‘It’s an L - plain and simple’: Illinois Falls Just Short Again of National Championship Run

Illinois loses two matches in the 2023 NCAA Men’s Golf Championship quarterfinals by one hole in a grueling loss to Florida State on Tuesday.

By Matt Stevens - IlliniGuys Staff Writer

May 30, 2023

(Cover photo courtesy Illinois Athletics)

SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. -- The Illinois men’s golf team has once again learned the cruel fate that match play can provide.

In the multi-play medal format, Illinois posted seven tournament victories in 11 events heading into NCAA Regional play. The Illini’s seven team wins were the most in Mike Small’s program since picking up nine wins including the NCAA Kohler Regional during the 2015-16 season.

In a match play, one bad hole, one bad matchup and even in the midst of an average to solid day overall, you’re headed home. The razor edge, coin flip of difference between the top program in the country and the No. 8 program in the nation bit No. 3 seed Illinois again in the NCAA Championships quarterfinals as the Illini lost 3-2 to No. 6 seed Florida State Tuesday afternoon at Grayhawk Golf Club in Scottsdale, Arizona.

Illinois lost each of the two matches to the Seminoles that arrived at the final hole showcasing the volatility of the one-and-done format to crown a national championship.

For Illinois head coach Mike Small, the margin is irrelevant as he’ll leave the match play format for the eighth time without the national championship trophy he has pledged to bring home to his alma mater.

“It’s an L - plain and simple,” Small said following the quarterfinal loss to Florida State on Tuesday afternoon. “It’s a mentality we’ve tried to change in this program where you get close so many times but can’t get it done. We played our entire season with just nine losses in stroke play and that’s got to be the best ever and the best this season by far. In match play, and losing two matches by one is such a thin line that it’s hard to explain.

Matthis Besard, a senior transfer from Southern Illinois who Small sent out first Tuesday morning, lost his final hole of the day in his 1-up defeat coming from Seminoles fourth-year junior Cole Anderson. Besard led 2-up with seven holes left to play but back-to-back hole losses evened the match with five to play. Both players were all square heading to the final hole, the difficult 468-yard, par-4. While Anderson found the middle of the fairway and had a wedge in his hand for his approach shot, Besard hit his drive left into the desert area with a bush and treeline problems from 170 yards out. The Belgium native failed to get up and down from the front of the green to lose the final hole of his college career with a devastating bogey.

Less than 24 hours after having a 12-foot downhill putt to tie for the individual medalist honors, Illinois sophomore sensation Jackson Buchanan never led but also never found himself down by more than one at any point in his match against FSU freshman Luke Clanton in a 1-up loss for the Illini youngster. Buchanan brought the magic Tuesday that led him to post 7-under-par of the last three days of competition. The Dacula, Georgia native pulled off a remarkable hole-out from the bunker about 10-15 yards short of the cup on the No. 8 188-yard, par-3 to extend the match with Clanton just eight feet away for birdie. After tugging his drive right on No. 9, Buchanan was unable to pull off the same magic in a hole loss for the 1-up defeat that ultimately clinched the round loss for the Illini. Buchanan, who will next attempt to advance out of Sectional Qualifying for the 2023 United States Open Championship, shot even-par 70 in medal play on Tuesday and lost.

Small front-loaded the five-player lineup with his veteran players by sending Besard, senior Tommy Kuhl and fifth-year senior Adrien Dumont de Chassart one after another as Small hoped his most seasoned players would immediately put the orange ‘I’ logo on the scoreboard early to grab momentum. In fact, Kuhl found himself down early but rallied for an impressive 3&2 victory over Seminoles freshman Jack Bigham.

“I just didn’t want to leave today with any regrets regardless of the result and I think I accomplished that,” Kuhl said. “I didn’t play my best but I fought hard and clawed my way to a victory. I can be proud of that.”

Dumont de Chassart finished his college career by grabbing a 3-up lead after nine holes and cruised to a 3&2 victory over Florida State’s Denmark native Frederik Kjettrup.

“I wanted to be aggressive today,” Dumont de Chassart said. “I wanted to dictate the match and not let the course, my opponent, the conditions or the pressure of the moment define my plan today.”

After taking a 1-up lead following the second hole of the day, Piercen Hunt lost three holes in a row to Florida State’s top player Brett Roberts in a match that slowly but surely became an afterthought of the afternoon.

After showcasing this event at Grayhawk for the last three seasons, Small isn’t likely going to miss coming to the state of Arizona for the national championship as the mix of a tight but strategic golf course off the tee removes the weapon of driver on holes where Illinois separated itself from the rest of the country in its multiple medal play victories.

“The way these guys played this season should be talked about for years to come because of all the wins and they way they played from August all the way up to now,” Small said. “I also think this team was a better stroke play team because they drive it so well and at this place, they just take driver out of play on so many holes. I thought our guys did well with it throughout the four days of stroke play but match play is just a different deal.”

Illinois will leave Grayhawk without a match play team NCAA win in this location and without a NCAA quarterfinals match play win since a 3-1-1 victory over Southern California in 2017. However, the eight appearances in the quarterfinals matched Oklahoma State for the most by any college team and the razor-thin defeat at the hands of the historically solid Atlantic Coast Conference power program shows the objective isn’t done for the Illini’s 57-year-old head coach.

“The fact of the matter is you look at Florida State’s lineup and all five of their players are among the 180 amateur players in the entire world,” Small said. “There’s no weak spot in Florida State’s lineup and we knew that.”

 

NCAA Championships Match Play Quarterfinal Summary

No. 6 Florida State 3, No. 3 Illinois 2

Match 1: Cole Anderson (FSU) def. Matthis Besard (Ill.) 1 up

Match 2: Tommy Kuhl (Ill.) def. Jack Bigham (FSU) 3 & 2

Match 3: Adrien Dumont de Chassart (Ill.) def. Frederik Kjettrup (FSU) 3 & 2

Match 4: Luke Clanton def. Jackson Buchanan (Ill.) 1 up

Match 5: Brett Roberts def. Piercen Hunt (Ill.) 3 & 2

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