Trip to Augusta memorable for Illini men’s golfers

By Drake Pena

The first weekend of April was a time of intense competition for the Illinois men’s golf team. The Illini were playing in the 3M Augusta Invitational and had recently lost its national No. 1 rankings.

It was a time for the team to hone its game and prepare for the upcoming postseason. The team finished second in the tournament, held at the Forest Hills Golf Club in Augusta, Georgia, but after the rigor and stress of the competition had concluded, the men’s golf team indulged in an experience that many collegiate golfers dream of.

Just across town from where they had played, they watched a practice round of the prestigious Masters tournament, held at the Augusta National Golf Club.

Head coach Mike Small said the experience made the event one of the more enjoyable of the spring season.

“The trip to Augusta is a fun event for us,” Small said before the 3M Augusta Invitational. “It’s not only a big collegiate event with some top teams in it, but we also get to attend the Masters as part of the event. “

From Rory McIlroy to Tiger Woods to Illinois alumnus Steve Stricker, the Masters is one of the most star-studded and competitive annual tournaments in the world.

Newly crowned Big Ten freshman of the year Nick Hardy was in awe when he witnessed some of the most talented players in the world.

“I really like watching Rory because he’s the best in the game right now,” Hardy said. “It’s cool seeing all the players do things differently, watching how they practice, how they prepare, and seeing what really makes them the world’s best.”

The team’s tradition of viewing the Masters practice round, which started seven years ago, is one that Small believes has a long-lasting impact on his players.

“I never (had that opportunity) as a player,” Small said. “I don’t look back and think differently about it … It’s nice for the kids to do, and I’m happy we can get the chance to take them to see it now.”

This opportunity was also one that brought Hardy back to a place he feels comfortable: on the sidelines of a major tournament.

“It wasn’t my first time at a tournament,” Hardy said. “But I haven’t gone in such a long time. It was cool to go back and learn from what they do, and to be back at such a special place.”

Hardy had never been to the Masters before the team’s visit this season.

This year’s Masters was dominated by 2015 green jacket winner Jordan Spieth. Spieth was one of the top high school, collegiate and amateur golfers in the country before he decided to turn pro midway through his sophomore year at the University of Texas. In 2011, he was Big 12 Freshman of the Year and a member of the Longhorns’ national championship team.

Similarly to the four major professional sports (basketball, football, hockey and baseball), once an athlete decides to turn pro, they can not return to the amateur level.

Any scholarships the athlete was possibly receiving are taken away. The player is now a professional, relying on winnings and endorsements to make a living.

The success stories are the ones that make the news. Tiger Woods left Stanford after two years and hasn’t looked back since. Spieth is currently the No. 2 golfer in the world, only behind Rory Mcllroy.

The failures, however, are the ones that don’t receive the attention of the media. These golfers outweigh the number of those who achieve.

In Illinois’ case, Small has faced this situation before, seeing both the good and bad of what can come from the choice.

“It happened to us before,” Small said. “Thomas Pieters turned pro his junior year. It’s worked for him. If the young man thinks it’s in his interest, then he has to make that decision. I know some who made that choice and are enjoying it and others which wish that they didn’t go pro and stayed.”

Small also agrees that Spieth made the right choice, emphasizing, however, that every choice is different.

“Everybody is different,” Small said. “He’s a top-ranked player in the world, and his decision was the correct one. He’s got millions in endorsements, and he’s winning. It’s a personal decision, though.”

Hardy agreed that the choice can be right for some. Like Spieth, Hardy was all-conference as a freshman and selected as the conference freshman of the year.

For him, however, he believes that the collegiate route is the one for him, allowing him many more chances to help the Illini win and to check out some of his idols.

“No, I don’t think so,” Hardy said of leaving prematurely. “I don’t want to leave early. Jordan’s an incredible player; he’s really good to say the least. It’s not worth rushing and making that jump early. I’d rather use my four years here and gain as much experience as possible, and help the team win.”

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