Illinois proves its grit as cold-weather team

Scott Langley

Scott Langley

STILLWATER, Okla. – In this cozy Oklahoma hamlet, there is little doubt as to who’s the show this week at the NCAA Men’s Championship. When U.S. Amateur champion Peter Uihlein made his way up the 18th fairway at Karsten Creek late Thursday afternoon, he looked as if he were the Pied Piper, leading a large throng of partisan golf fans down the fairway. As he putted out, the right hillside next to the 18th green transformed into a sea of Cowboy orange amid the rocky landscape. 

Mere minutes later, 2010 NCAA individual champion Scott Langley of Illinois walked up the fairway leading the next wave of players. By then, that quickly, the place had nearly emptied completely, as if someone had turned out the lights. 

But hey, that’s life when you play for the Illini, the little Big Ten team that could. All the blue-collar Illini do is bring a lunchpail every day, roll up the sleeves and compete as if every round might be their last. Good thing, too. As the NCAAs now turn to the first of three days of match play beginning Friday, that will be the situation. A showdown with Georgia awaits Illinois. And Illini head coach Mike Small believes his team is tough enough to handle the challenge. 

“This is a good group of kids,” Small said after Illinois shot 15-over 879 and locked up the No. 5 seed in the eight-team match-play bracket. “They’re competitors and they’re coachable. That’s a pretty good combination.”

Junior Luke Guthrie, a budding All-American, and Langley have led this team most of the season, but when Langley faltered the past two days, his teammates were there to pick him up. Langley played his first 16 holes of this tournament beautifully at 2 under par, then played his next 38 holes in 25 over. In the second round, he carded an uncharacteristic 86. But a new day awaits today, all because his teammates never blinked.

Senior Chris DeForest joined Guthrie in shooting 2-over 218, tying for 13th. Thomas Pieters, a freshman from Belgium, chimed in by tying the day’s low round, posting 2-under 70. 

Question: Just how exactly does one lure a kid from wordly Belgium to the icy winters of Champaign, Ill., anyway, where arguably the school’s biggest golf name through the years has been superagent Mark Steinberg, who played hoops? (Apologies to Steve Stricker.) To answer the question, here’s how: You build a nationally respected program. That’s what Small has done. 

“He (Pieters) is my first international recruit in 10 years,” said Small, a terrific player himself. “When we first met him, he didn’t know Illinois from UCLA. But that’s where our national ranking helped us.”

Illinois remains relatively unheralded in the world of college golf, yet it really shouldn’t be. The Illini are one of only seven programs in the country to advance to the national finals in each of the last four seasons, and have competed in six of the last nine finals overall. The program boasts one of the best indoor facilities in the country, so even when the harsh winter blows in, “we still can get better,” Small says.

Seniors Langley and DeForest have been part of teams that have won 21 tournaments, including three Big Ten titles. Oklahoma State will enter the match-play portion of the NCAAs heavily favored, a powerhouse performing on its own home stage, but don’t underestimate the Illini, a team that finished second earlier this season at the Callaway Collegiate Match Play outside Atlanta. 

“Have we received the respect we’ve deserved? I don’t know; that’s a good question,” Small said. “You always want to be praised when you work hard and accomplish things. But that’s all a matter of how you look at things. With all the tournaments these seniors have won, the three Big Ten titles, I think they deserve to make it into match play.”

Regardless of how the team fares head-to-head against Georgia, Illinois already has secured the program’s best showing at the NCAAs since 1941, when the Illini placed fourth. Illinois never has captured a national crown in golf; the last Big Ten school to win one was Minnesota, in 2002. At one point late Thursday, four Big Ten teams remained in the running for match play. Early in the day, Michigan posted a third-round 5-over 293 and waited to see if enough teams would fall out. No luck. Iowa played its way into the top 8 but fell back in its final nine, tying for 10th. Illinois stumbled a bit at the finish line, but was solidly inside the top 8 by virtue of playing its first two rounds 2 over as a team on a difficult track.

“I’m glad we got the monkey off our backs and got to match play after our last few trips (17th, 21st, 19th) didn’t go so well,” DeForest said. “Scott (Langley) has had a couple of rough days, but we all look up to him and his accomplishments, and he’s the leader on this team. But we also showed we have a lot of depth.”

As for the difficulty of trying to survive among the 30 starting teams at Karsten Creek, DeForest added, “We were all glad to find out we’d be playing the NCAAs here. As a team, we don’t really shoot lightning-low scores. But on tough courses, it brings out our toughness as a team, and we can compete.”

Small, the reigning PGA Professional National Championship winner who still competes from time to time on the PGA Tour, has instilled belief to go along with the mental toughness. It’s been a terrific four-year run, the last three spent hanging out in the top 10 with the nation’s top programs, even if few folks outside of his home state seemed to have noticed. When Illinois got paired with longtime powers UCLA and Georgia Tech on Thursday, Small said it didn’t faze or intimidate his bunch in the least. 

“We consider ourselves an elite team, too,” he said. “Those are good teams, but we look at them as equals, though today, I’d say we were just trying to get it to the house. This (Day 3) has become the biggest day of the national championship; before, if you were sixth, seventh or eighth, you had no chance to win. But this is like the second stage of PGA Tour Q-School – that’s where all the pressure is.”

Up against that pressure, Small’s squad responded, and now it is refocusing on match play, hoping bigger things might be in store over the next few days in Stillwater.

“I guess we’ll see who we are,” Small said. 

And others might have no choice but to take notice. 

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