked second in the GCAA poll; however, they are still No. 1 in the Golfweek and Golfstat polls.

Illinois’ No. 1 ranking in the GCAA marks the first time since 2001, when the coaches’ poll started, that a northern school has claimed the top spot in a nationally recognized poll. The Illini also made school history after receiving the first unanimous No. 1 team ranking, which they received from Golfstat.

In Illinois’ best start since Steve Stricker led the 1988-89 team to a 4-0 fall season, the Illini showed their ability to bounce back from early deficits in two of the team’s first three tournaments and finish up later rounds at the top of the leaderboard.

Reigning Big Ten Player of the Year, senior Brian Campbell led the competition team of five, including juniors Charlie Danielson and Thomas Detry and freshmen Nick Hardy and Dylan Meyer. Campbell, Danielson and Detry all received Big Ten Golfer of the Week honors during the season, while Hardy and Meyer continued to distinguish their competitiveness in tournaments, with Hardy finishing in the top 20 in all four tournaments and Meyer doing the same in three of the four tournaments.

“The culture of our team is our biggest strength.” Campbell said, “We’re grinders at heart, no matter what. No matter what it is, we’re going to grind it out and finish as best as we can. We never give up. That’s our mentality. We have a very good connection among all of the players. We’re all very close.”

Although coach Mike Small is happy with his team’s fall performance, he still sees room to improve in the spring to work toward its first national championship victory. Last season, Illinois tied for fifth in the NCAA Championships — their third top-five finish over the past four years.

“We need to play from strength,” Small said. “I don’t think we need to protect. Rankings don’t win you championships. We need to try to win each tournament that we play in and keep getting better and better. There’s going to be speed bumps along the way that we’re going to have to fight through. We’re going to have times when we’re not going to play well. We’re going to have to address those issues individually and persevere then peak come April, May and June. That’s the goal.”

The Illini start up the second half of their season Jan. 24 for the Tinervin Cup in Placida, Florida, where they will compete against Illinois State for the competitors’ 11th annual face off. Illinois has won all 10 of the previous matchups.

Lauren can be reached at [email protected] and on Twitter @MrozLauren.