Illinois has quietly built a dynasty to behold, winning 8 of the last 9 Big Ten titles and advancing past the regional round of the NCAA tournament each of the past 10 years.
Of course I’m talking about men’s golf. What did you think I was talking about?
Just yesterday, the Illini teed off at the third day (of three) of the West Lafayette Regional for the NCAA tournament in sixth place (with the top 5 advancing), 14 strokes back of the lead and five strokes out of fifth. With winds gusting up to 40mph, the Illini looked buried at a tough Kampen Course after the front nine. However, they rallied over a back nine that plagued them the previous two days to wind up with the best Day 3 score of any team in the regional, moving all the way up to 3rd in the process, thus advancing them to the championship phase for the 10th consecutive year.
Junior Nick Hardy was the only golfer in the field to shoot par or under for all three days, and he tied for the lowest individual score of the regional. The 2015 Big Ten individual champion and 2015 U.S. Open qualifier rallied the team as they sat on the outside looking in after Tuesday:
“We’re not going home, that’s the fact of it”
Hardy is a semifinalist for the Jack Nicklaus Award this year, along with this year’s Big Ten individual champion and conference player of the year Dylan Meyer. The latter is the first Illini men’s golfer to be named a finalist for the Ben Hogan Award. Joining Hardy and Meyer as All-Big Ten players were Big Ten Freshman of the Year Michael Feagles and Edoardo Lipparelli. Coach Mike Small was named Coach of the Year for the third consecutive season and the ninth time overall.
So where’d this come from?
Small was a member of the Fighting Illini Men’s Golf team in 1988 that brought home the program’s first conference title since 1941. This team was led by Steve Stricker, currently ranked #95 in the world (at one point ranked #2). Small was hired as the head men’s golf coach at Illinois in 2000 and won his first Big Ten Coach of the Year award in 2002 en route to leading the Fighting Illini to the NCAA Championships and placing 18th.
In 2009, Illinois won their first Big Ten Title since Small’s squad of 1988. Since the train got rolling, only in 2014 have they failed to win the Big Ten. 2010 and 2012 saw Scott Langley and Thomas Pieters become individual national champions, the only two such champions in Illinois history. The next year, Illinois finished second at the NCAA Championships. They’ve been back to the Final Four twice since then.
This year, the championships will be held at Rich Harvest Farms in Sycamore, Illinois. Practically in the backyard of Small and company. Behind the 8 ball through two days, an apparent team of destiny went to work in the last round of the regional and will now join fellow Big Ten members Purdue and Penn State at the NCAA Championships.
We’re a golf school. Don’t you ever forget it.