Five straight for Small's golfers

FRENCH LICK, Ind. — As soon as Illinois wrapped up its fifth consecutive Big Ten championship, Mike Small celebrated with his golfers.

Both current and past.

“Texts, calls, tweets — I’ve heard from a bunch of them,” Small said on the drive home from the Pete Dye Course, where Illinois kept its head-turning streak going with its finest weekend of the season. “It’s kind of cool to know that they all still care. They laid the foundation for this and take pride in this.”

The 72-hole marathon showed Illinois still has a step on its Big Ten competition, no matter how wobbly it has looked this spring. The Illini held off a late Minnesota charge to win by 9 strokes.

Better yet, defending NCAA champ Thomas Pieters bagged the individual title, giving Illinois three consecutive champs (current PGA Tour member Luke Guthrie won in 2011 and ’12).

“It doesn’t compare to winning a national championship, but it’s still pretty cool,” said Pieters, who closed with a 74 to edge teammate Brian Campbell and Minnesota’s Erik Van Rooyen by 5 strokes.

The run of conference titles is approaching a mind-boggling stage. Only Ohio State has produced a longer streak (six in a row in the 1980s). Only Ohio State has more overall championships (23) after Illinois delivered No. 12.

“It never gets old,” Small said.

Even with a young team.

Small’s lineup consisted of two freshmen (Charlie Danielson and Thomas Detry), two sophomores (Campbell and Alex Burge) and a junior about to turn pro in Pieters.

“They had a target on their backs. There was some pressure on these guys, a lot of pressure,” Small said. “To come out and answer the bell the way they did with the five in a row hanging over their head, that says a lot about them.”

It wasn’t until Campbell’s birdie at No. 17 on Sunday that Small allowed himself to relax.

Moments later, coach and players were slipping on Big Ten championship T-shirts and posing for pictures.

“I thought we could finish anywhere between fifth place and first,” Small said. “It’s been an up-and-down year. Look at our record: in two of our last three tournaments, we finished 12th.”

Not this weekend.

“The guys really started to figure it out,” Small said. “We’re learning how to handle both the good breaks and the bad breaks.”

Pieters was the only golfer in the 60-man field to finish under par (minus 4). His leadership was as impressive as his short game, Small said.

“I was confident in my team,” Pieters said. “Everything fell into place.”

Campbell had the Illini’s best closing round (even-par 72), one of six players to shoot par or better. Detry, Burge and Danielson finished in the Top 25. And Small put himself in position to win a sixth Big Ten Coach of the Year award, which will be announced Tuesday, giving the Illini contingent plenty to talk about during their traditional pit stop at the Beef House in Covington, Ind.

“They’re all the same,” Small said when asked where No. 5 ranked in the current streak. “But this is rewarding because this is such a young team, and that each guy has had issues and dilemmas to deal with. But they keep delivering.”

Exclusive clubs
Thomas Pieters on Sunday became the 15th Illini to claim Big Ten medalist:
YEAR    CHAMP
2013    Thomas Pieters
2012    Luke Guthrie
2011    Luke Guthrie
1999    Larry Nuger
1993    Jamie Fairbanks
1989    Steve Stricker
1988    Steve Stricker
1986    Steve Stricker
1982    Mike Chadwick
1962    Mike Toliuszis
1942    James McCarthy
1941    Alex Welsh
1931    Richard Martin
1930    Richard Martin
1923    R.E. Rolfe

Illinois won its 12th Big Ten team title, tying Michigan and Purdue for second-most in league history. The rundown:
YEAR    SITE
2013    French Lick, Ind.
2012    French Lick, Ind.
2011    West Lafayette, Ind.
2010    Independence, Minn.
2009    State College, Pa.
1988    Savoy
1941    Lake Forest
1940    Columbus, Ohio
1931    Ann Arbor, Mich.
1930    Wilmette
1927    Evanston
1923    Evanston

Sections (3):Illini Sports, Golf, Sports

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jjohnson wrote on April 29, 2013 at 11:04 am

Congratulations Mike and team. Note this happened a weekend when Illini grad D.A. Points finished second and Illini Luke Guthrie tied for eighth at the Zurich Championship PGA event and Scott Langley missed the cut by only a stroke. We have become quite a golf school!

illiniphil85 wrote on April 29, 2013 at 12:04 pm

I never pictured U of I becoming a golf school when I attended. I remember playing Gopher Golf on the former 9 hole course across from the cemetery. Quite an accomplishment. Congrats to players and Mike Small. Keep it going.

calvin wrote on April 29, 2013 at 12:04 pm

....sadly, there's no way to cheaply plow up our cow pasture courses in Savoy and construct real golf courses...........