Local product coming into his own at right time for Illini

Local product coming into his own at right time for Illini

CHAMPAIGN — Varun Chopra has spent a lot of nights at Illinois golf's practice facility. It's the time of day he prefers, particularly in the winter, to work on his game at the Demirjian Indoor Practice Facility.

Chopra finds plenty of motivation in the solitary nature of those practices.

Choosing to get in some extra work alone, though, is a different kind of lonely than the forced solo practice time last year when Chopra wasn't part of Illinois' travel contingent as a freshman. Still, the Champaign native and Uni High graduate continued to put in the work for coach Mike Small's program.

"I had a lot of time," Chopra said. "I wasn't traveling very much, so a lot of times when the team was gone, I'd just have this place to myself, which was kind of a little lonely, but at the same time, it helped me keep working and kept me motivated being away from tournaments. I just always wanted to play.

"Coach Small always instilled in me I had the ability to make the lineup. I just wanted to stay competitive and keep pushing toward the lineup. That was always just a goal of mine. When it was farther off, I knew I had more work to do. It drove me even harder."

The work has paid off for Chopra this spring. The Illinois sophomore put together a career best finish this past weekend at the Hawkeye Invitational with a tie for fourth. That was the second straight tournament he was the Illini's top finisher — providing some momentum heading into the Big Ten championships that started Friday and conclude today on the Wissahickon Course at the Philadelphia Cricket Club.

"Varun's continued to grow," Small said. "He's learning about his golf swing. He's learning about how he handles his emotions in certain situations. He's had two great weeks, and we're excited for that. That's a great jumpstart for our team. He's given us an infusion of some good, low scores these last few weeks."

Heading into the Big Ten championships, Chopra put together six rounds under par this season. Five of the six have come in the last two weeks, with two at the Augusta Haskins Award Invite and all three last weekend in Iowa City, Iowa.

"Now we've got to build that résumé," Small said. "We're still in the infancy part of his development. It's great to see him come on and play, and I know he really wants to play well for the Illini. Being a local young man, he wants to represent Illinois and play well. It's important to him.

"That makes a coach happy that he's going to continue to strive and grind and see how good he can be. But he's reminded all the time this is just the start of this thing. We haven't accomplished anything yet."

Chopra appeared in just three events during his freshman season and played in all three as an individual. He had just a single round out of eight under par and said he arrived at Illinois "behind the curve."

"My game wasn't quite where I wanted it to be, but I sort of realized that and last year worked on my game really hard," Chopra said. "I didn't come into school playing like how I wanted to at all. I wasn't thinking correctly on the golf course. My entire game just wasn't quite at the level it needed to be to play at this level."

Small said college golf was "an eye-opening experience" for Chopra having not played on a high school team. He had just a single teammate at Uni High — D.J. Nelson — for his senior year.

"This was his first experience at team golf," Small said. "The ability has always been there, but Varun has really grown up and really matured on and off the golf course. They work hand in hand in our sport. You can't live your life one way and expect to compete in another. You have to be able to meld the two together in a way that benefits both."

Chopra's results have improved nearly every time out this spring. He shot a 20-over par in September at the OFCC/Illini Invitational to open his sophomore season with a tie for 66th and was 16 strokes and 13 places better a month later at the Fighting Irish Classic. This spring he's finished at or under par in three of four tournaments and placed no worse than 26th.

"I have so much respect for Varun because he's always stuck to the process no matter what," Illinois junior Michael Feagles said. "Even when he's gotten down at times and hasn't been playing well, he always stuck to what he needed to do to get better. Because of that, he's hit a stride now. He's playing great and helping the team.

"He drives it super straight — drives the ball really well and he's a good putter. He gets up and down from a lot of places. When he's playing well, he limits his mistakes."

That solid play from tournament start to finish the last two times out has Chopra heading into the latter part of the season with plenty momentum. It's what he's been working on and building to for nearly two years.

"It just builds my confidence," he said. "Our team is really good. If you can beat everybody else on your team, usually you'll finish pretty highly. ... We always talk about, as a team, this is the postseason — championship season. This is when we want to get our games good."

Lining it up

Illinois men's golf coach Mike Small has used seven different lineups in the Illini's nine stroke play tournaments dating back to the fall season. He called it an "intense inner battle" on the team. "I've messed with the lineup a lot this year," Small said. "I think every kid on our team — every player — has played one official event at least. We've played a lot of combinations. This has been putting guys in positions — trial and error if you will — to see who I can rely upon or who can rely upon each other in the postseason. Now we've established those five guys going into the postseason."

Michael Feagles, Giovanni Tadiotto and Bryan Baumgarten

"The juniors have had some experience," Small said. "Michael and Gio played in the Final Four as freshmen — went all the way to the second-to-last day of the NCAAs. They've won two Big Ten championships. Bryan played last year and he's won one. There's some experience with those guys."

Varun Chopra

"I think Varun brings a lit of energy and some momentum the last couple weeks," Small said. "A month ago, Varun probalby wasn't in the top six or seven, but he's worked hard. That's what this game does. This game can turn around in a minute."

Adrien Dumont de Chassart

"Adrien is our best player, our top world ranked player," Small said. "He's young — he's learning — but he has a win as of a month ago. He brings some newness, some excitement and some energy and a youthful freshman-type mindset.

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