Asmussen: NCAA title close for men's golfers

Asmussen: NCAA title close for men's golfers

Hear more from Small Saturday at 9:30 on WDWS.

It's a perfect setup.

The course is close and familiar. The expectations, coming off a close call in the regional round, are manageable. The internal confidence is high. Something big is about to happen.

That's right: The Illinois men's golf team will win the NCAA tournament.

Most coaches would argue against the prediction. Nobody wants the pressure.

But Mike Small won't mind. The Illinois coach has said for years he wants his program to be considered among the best. It is there.

Ten years in row, his team has reached the NCAA Championships. Only Texas and Southern Cal have longer streaks (11). It ignores the idea that northern schools can't play competitive golf.

On Wednesday, when SEC school Florida was imploding its way out of the tournament, Illinois remained steady.

"This is why I coach," Small said. "You love overcoming adversity."

A little wind and rain doesn't bother these guys. They make it work to their advantage.

The Illini are mentally tougher.

Though they are only 123 miles from the Rich Harvest Farms course in Sugar Grove, the Illini can't spend the week practicing at the NCAA site. Rules allow one practice round. That's it.

Fortunately for the Illini, they have played the course in the past. Nick Hardy, coming off a strong performance at the regional, knows Rich Harvest Farms well.

Small is taking his team to Chicagoland before the tournament to play courses similar to the site of the NCAA tournament. Smart.

A well-known, popular figure in state golf, Small will get all sorts of cooperation. If his team wants to prepare at a certain time, he will have his pick of tracks.

"We've got some work to do," Small said. "We've got to drive it better. We had two very poor weeks of practice."

The practices will be disrupted a bit for a good reason: Dylan Meyer is a finalist for the Ben Hogan Award. He and Small will be in Dallas early next week for the ceremony.

"That's the Heisman Trophy equivalent in golf," Small said. "It's a big deal."

 

Long week

The 30 qualifying teams play three rounds of stroke play starting May 26. After Sunday's third round, the top 15 teams advance for 18 holes Monday.

The top eight finishers in stroke play will be seeded and begin match-play rounds on May 30, with the quarterfinals in the morning and semifinals in the afternoon, before the title match on May 31.

It is a challenge.

"There are so many variables," Small said. "There is so much luck needed. There are so many bounces that need to go the right way."

Illinois has reached the final once during Small's tenure. The team was in the semifinals last season, losing a close match to host Oregon, the eventual national champion.

Small has two juniors, Hardy and Meyer, leading the way.

"I think the team can be really, really good," Small said. "We miss a beat once in a while. We can't have those next week. We've got to bring it all the time. Once you get into match play, anything can happen."

Small can't hit the shots for his players. It is on them to execute.

"You find ways to relieve the pressure," Small said. "Your mind is always thinking of every different scenario and what you have to do."

Small said his players are close-knit. That makes it easier to perform at their best.

"You can feel what's happening, you can see the body language across the fairway and you can sense things whether it is going good or bad," Small said.

 

Good timing

Illinois needs a win. In the worst way.

The football team struggled in Lovie Smith's first season, then had three players arrested and also suspended from the team after an alleged break-in earlier this month (though two were suspended prior to that).

Both the men's and women's basketball programs fired their coaches, though there is optimism with the hiring of Brad Underwood and Nancy Fahey. Successful volleyball coach Kevin Hambly took his dream job at Stanford.

Small's team can make everyone in the athletic department feel better. A national title wipes away a lot of ills.

Not all schools make golf a priority. Especially in the north.

But Ron Guenther found the perfect guy to run his program, an alum with talent as a recruiter and coach. Small's players seem eager to make him proud.

Already done. They won the Big Ten again and qualified for the NCAAs again.

Small ranks among the all-time best Illinois coaches in any sport. He doesn't need a title to prove that.

Bob Asmussen can be reached at 217-351-5233 or by email at asmussen@news-gazette.com.

Sections (3):Illini Sports, Golf, Sports

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