For the first time in his Illinois golf career, Mark Henderson won''t finish his season at the Big Ten Championships.
No, the Illini senior hasn''t been dropped from the lineup after developing a case of the yips or sailing one too many balls into the water. To the contrary, Henderson lately shot some of the best golf of his career, never exceeding 76 in his last seven rounds.
The reason Henderson needs to keep his golf bag packed after this weekend''s league tournament is because he and the rest of Ed Beard''s Illini are headed to NCAA regionals.
That''s a first for Henderson, fellow senior Ed Parga and all but one of their teammates: LSU transfer D.A. Points.
"This time of year, our season was pretty much over," Henderson said. "I kind of feel like it''s just starting right now."
Illinois received word Tuesday that it had received a bid to the Central Regional on May 20-22 in Columbus, Ohio. It''s the UI''s first invitation since 1990.
A year ago at this time, after finishing fifth or higher in their previous four tournaments, Beard''s group waited by the phone for the same message.
It never rang.
And the disappointed Illini never recovered from the slight, ballooning to a 30-over-par 318 later that week in the first round of the Big Ten Championships.
"It was kind of a letdown for us, and we played really bad the first round," said Parga, whose squad managed to climb to seventh place by tournament''s end.
This year, the Illini left nothing to chance with the NCAA tournament selection committee. Since September, they have won two tournaments, finished in the top three eight times and placed lower than fifth just twice.
"I knew things were going to happen this year," Henderson said.
Actually, they started happening last season with the addition of former Illinois State Amateur champion Points and two gifted freshmen: Larry Nuger and Tim Riley. Inconsistent at first, the revamped Illini came on strong down the stretch.
"The acquisition of those three was what turned it around," Beard said.
Points made an immediate and sustained impact. A year ago, he turned in the third-lowest stroke average (73.1) in UI history while finishing in the top 10 seven times.
This year, the Pekin native is threatening Steve Stricker''s school-record 71.5-stroke average. In 32 rounds, Points is averaging 71.9. The Illini senior has translated that consistency into two tournament titles, a share of another and two runner-up finishes.
"He''s a great player," Henderson said, "not only scorewise, but motivationwise because you know if you go out and beat him, you''ve got a good chance to win the tournament."
As Beard knows all too well, however, even a big gun of Points'' caliber can''t do it himself. For proof, the Illini need look no further back than the early April Marshall Invitational in Huntington, W.Va. Points finished first. Illinois placed 15th.
"One player can''t carry the whole team," Beard said. "He can put them in contention, but you can''t win with (just) one."
Which is why the addition of Nuger and Riley was vital. After getting acclimated to the collegiate game a year ago, they''ve emerged as Illinois'' No. 2 and 3 scorers this season.
"Last year was the key, when we had Larry, Tim and D.A. come in at the same time," Nuger said. "We just didn''t have the players before. We always had players who could shoot well for a couple rounds but not consistently over the course of a whole season."
Nuger, in particular, has shown signs of being something special. He''s coming off his first collegiate victory at the Fossum Invitational in East Lansing, Mich. There, the Longmeadow, Mass., native shot the second-lowest 54-hole total (208) in UI history.
Add in the contributions of Henderson and Parga, and the squad is staking a legitimate claim to being among the best in school history.
In spurts, statistically they are the best. Last September, during the final round of the Northern Intercollegiate at East Lansing, the Illini shot the lowest 18-hole score (273) in UI history. In the same tournament, they shattered the UI 54-hole record by 17 strokes with an 840.
"The teams during the Stricker years, this team is very similar," Beard said.
The breakthrough for this group came in last year''s Marshall Invitational, when Parga led the Illini to victory in a 20-team field that included perennial Big Ten power Ohio State.
"That gave us a lot of confidence," said Parga, who tied for fourth.
"Marshall was kind of the starting point," agreed Henderson. "We finished in the top five of every (regular season) tournament after that. That definitely gave us some confidence that carried over into this season."
Another possible breakthrough is staring the Illini in the face. The Big Ten Championships have not been kind to Illinois recently, the Illini placing 10th, ninth and seventh the past three years.
"My sophomore year was probably our worst year," Parga said. "We weren''t really thinking about winning the tournament. We were just trying to go out there and shoot the best that we can."
Now the Illini know their best is good enough to contend in the Big Ten. Maybe even good enough to win it all if favored Minnesota and Northwestern aren''t on top of their games.
"I don''t think we should expect to lose to anybody else besides those two teams," Parga said, "and I think we can beat those two teams."
From the archives
The Big Ten will hold its 80th men's golf championship today through Sunday at Les Bolstad Country Club in St. Paul, Minn. Illinois ranks fifth in all-time team titles with seven. Other tidbits on the Illini from the tournament archives:
Current pro Steve Stricker and three others share the record for individual titles with three. Stricker won his in 1986, '88 and '89.
Trevor Beard, son of Illini coach Ed Beard, shares the record for lowest round with two others. Beard fired a 64 in the first round of the 1991 tournament.
In 1968, the league began selecting an All-Big Ten team. Of the 13 Illini to be so honored, five were chosen in this decade: Trevor Beard (1990-91), Kevin Fairfield (1990), Ben Bruce (1991), Jamie Fairbanks (1992-93-94) and D.A. Points (1998).
In 1989, Stricker shot the fourth-lowest 72-hole total (277) in tournament history. The medalist closed with a rush, firing 67s in each of the last two rounds.
Illinois last won the team title in 1988 with a 1,166 that ranks 10th all-time among totals that count the top four individual scores.
The 1988 champion Illini ended a 47-year drought. The UI's last previous Big Ten team title was in 1941.
Stricker was the first winning of the Big Ten Player of the Year Award and Ed Beard the first winner of the Big Ten Coach of the Year Award. Both came in 1988. Stricker repeated his honor in 1989.
Starting with R.E. Rolfe in 1923, Illinois has produced the medalist 11 times. Stricker and Richard Martin (1930-31) are the only multiple winners.
Champaign native Jamie Fairbanks was the UI's last medalist. Fairbanks won the 1993 tournament with a 286.