MURRELLS INLET, S.C. — Mike Small’s Illinois men’s golf teams have developed a reputation as closers.
Those teams, though, have been much more experienced than this year’s squad. Small tinkered with his lineup more this season than any other, and this week’s NCAA regional was just the third tournament appearance for freshman Tommy Kuhl.
But it turns out these Illini are closers, too. Junior Michael Feagles shot a 7-under 65 during Wednesday’s final round at TPC of Myrtle Beach, and the Illini vaulted back to the top of the leaderboard to claim their fifth NCAA regional title and clinch a spot in their 12th straight NCAA championship. Illinois will end its season May 24-29 at Blessings Golf Club in Fayetteville, Ark.
"It’s obviously great getting a team win here at regionals to move forward on to nationals," said Feagles, whose 54-hole score of 15-under is the second lowest in program history. "It’s huge momentum for us. I didn’t know how everyone was playing until about 13.
"I had a sense just kind of by our vibe and how everyone looked when they were walking down fairways — heads up, shoulders back. It looked like everyone was playing solid."
The opposite was true at the end of Tuesday’s second round. Feagles could see the disappointment on his teammates’ faces when he walked up the 18th fairway. The Illini — leading when the day started — dropped into a tie for second after shooting even par as a team. Nine strokes worse than their blistering start Monday.
Small’s reaction to the second round didn’t match his team’s after that second round. He viewed that performance in a different light for how it would set up the Illini for Wednesday’s finale.
"They were down on themselves on the 18th green," Small said about the Tuesday mood. "That was the wrong view. Even par for a young team at regionals was not a bad round. ... That was a huge part of the tournament. If we shoot 4- or 5-over (Tuesday) instead of even par, then we’re on the borderline."
Instead, Illinois was within two strokes of Ohio State heading into Wednesday’s final round. Firmly in the NCAA championship field as long as it held steady. The Illini went for dominant instead, including a dozen birdies on the front nine (five by Feagles) between the five of them.
"Coach made great points and got our heads back in it," Feagles said of Small’s post-round discussion Tuesday. "If that’s the worst we’re going to play, we’re going to do OK. Our bad rounds are getting better. It kept us around, and we strung together a couple good rounds (Wednesday) and ended up getting a team victory."
Feagles was as much a closer individually as Illinois was as a team — something that hasn’t always been the Scottsdale, Ariz., native’s strength. Feagles entered Wednesday’s final round tied with Oregon’s Edwin Yi for first and edged out the Ducks’ senior by tying his low round of the season.
"I stuck to my game plan all week," Feagles said. "I took advantage of the par 5s and just played solid. Didn’t miss in spots you can’t miss and really was just in control of my ball.
"I was strong mentally. In the past, I’ve had a lot chances to win down the stretch and haven’t quite done it. It’s something coach and I have worked on for the past year. ... It’s a great time to be playing well right before the national championship. For me, it’s going to continue to drive me to practice harder and work harder."
Feagles wasn’t the only Illini with a strong mental approach to Wednesday’s final round. Freshman Adrien Dumont de Chassart shot a 4-under 68 to finish tied for fourth, and Kuhl put up his best round of the week — a 2-under 70 — to tie for 20th. Champaign native and Uni High graduate Varun Chopra shot a bogey free, 3-under 69 to tie for 27th.
"We’ve talked a lot this week how much more fun the game is and life is when you play from the positive, offensive strength side of the spectrum and not the worried, scared, protective side," Small said. "When you start off good and get momentum and you’re feeling good and things are going well, it’s a lot easier.
"We had to go out (Wednesday) and play with that attitude — play from strength and optimism. We did that. That was kind of what we piggy backed off (Tuesday)."