By Matt Stevens - IlliniGuys Staff Writer
(Cover photo courtesy Illinois Athletics)
A mission in Michigan was accomplished for the University Illinois men’s golf team this week even if it wasn’t the mission.
The Illini safely advanced through the NCAA Bath Regional at Eagle Eye Golf Club in Michigan by finishing second in the 13-team regional field. Illinois finished at 21-under-par over the three-day event and were eight strokes behind a Georgia program that led wire-to-wire for the regional title.
“We come to every event with the intention of winning and that’s what we expect to do here at Illinois so that’s something we didn’t accomplish here but yes, the main objective is to qualify and we have the ability to play better next week,” Illinois head coach Mike Small said.
The Illini, which came in as the top seed in the regional after winning its eighth straight Big Ten Championship title, used the front nine to carve six shots off Georgia’s 10-stroke lead but couldn’t maintain that pace over the final nine holes to pull off what would’ve been a remarkable comeback win for the No. 3 ranked program in the country according to Golfstat.com.
“I would say the whole package was pretty consistent but there’s some rough edges we need to focus on when we get back home,” Small said. “For example, we were very strong in the beginning today and couldn’t sustain it throughout the day and teams that win national championships can do that. Our guys know what to expect in these situations so it’s about playing our best at this time of the year.”
Illinois, which has a roster of four active players who were part of the 2022 team which failed to advance out of the NCAA New Haven Regional, never put itself in danger all week to have that kind of repeat performance this week.
Illinois will now enter the 2023 NCAA Championships on May 26-31 at Grayhawk Golf Club in Scottsdale, Arizona as a favorite to win the program’s elusive first ever national championship in the sport but Small says that pre-tournament tag is nothing new for his team.
“We’ve been ranked No. 1 in the country going into NCAAs before and it hasn’t meant a thing,” Small said. “This is college team golf and anything can happen. Our guys will be prepared for Grayhawk and be mentally focused to win. We’ve trained all year to be at our best for that moment.”
Georgia’s Ben Van Wyk had never won a college tournament in his four-year career at Augusta University or with the Bulldogs but led from the start after a first-round 65 and cruised to a three-shot victory with a 10-under-par 203 total. The South African native made three birdies in a back-nine, six-hole stretch of No. 10-15 to secure his individual medalist honors over Illinois fifth-year senior Adrien Dumont de Chassart.
“I am so proud of our guys," said Georgia head coach Chris Hack following the tournament. "They came into this week knowing what was at stake, and were focused every round. Our goal all year has been to play for the national championship, and now we have a chance to do that. We are looking forward to going back to Grayhawk."
Dumont de Chassart, the three-time Big Ten Conference player of the year, began the final round five strokes back of Van Wyk but closed with birdies on the par-5 14th, par-4 15th and par-3 17th to put pressure on the Bulldogs top player.
“I think like everybody on our team, Adrien will tell you he didn’t hit it perfectly this week but he kept himself in the mix all week and allowed in a team golf format for his scores to be significant so we could advance,” Small said.
Dumont de Chassart shared second place honors with Kansas State junior Luke O’Neill, who advanced individually to the NCAA Championships as the Wildcats squad finished one position outside of the regional transfer spot.
Illinois senior Tommy Kuhl found himself one shot off the individual lead after seven holes Wednesday as the Morton native had consecutive birdies on No. 2-4 but he would play the final 11 holes at 3-over-par to finish even-par for the day and tied for eighth in the individual standings. Kuhl, who posted a course-record 62 but had to withdraw that score due a rules violation about repairing aeration marks on the greens at Illini Country Club in Springfield, made 12 birdies and an eagle throughout the three days of NCAA regional competition and sent a message that he’s one of the best amateur players in the country.
“Tommy is reaping the benefits of all the hard work he’s put into his game,” Small said. “He’s a player who can play well and score well now even when he doesn’t hit it great. It used to not be that way and that’s about his maturity and mental focus that he’s obtained since he’s been here. It’s great to see.”
Beyond Georgia and Illinois running away from the rest of the field, the final three transfer spots were taken by the familiar names of Oregon, Florida and Texas in a regional tournament where upset bids were near the top of the leaderboard through the first two days.
Florida, which took home the SEC Championship on April 23, pulled off a miraculous final-day comeback from seven shots back to qualify for the NCAA Championships for the sixth time in eight years under head coach J.C. Deacon with an 8-under-par 276 on Wednesday. The Gators final round score was five shots clear of the whole field as it wiped away Michigan State’s two-round lead before the UF players made the turn for the back nine on the final day.
The Spartans, which were playing just four miles north of the MSU campus in East Lansing, failed to secure the program’s first-ever NCAA Championship bid, as they tumbled down the leaderboard due to a 10-over-par 294 total.
Texas extended its nation's-longest current streak of consecutive Division I Men's NCAA Golf Championship appearances to 16, dating back to the 2008 season. Oklahoma ranks second on the active streak list with 12.
Illinois was one of only two Big Ten Conference squads to qualify for the 30-team NCAA Championship field as Ohio State advanced by finishing fourth at the NCAA Auburn Regional at Auburn (Ala.) Country Club. Small's Illini teams have now advanced to the NCAA Championship in 16 of his 19 regional berths, including a stretch of 14 straight between 2008-21.
NCAA Bath Regional
Kansas State -7
Michigan State -1
Little Rock +12
San Diego +17
Illinois State +17
IUPU-Fort Wayne +48
Illini Individual Scores
T2 Adrien Dumont de Chassart: 67-71-68--206 (-7)
T8 Tommy Kuhl: 68-69-71--208 (-5)
T8 Matthis Besard: 67-69-72-208 (-5)
T18 Piercen Hunt: 70-71-70--211 (-2)
T37 Jackson Buchanan: 74-69-75--218 (+5)
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