By Matt Stevens - IlliniGuys Staff Writer
May 16, 2022
(Cover photo of Illini golfer Piercen Hunt courtesy Illinois Athletics)
Illinois is in position to make it 14 straight appearances in the NCAA Men’s Golf Championship but a stacked field and difficult golf course put the Illini exactly on the cut line after day one.
Illinois is currently tied for fifth in the team standings, which is the final transfer spot of this regional to the 2022 NCAA Championships to be played on May 27-June 1 in Scottsdale, Arizona. The problem for the Big Ten Conference champions is they’re tied with the highest ranked team coming into this NCAA New Haven Regional at Yale in No. 5 ranked North Carolina. Both the Illini and Tar Heels finished the opening day with a 7-under score of 273.
"We started off flat, which was a little surprising," Illinois head coach Mike Small said. "We all striped it off the first tee beautifully, and then we made six bogeys in the first five holes, which is uncharacteristic. We righted the ship, and got back on track and played pretty well after that. We didn't close the way we could have, but all-in-all, we're still in this thing.”
Wake Forest and North Florida, which came into this week as the No. 7 seed after winning the Atlantic Sun Conference Championships two weeks ago, are tied at the top of the team standings after posting a 13-under-par 267. Georgia Southern continued the streak of upset first round performances as the Eagles, ranked No. 49 nationally in the latest Golfstat.com poll, sits third and primed to advance to NCAA Championships after posting a 10-under-par 270 without the help of its top player Ben Carr. Texas Tech sits one shot back of GSU in fourth place after being paced by its top player, Ludvig Aberg. Aberg, who is currently ranked as the No. 3 amateur in the world and was a PING All-America selection this season, is one shot back of the individual medalist lead following his bogey-free, 5-under-par 67.
Illinois and UNC also don’t have much cover from a trio of schools still within striking distance of the fifth and final transfer spot as nine schools finished with under-par totals after the first day. Seton Hall is just two shots back at 5-under, UCF is at 4-under and Virginia is at 3-under-par.
In similar fashion to the first day of the Big Ten Conference Tournament two weeks ago, a single player paved the way for Illinois to have a chance to keep a streak alive. Piercen Hunt, who Illinois sent out in the No. 2 position, leads the entire 75-player field at Yale Golf Club in New Haven, Connecticut after the sophomore posted a 6-under-par 64. The Hartland, Wisconsin native, who is a two-time Wisconsin individual state champion and finished this regular season as a All-Big Ten Conference second team recipient, took advantage of solid scoring conditions with six birdies and an eagle on the 495-yard par-5 16th hole.
“Every day you show up to play, and play the best you can and accept nothing else,” Small said. “Today wasn't a bad day, it was a competitive day. But we need to play from strength, look up the leaderboard and move up the leaderboard if we're going to advance.”
Hunt was one of 35 players who played the par-70 track under par on Monday but the two other Illini scorecards with an under par round were 1-under-par 69 from back-to-back Big Ten Player of the Year selection Adrien Dumont de Chassart and freshman Jackson Buchanan.
The senior from Belgium survived three bogeys on his first nine holes, which was on the back nine, and managed to play the par-34 front nine with eight pars and a birdie on the 394-yard, par-4 eighth hole. Dumont de Chassart, who started each of the three days of the 2022 Big Ten Championships with the individual lead on his way to a second place finish, currently sits tied for 28th individually in this regional.
Buchanan, who has played in the Illini lineup for the last eight tournaments of his first college season including the Big Ten Championship, made birdie on No. 18 in the final round to help the Illini secure the one-stroke league title. Buchanan played extremely consistently in his first NCAA round of competition on a golf course foreign to him as he recorded 15 pars and just one bogey.
Illinois will be paired with UNC and Texas Tech in the second round Tuesday morning on the back nine of the Yale Golf Club with start times beginning from 9 a.m. to 9:44 a.m.
“You don't want to stay (on that line). We need to come here to compete for this championship,” Small said. “The way I look at it, we're six shots out of the lead, which isn't bad, and Piercen helped keep us in there, but tomorrow we need all five guys to come back and chase that lead.”
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