Brian Campbell: Cali to the core
CHAMPAIGN — On Tuesday, Brian Campbell worked out in preparation for the NCAA golf championships by practicing outdoors in blue shorts and a short-sleeved striped polo with a Cherry Hills logo stitched on his left chest.
Temperatures were in the mid-80s outside Illinois’ Demirjian Golf Practice Facility.
Two days later at the Orange and Blue Course in Savoy, Campbell sported long blue pants and a long-sleeved blue fleeced pullover for practice during a 50-degree day complete with some rain.
“What’s up with this weather? It doesn’t make any sense,” Campbell said.
Welcome to the Midwest, kid.
Growing up in Southern California, the UI sophomore rarely checked forecasts.
Now, whether he’s walking to the ARC to shoot hoops or out working on his game, Campbell stays up to date with the weather to find out what items from his wardrobe, which has grown to include sweaters, hoodies and coats during his two years in the Midwest, would be most appropriate.
“In California I could just wear the same thing every day, it didn’t matter,” Campbell said. “But here it will be 75 one day and freezing the next day. I still don’t get it.”
Weather aside, the Orange County product has adjusted well to life in the Midwest, particularly on the links, where he’s become a key contributor for Mike Small’s powerhouse program.
Campbell finished tied for second behind teammate Thomas Pieters in helping the Illini win their fifth straight Big Ten championship last month. He duplicated the feat last week at the NCAA regional, finishing in a tie for second place with teammate Charlie Danielson in leading Illinois to the program’s first regional crown.
“He really came along at this time last year, and this year he’s taken another big step,” Small said.
Luring Campbell from the beaches near his hometown of Irvine, Calif., to the flatlands of the unpredictable Midwest wasn’t as difficult a recruiting job for Small as one might expect. Campbell had no knowledge of the Illini program when Small and former assistant Zach Guthrie began showing interest in him as a sophomore at Mater Dei High. He did research and liked what he read about the program, which was ranked seventh in the country at the time.
Campbell was receiving interest from other programs — Oregon, San Diego, USC, Oklahoma State — but he wanted to be different. He wanted to get away from home and Illinois seemed like a good opportunity, even though his first visit to the campus came during the blustery winter months.
“I wanted to get out of California and experience new things,” he said.
That in itself was a big deal to Small.
“He’s a tough kid and he wanted to do his own thing and I really liked that about him,” Small said. “It is a whole different atmosphere than California. This is not California. Our golf team is not California. He brings a lot of toughness and that fits our program perfectly. That’s kind of our M.O. around the country, that we’re a disciplined and confident yet tough and no-excuse kind of golf team. And that’s exactly what Brian is.”
He’s still got some California in him. Campbell was quick to point out the first thing he’s going to do when he returns home after this week’s NCAA championships in Atlanta is hit the beach. Guthrie said Campbell has been known to lounge around in beach-inspired tank tops.
“That’s not real common in Champaign,” Guthrie said, and Small teased Campbell about his perfectly combed hair at practice Thursday.
“I spent about an hour on it this morning,” Campbell joked.
But his ’do really is no laughing matter.
“When I was there, he wouldn’t get his haircut until he went back home.” said Guthrie, a former Illinois player who left the program to caddy for his brother Luke, another former Illini who is playing on the PGA Tour. “It didn’t grow that fast for some reason but he had a place out there he liked to get it done. He’s particular about the hair. He’s definitely got a California vibe to him.”
But Campbell is all business on the course. That’s one of the reasons he was so attractive to Small.
“Brian is a no-nonsense kind of guy. You tell him what needs to be done, he does it and that’s it,” Guthrie said. “Coach Small and myself when I was there, that’s how we took care of stuff and that’s why we liked Brian. He’s got a similar personality.”
The 5-foot-10, 145-pounder entered Illinois coming off a summer golf season that Small said was less than spectacular. He didn’t play in the fall of his freshman year and when some regulars began to struggle that spring, Small inserted Campbell into the lineup. He hasn’t looked back.
“We talk about taking advantage of opportunities all the time, and he did that,” Small said. “Like all players in golf, it’s an up-and-down season. It’s not going to be perfect all year and he’s had some tough times this fall and spring. He fought back from both of them and battled through that adversity. His mental strength is so important.”
That disposition can be traced to Campbell’s upbringing.
He comes from a competitive family. Older brother Derek is the starting second baseman for the Cal baseball team. His mom (Kim) was a ballerina and his dad (Don, a native of Quebec) lettered in football, hockey and golf at Bishop’s University outside Montreal. He also played professional hockey in Europe.
“We’ve got a lot of athletics in our family and he’s always been around competition,” Don Campbell said. “He can be a little bit on the stubborn side but taking direction from a coach who has been there and done that on the Tour, you’ve got to pay attention, and he understands that. He’s happy with how (Small) has helped him with different parts of his game and getting better.”
The list of Illinois players on the PGA Tour continues to grow. The goal for Campbell is to follow suit.
As a teammate of Luke Guthrie last year, Campbell saw the work he put in on a daily basis to reach the level he’s at now. He’s met and spoken with Steve Stricker and is hopeful to reach the game’s top level of competition.
“They’re just normal guys. Those pros out on the Tour aren’t gods, they just work hard and it shows me that I can do that, too,” he said.