Speaking athletically, the University of Illinois is a “golf school.”
Men’s golf, that is. Coach Mike Small. Quality facilities and still adding on.
Eleven Big Ten championships out of the last 12.
They reached the NCAA title match in 2013 (lost to Alabama), Final Fours in 2015, 2016 and 2017 and Elite Eights in 2011, 2014 and 2021.
Checking through Josh Whitman’s 19-sport department, no other program has earned such respect.
➜ Bret Bielema hit the campus like a firestorm and brings back 21 “super seniors” in the fall.
But media experts and gambling posts — unable to overlook dismal decades — are nevertheless picking Illinois at or near the bottom of their Big Ten football projections.
➜ Brad Underwood has hauled men’s basketball out of the doldrums. But with Ayo Dosunmu and Kofi Cockburn apparently turning pro, “too early” projections drop the Illini out of the Top 25.
➜ Men’s tennis — 23-3 this past season and host for the NCAA Championships in 2022 — has been bucking powerhouse Ohio State for a decade or more, and won the Big Ten tournament this year.
But Brad Dancer’s team “got no respect” in the recent NCAA seedings and fell to national champion Florida, 4-0, during the round of 16 in Orlando, Fla. With Minnesota and Iowa dropping the sport, and with Rutgers and Maryland already gone, it’s no wonder the southern tennis powers disparage the Big Ten.
➜ The leading women’s sport at Illinois, volleyball, was 16-14 and 7-11 the last two seasons after peaking at 32-4 in 2018. Softball won more than 30 games for four consecutive seasons through 2019 but has gone 11-11 and 24-20 since. Women’s teams, particularly in basketball, have some catching-up to do.
Major supportGolf at Illinois starts at the top with the UI Board of Trustees’ chairman in Small’s corner.
Don Edwards is a former Illini golfer who has made multi-million dollar contributions to a program that is presently making massive renovations to turn the Atkins Golf Club (formerly Stone Creek) in Urbana into Small’s near-private, tour-worthy preserve.
The oddity is that, while tens of thousands of Illini sports fans stay abreast of former Illini Steve Stricker and silently cheer for Small’s former and current athletes, few followers have actually seen outgoing senior Michael Feagles in action, much less Belgian teammates Giovanni Tadiotto and Adrien Dumont de Chassart and the Netherlands’ Jerry Ji (many top teams have multiple international players).
We take great pride in the most prominent northern golf program right here in our midst, despite the fact that we may only know them by what we hear and read.
Someday, Small will bring major competition to Atkins, but the recent autumn-delayed schedule began in February and included trips to Florida, Alabama, Louisiana twice, Arizona, Georgia, Indiana twice, Ohio, Oklahoma and the finals in Scottsdale, Ariz.
Even the annual fundraiser is conducted elsewhere at Olympia Fields in the Chicago suburbs.
In that regard, Small has shown himself as adept at influencing donations as with recruiting, teaching, motivating and demonstrating with his own high-level play. He has personally raised more than $20 million to more than cover a $6 million indoor facility, the adjoining $5.1 million practice area and the new $2 million addition.
Considering where the program stood when he took charge in 2000 — and weighing in his connection with donors — we could start a good debate whether he might be the premier Illini coach in 50 years ... or longer.
Still drawingWhat we see is a program that has grown leaps and bounds at Illinois while the sport itself made negative headlines in recent years with numerous closures.
Due to a 1980s surge in lavish layouts to support the nation’s home-building industry, the courses ultimately outgrew the players. When 2000 arrived, in excess of 4,000 new courses had been built in the United States, and an inevitable slide commenced.
In June 2019, some 800 courses were reported closed during the past decade.
Locally, we see area courses in Mahomet and Rantoul forging ahead despite serious financial stress, as seen in reduced maintenance and specifically in deterioration of sand bunkers.
Some numbers perked up even as last year’s COVID-19 pandemic swept the country. Golf manager Mike Wallner reports that the 36 holes at the University of Illinois courses in Savoy have been busy handling 275 to 325 players on weekends.
“The difference,” Wallner said, “is that about 70 percent ride. That includes all ages. It seems like golf was the one thing that people felt comfortable doing during the pandemic. I’ve seen a lot of people that I never saw before.”
It boils down to this: Golf courses may be overbuilt, and many links are in trouble, but despite its accompanying frustrations, golf remains the No. 1 leisure exercise for men and women over 40, and those in retirement.
As a result, participants of all ages tend to follow younger competitors (like the Illini), even if they aren’t in a position to actually see them.