Taking their best shot
Starting Thursday, Mike Small's Illinois golf team competes in the Norman Regional with a simple goal in mind: Reach the NCAA Championships for a fifth consecutive year. Only six other schools have been to the last four: Arizona State, Florida, Oklahoma State, Texas, Texas A&M and USC. Here are three keys for the Illini, courtesy staff writer Bob Asmussen:
Go to the event with the idea of qualifying for nationals (the top five teams move on) and you will likely struggle. Small wants his guys trying to win the regional title. And he will have the same idea if they reach the national tournament.
"I'm a big believer that if you go there trying to win, the fifth spot is a lot easier to attain," Small said.
The Illini aren't seeded as high as Small expected. And they aren't considered to be at the level of past teams.
"We're not going to be able to cruise through this thing playing average like we have the last couple of years," Small said. "We were a Top 10 team the last three years. If you play solid, you make it through."
Plus, they got thrown into what Small considers the toughest region of the six.
"I think we're better than our ranking," Small said.
The trip to the Jimmie Austin OU Golf Club will be the first ever for Small and his team. So, they can practice at the place for a week leading up to the tournament, right? Nope. Rules allow for one practice round, which will come Wednesday.
"You try to figure out how to play the golf course," Small said. "You try to figure out what's going to trip you up and how we're going to become one with the golf course. You can't fight it. You can't complain about it. You have to figure out how to become friends with it."
The practice round is a critical time for the coach. Small has five different players with five different games. What works for one doesn't necessarily work for the rest.
"After that, you more or less let them go," Small said. "As a coach, I manage emotions and I manage body languages during the tournament."
It will help the Illini that they just won the Big Ten title at a difficult course in French Lick, Ind.
"It shows that we can play a tough golf course," Small said. "Playing the hardest golf courses you can throughout the year is good for a team. It hardens you and toughens you."
Blow, wind, blow
Of the 14 teams in the field, few likely have to deal with the daily practice conditions facing the No. 7-seeded Illini. Maybe IUPUI and Loyola. But not top contenders Texas, Georgia Tech and Florida State.
"I think this course could play tough if the wind blows," Small said. "If the wind doesn't blow, it lays down a little bit."
Bring on the nasty stuff, Small said.
"We welcome tough weather," Small said. "We want wind and rain and cold."
He isn't likely to get much of the latter, with temperatures forecast for the low 80s. But the wind in Oklahoma can pick up at any time.
From early in their careers, the Illinois players embrace the weather. That's a good thing considering the fivesome playing in the tournament includes two freshmen.
"They're going to have to play above their years this week," Small said. "They've only been playing this spring."