By Matt Stevens - IlliniGuys Staff Writer
May 26, 2023
(Cover photo courtesy Illinois Athletics)
Illinois head men’s golf coach Mike Small didn’t think his squad could play much worse than the way they started their NCAA Championship journey but was disappointed to see his players attempt to prove him wrong.
On an opening day of the medal round portion of the 2023 NCAA championship tournament where birdies and low scores were hard to find, Small’s veteran Illini squad managed to battle through a rough beginning on the back nine at Grayhawk Golf Club in Scottsdale, Arizona and a difficult finish on the front nine.
“I thought we were out of sorts today,” Small said in a media teleconference call Friday evening. “I just told the guys I thought we looked like deer in headlights in the beginning and roadkill at the end. We did not meet our standard today but we fought through it and that happens.”
Illinois, which came to its 16th NCAA finals appearance under Small ranked No. 3 overall, finished the day just outside the top eight of the team standings after the first of four days of stroke play to determine who will move on to the match play format. Following three rounds of play, the field will be cut in half as the top 15 teams will advance to the final day of competition. After four days of stroke play, the top eight teams will be bracketed and play three rounds of best of five head-to-head match play to determine a national champion.
The Illini posted a 5-over-par 285 that puts them tied for ninth place with Georgia and five shots behind first-day leader Georgia Tech but only one shot back of Florida State for the final transfer spot into the match play round.
Illinois’ five-player lineup made a combined six double bogeys in its 72 holes of competition on Friday.
“This is why there’s four rounds to this golf tournament and we have three more opportunities to put together solid scores that will be more to our standard of play,” Small said. “I think a lot of our mistakes we made playing like this was a one-day deal. It’s a four-day deal and honestly we made too many double bogeys today where we should’ve gotten out there, limiting the damage with a bogey.”
The consistent play of fifth-year senior Adrien Dumont de Chassart is what kept Illinois so close to the top eight cutline Friday as the three-time Big Ten Conference Player of the Year selection carded a 1-under 34 on each of front nine and back nine that included birdies on his first two holes of the day. The Belgian native finished tied for sixth individually and one of 19 in the 156-player field to finish Friday under par.
“Adrien had it going early today and had that look all day,” Small said. “That’s what good players do and what we expect out of a player like him in this program.”
The roller coaster ride of Illinois sophomore Jackson Buchanan’s day included a hole-out eagle on the 468-yard par-4 12th hole (Buchanan’s third hole of the day) following a bogey on the first of two par-5s on the 7,289-yard par-70 track. Buchanan would bogey both par-5 holes Friday in a 1-over-par round that finished with bogeys on three of his final six.
Illinois senior Tommy Kuhl salvaged a 2-over-par 72 that included a double bogey on the short No. 6, a 348-yard, par-4, by posting a birdie on his final hole of competition.
Despite his score being the one not to count toward the Illinois team total, Matthis Besard managed to show fight in his scattered round that began with double bogeys on his first two holes. The Belgian transfer from Southern Illinois managed to play the final 16 holes at just 2-over-par to record a 76. Besard’s round included seven consecutive pars to finish his first nine on the backside and then birdies on No. 1, 2 and 4 to be all but negated by another double bogey on the 205-yard, par-3 fifth hole.
Arkansas was the surprise of the first day as the Razorbacks, which arrived in Arizona ranked as No. 28 in the country and wasn’t projected to get out of its regional tournament based on seeds, finished with two players inside the individual top five and tied for second as a team with with Pepperdine posting a score of 1-over 281.
Georgia Tech, which won the NCAA Salem Regional in South Carolina last week, was the first team to tee off Friday morning before posting an even-par 280 and then waiting over three hours to see its score hold up for the overall team lead. Yellow Jackets senior Ross Steelman birdied three of his first four holes and added three more on the back nine in his opening-round 6-under-par 64, which is the lowest score recorded in the first round at Grayhawk in the past three years. Of the 77 individuals to finish four rounds at last year’s NCAA Championships, Steelman finished ahead of just one player.
“This course was punching me right in the teeth from the get-go last year,” Steelman said.
Steelman, a native of Columbia, Mo. who transferred from his hometown school of Missouri to Georgia Tech after his sophomore season and was the individual medalist at the 2022 Western Amateur, currently sits ranked No. 6 on the PGA Tour University Velocity Global Ranking. At the end of the college golf season, the top five finishers will earn membership on Korn Ferry Tour and players finishing 6th through 15th will earn membership on PGA TOUR Canada or PGA TOUR Latinoamérica. The Illini’s Adrien Dumont De Chassart currently sits No. 2 in that ranking. Steelman has decided the NCAA Championships will be his last event as an amateur golfer and needs at least a solo fifth place finish or better to crack the top five without any other help.
Friday’s play, which favored the teams with earlier start times, produced an incredibly dramatic, jam-packed team leaderboard where 19 teams found themselves either inside of or within five shots of the eighth and final transfer spot into the match play format.
Illinois will get the early side of the draw as Small will see his entire team start its second round of play on Saturday with North Carolina and Vanderbilt on the front nine of Grayhawk before 7 a.m. CST.
The Golf Channel will televise the final round of stroke play on Monday starting at 4 p.m. CST. Golf Channel will broadcast the quarterfinal and semifinal team matches on Tuesday at 11 a.m. and 4 p.m. respectively and then will broadcast the national championship team match on Wednesday evening at 4 p.m.
Georgia Tech Even
North Carolina +2
Texas Tech +2
Florida State +4
San Francisco +6
Ohio State +7
Texas A&M +9
Arizona State +11
Mississippi State +11
New Mexico +13
Colorado State +16
East Tennessee State +21
Illini Individual Scores
T6 Adrien Dumont de Chassart: 34-34--68 (-2)
T31 Jackson Buchanan: 38-33--71 (+1)
T47 Tommy Kuhl: 37-35--72 (+2)
T88 Piercen Hunt: 35-39--74 (+4)
T115 Matthis Besard: 37-39--76 (+6)
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