UI golfers keep eye on prize
MILTON, Ga. — It was an even greater feeling for Thomas Pieters than a year ago when he won the NCAA individual championship. But the Illinois junior couldn’t bring himself to celebrate.
His Illini tied 2-2 with No. 1 Cal in an NCAA semifinal match Saturday at the Capital City Club’s Crabapple Course — and the team’s fate resting on the outcome of his match — Pieters made par on the second playoff hole against Max Homa, this year’s NCAA champion. Homa missed a putt that would have extended the match.
“I felt bad for him; it’s tough to go out like that,” Pieters said. “I just grabbed my coach and gave him a hug.”
Not long after, the rest of the Illini golfers joined Pieters and coach Mike Small on the green at No. 2 to celebrate the program’s first berth in a national championship match. At 7 a.m. Sunday, the 15th-seeded Illini will match up against third-seeded Alabama, which knocked off hometown favorite Georgia Tech in Saturday’s other semifinal.
“This is pretty neat,” said Small, himself a former Illini. “My phone’s blowing up, social media’s blowing up. People are coming down from Champaign tomorrow; we need some people here because Alabama’s gonna have a freaking army here.”
Former Illini Steve Stricker — a teammate of Small’s — Scott Langley and Matt Hoffman were among those who reached out to Small immediately after the win.
“They’re all following it,” Small said. “It’s really neat to have that.”
By his own lofty standards, Pieters’ final week as an Illini — the junior announced prior to the season he was turning professional at its conclusion — wasn’t going that well. The Belgian finished tied for 16th, 6 strokes off Homa’s pace in the stroke-play portion of the event and lost his match Friday against Texas’ Brandon Stone.
It appeared as though the struggles would continue Saturday when Pieters went down 3 to Homa after the front nine.
“I knew I’d be able to shoot a couple under on the back nine, and I didn’t make a bogey and didn’t give any holes away,” Pieters said.
Pieters shot 2 under on the back and had a chance to go up 1 on 17 but missed a birdie putt. He missed another on 18 that would have won the match in regulation.
“Thomas hasn’t putted well all week,” Small said. “He put a lot of pressure on (Homa) off the fairway, but to come back from 3 down after nine, that was the story of the day. That was an All-American move right there.”
Few gave the Illini a chance to knock off the Bears. Cal — with its five players ranked in the nation’s Top 25 — was the unanimous No. 1 team and had won 11 of 13 tournaments this season, an NCAA record.
“To get them today, that’s something you don’t plan on doing,” Small said.
Sophomore Brian Campbell pulled a stunner of his own, knocking off the nation’s top-ranked player — Michael Kim — 2 and 1. Like Pieters, Campbell erased an early deficit.
“I had a shaky start,” said Campbell, a native of southern California. “I wasn’t hitting the ball that great, and I just went out and said, ‘You’re a player, just hit shots.’ ”
The shot of the day for Campbell — whose brother Derek was the starting second baseman for the Cal baseball team this season but “he was definitely rooting for the Illini today,” he said — was a chip-in for birdie on 15.
Illinois’ other win came from freshman Charlie Danielson, whose late-season struggles saw him removed from the lineup for a short time.
“Charlie has been the star all week for us,” Small said. “He was low for us in stroke play. He won his match yesterday and won his match today; he’s playing well.”
Said Danielson: “I have a boatload of confidence right now, and I think a lot of that credit goes to Coach Small for believing in me, putting me back in the lineup and just telling me that I could do it. I just put my mind to it and started playing well.”
Small’s message entering Saturday’s match was for his guys to play loose, that the pressure was on the Bears because of their record-breaking season.
Sophomore Alex Burge, who won a match Friday, lost to Cal’s Brandon Hagy, and freshman Thomas Detry had a putt lip out on 18 that would have sent his match to extra holes.
“Every single one of us knew we had nothing to lose,” Danielson said. “We weren’t favored in any match; we were the underdogs. They were the ones playing with pressure.”
An outpouring of congratulatory messages have come at the Illini from all over. PGA Tour members Luke Guthrie and D.A. Points, who were playing in the Memorial this weekend, sent messages on Twitter. Former Illini basketball star Robert Archibald and women’s basketball assistant coach Mike Divilbiss also sent regards on social media.
Locally, interest was high, too. At the UI Golf Course in Savoy, director of golf Mike Wallner was busy supervising the Pia’s Scramble while keeping another eye on his computer for Illini updates.
“We’ve been monitoring things from the Big Ten tournament on,” Wallner said. “I think most people had their phones with them and were checking it. My assistant (Dustin Vurrell) came running out and said Pieters had won in a playoff, and that was pretty cool.”
A win Sunday for the Illini would be the first national title for a Big Ten program since Minnesota in 2002 and the third title for a Northern program since 1979.
“Anything is possible. We came in the last couple weeks feeling good, coming off some big finishes needing a win,” Campbell said. “We’re just riding that ship. We’re just having a feeling we can do it.”