Max Made In Heaven: Talented Freshman Leading Illini Men’s Golf into Big Ten Championships

Freshman Max Herendeen has gone from one of the most prestigious signees of the program to leading the Illini into his first college golf postseason.

By Matt Stevens - IlliniGuys Staff Writer

April 25, 2024

Mike Small has quickly transitioned the Illinois men’s golf program from being led by a trio of fifth-year seniors to still being a conference favorite mostly on the play of underclassmen.

The Illini arrive with a completely remade team at Columbus, Ohio but still as the No. 1 seed for the 2024 Big Ten Championships at Scioto Country Club where they’re in search of their ninth consecutive league title and their 14th in the last 15 league championships dating back to the 2008-09 season. The 54-hole tournament will begin Friday morning at 8 a.m. CST with Sunday's final round scheduled to tee off beginning at 7 a.m. CST.

Small, who has been named Big Ten Coach of the Year a conference-record 13 times in his career (2023, 2022, 2019, 2018, 2017, 2016, 2015, 2013, 2012, 2011, 2010, 2009, 2002), knew he had to reload the roster of his alma with a young player that could handle the championship expectations. Enter Max Herendeen.

The 6-foot-2, 185-pound prospect was arguably the most important American junior golf signee of the Illini program since Nick Hardy signed with his home state school nearly 10 years ago. Herendeen, a 2022 American Junior Golf Association Rolex All-American second team selection, elected to travel over 2,000 miles from Bellevue, Washington to commit to Small’s dominant program after turning down heavy recruitment from college golf power programs Oklahoma State, Southern California, Vanderbilt, Wake Forest, and Washington.

“He’s so young emotionally and mentally in the game but he’s just so talented for his age,” Small said. “He compresses the golf ball like a 22 or 23-year-old senior player. He’s such a big kid physically and was one of the most recruited players in the country for a reason.”

Herendeen didn’t wait long to make good on his recruiting hype by posting a 8-under 64 in his second career collegiate round and finishing second in his first 54-hole collegiate event this past fall at the Sahalee Players Championship. Following an impressive fall season, Herendeen was immediately one of only six freshmen in the nation named to the 2024 Ben Hogan Award Watch List - college golf’s version of the Heisman Trophy.

Herendeen is the favorite to become the eighth player in Illinois program history to be named Big Ten Freshman of the Year.

“He’s actually surprised me on this team where he’s so quickly become an anchor on this team when it comes to posting a score,” Small said. “He’s been counted on in so many of our team rounds this year where yeah, as a freshman, you’d like to be able to have him ease into it a little bit. However, with his ability and his upside, it’s probably a good thing he got thrown into the fire quickly and had to produce. I think his game is ready for this time of the year and honestly, I couldn’t be happier.”

Herendeen is arguably playing his best golf leading into the most important point of the season as he contributed a Top 10 score to the Illini lineup last week at the Fighting Illini Spring Collegiate at Atkins Golf Club. Herendeen entered Sunday as the individual co-leader with eventual individual medalist Ryan Voois and shot a final round of 3-over 74 to finish two shots off the pace in a tie for third. It was second-career top five and his best individual finish since his collegiate debut in the Sahalee Players Championship.

“When I was recruited, this is the role I was anticipating that I’d have so I think I was prepared to come here right away and be successful right now,” Herendeen said. “I came here to compete for championships and I think what (Small) does so well to make sure his teams are prepared this time of the year is just let us figure it out. We’ve been working on our game on campus for seven months and he tends to know that we, as players, are all trying to put it together at the same time. You can’t be traveling to a big event trying to find your game and my game is differently trending in the direction I want it to be.”

Ryan Voois' 54-hole tally in the Fighting Illini Spring Collegiate of 1-under-par 212 was the only under-par score for the weekend, and after carding a career-low and tournament-record score of 7-under 64 in the opening round and cruised in the final 36 holes to finish one stroke ahead of Ashton McCulloch of Michigan State.

“I was anxious to see what he had today, after yesterday, because he played really well in the (Friday) morning - didn't miss a shot and had a so-so round in the afternoon," Small added. "I wanted to see how he could put that behind him, and he did a really good job of coming out on point today. I'm happy for him. Now he's got his first win, and hopefully he can begin winning bigger and better events.”

Illinois will have an All-American in the third slot of its lineup in the form of junior Jackson Buchanan. The Georgia product, who just turned 22 years old in February, was a 2023 NCAA All-America selection by being a Top-15 finisher (runner-up) in the stroke play format of the NCAA Championships and followed up that introduction to the national college golf stage with a co-medalist performance in the stroke play format of the U.S. Amateur Championship this summer.

Buchanan finished tied for fifth last season in the Big Ten Championships but was leading the event when play was halted midway through Round 3 after scores on that day were deleted because not enough holes were completed.

“This time of the year is when you honestly want to just turn your brain off and go play,” Buchanan said. “(Small) says all the time that you don’t want to be trying to find your swing or anything like that but instead, you want to be building momentum.”

While admitting he was able to follow older players Adrien Dumont de Chassart, Tommy Kuhl and Matthis Besard and surprise out of the No. 4 spot last season, Buchanan has been forced to adjust to a more leadership role for an Illini squad this season still looking to make a run into the NCAA National Championships to be played on the Champions Course at Omni La Costa Resort & Spa in Carlsbad, Calif., May 24-29.

“I just truly believe that if you set your goals and your mind on the big things, the little boxes are easier to get checked off,” Small said. “In golf, the mindset is to aim small so if you miss, you miss small. These are the events that people remember and build people’s legacies and could catapult them into another phase in their careers in golf.”

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