The thought that last spring was Illinois golf's best chance to win a national title was a sound one. The Illini had two senior All-Americans (Charlie Danielson and Thomas Detry) and two very talented sophomores (Dylan Meyer and Nick Hardy) with the potential to look like All-Americans in any given round. So if you bought into the best-chance-for-a-while thought, the semfinal match play loss to host Oregon was a bit of a bummer knowing that the Illini would have to reload with some unknowns.
But Mike Small's program always reloads -- and it looks stronger than ever. The Illini have won their first two events of the 2016-17 season by 13 strokes. The win at Wolf Run Intercollegiate against a mediocre field was expected. The win at the OFCC/Fighting Illini Invitational though came over a loaded field that included No. 1 Texas, No. 2 USC, No. 4 Oklahoma State, No. 16 Alabama, No. 18 Florida State, No. 19 Arizona State and No. 24 Baylor -- and Illinois struggled in the final round, losing 10 strokes to eventual runner-up Oklahoma State. Five Illini finished in the top-22 individually.
Small's program embraces the cliche "next man up" philosophy. Danielson finished his senior season ranked No. 4 in the country. Detry finished his season ranked No. 14 in the country. Last year, Danielson and Detry were ready to replace Brian Campbell as the top players on the team ... just as Cambell was ready to replace Thomas Pieters as the team ace ... just as Pieters was ready to take over as team superstar for Luke Guthrie and Scott Langley. This time around, juniors Dylan Meyer and Nick Hardy are ready to take on the role of guys who consistently go low, and two new top-20 recruits look ready to fill the roles of Meyer and Hardy as future phenoms who can win a few tournaments too.
Meyer and Hardy give the team a 1A and 1B. To perfectly prove that point, the juniors each have a stroke average of 69.6 through five rounds this season. Meyer, the 2016 All-Big Ten First Team selection who finished No. 39 in the individual collegiate rankings last season, went on a tear this spring and summer. He finished top-20 individually during stroke play of the NCAA championships and beat individual national champion Aaron Wise in the Illini's semifinal match play loss. He won the Western Amateur this summer and took medalist honors at the Tri-State Amateur. Meyer finished second at both Wolf Run and Olympia Fields. Meanwhile, Hardy, the 2015 Big Ten Freshman of the Year who finished No. 62 in the collegiate individual rankings last season, won medalist honors at Wolf Run and finished tied for fourth at Olympia Fields. Hardy's coming off a big summer as well in which he won the Illinois State Amateur Championship with a record 28-under par and qualified for the U.S. Open. Both will make plenty of money playing golf.
"Dylan has had this potential and this ability to do what he did this summer, and he's learning a lot," Small said. "He's growing up, and he's showing a lot more maturity in every aspect of his life. He's so happy with it. We're so happy with it. It's a progression, but to do what he did in the Western Amateur, which is probably the hardest amateur event to win in the world, and then to do what he did in the U.S. Amateur shows his potential. I'm so happy for Dylan because he's bought in, and he's kind of got the big to beat great. He's got all the physical skills. We're just working on the other things, and he's shown improvement.
"Nick and Dylan have followed Thomas and Charlie for the last couple years as well as Brian," Small said. "It's pretty easy to play with those guys in the lineup. Now, they're gone, so Dylan and Nick have to learn how to lead, and the freshmen have to learn what this is all about."
Those freshmen now must assume the roles of Hardy and Meyer, and the Illini seem to have the guys capable of doing so. Hardy and Meyer signified a significant shift for Small, who to that point had mostly landed recruits outside the top-50 of the recruiting rankings and developed them into top-50 golfers. That's why Small is the best in the country at what he does. He finds golfers with mental toughness, hones their skills and helps them reach their potential. But then he landed Hardy and Meyer, both top-20 recruits in the Class of 2014. All the Big Ten Championships and NCAA championship appearances have attracted elite prep talent. So now, Small is honing the toughness and skills of even more naturally talented players. And now, for the first time, he has four top-20 recruits on his roster. California native Bryan Baumgarten and Arizona native Michael Feagles were top-20 prospects in the Class of 2016 and already have played like it. Feagles finished fifth at Wolf Run and tied for 22nd at Olympia Fields, while Baumgarten finished tied for sixth at Wolf Run and tied for 15th at Olympia Fields. The three freshmen defeated Hardy, sophomore Edoardo Lipparelli and sophomore Trevor Gold. It's early, but the returns so far are darn promising for the freshmen.
"Our freshmen right now are good players," Small said. "They were highly-ranked juniors, but they're competitors. They're probably not as fundamentally sound as we want the to be. But they got good hearts and good courage, and they compete hard."
The key to the season -- as it often seems to be -- is the No. 5 golfer. It was a huge question last season too, but then-freshman Lipparelli ended the season on a high note. He shot a season-low 68 in the final round of the Big Ten Championships and tied for 17th at the tournament and then beat South Carolina's top golfer, Matthew NeSmith, in the match play quarterfinals. He's off to a solid start this season, tying for sixth at Wolf Run and 22nd at Olympia Fields. If Lipparelli remains a consistent threat in the No. 5 spot -- a team's top four scores are taken for each stroke play tournament -- the Illini are as deep, if not deeper, than any team in the country. And if anyone struggles, the Illini have another talented player from their Belgian pipeline (following Pieters and Detry): freshman Giovanni Tadiotto, who finished among the top-15 at the 2015 European Nations Cup.
Oregon took advantage of its home course to win the 2016 NCAA Championship. The 2017 championship is at Rich Harvest Farms in Sugar Grove, Ill., where Illinois played as recently as last September. While Rich Harvest Farms isn't the Illini's home course, if the Illini advance past the regional yet again, they will enjoy an advantage -- Illini fans likely will show up in force -- likely with a team more talented than the 2016 Oregon Ducks.
Oh, and the talent keeps coming. The Class of 2017 features Hinsdale (Ill.) Central's Brendan O'Reilly, the No. 28 prospect in the Class of 2017, and Champaign native Varun Chopra, the No. 127 recruit. On Tuesday, Illinois received a commitment from Indiana native Noah Gillard, the No. 40 prospect in the Class of 2018 who joins No. 54 overall prospect and Morton (Ill.) native Tommy Kuhl in the class.
Small just signed a six-year contract extension through 2022 that makes him the highest paid coach in college golf. Given Small's previous success and recent recruiting, Illini golf should be competing for national championships through the end of that deal -- including this season.
"This year, we're going to have some speed bumps we're going to have to handle with," Small said. "But hopefully by April, May, June next year we're ready to compete at a level that we want to compete at."
Listen to the link below for Jeremy Werner's discussion on "The Tay and J Show" with Mike Small about his contract extension:null