It’s a yearly tradition that has spanned the last eleven seasons for the Fighting Illini Men’s Golf team, and it has been the lone shimmering beacon of hope in what has been a dark wasteland of frustratingly burdensome sporting events that fans of the University of Illinois athletic program have had to endure.
I’m speaking (of course) of an NCAA Tournament birth in the Men’s Golf National Championship event, played yearly at the end of May.
Since 2008, Head Coach Mike Small and the Illini have found a way to turn a program north of the Mason-Dixon Line into a national powerhouse in the game of golf.
Players like Scott Langley, Luke Guthrie, Charlie Danielson, Thomas Pieters, Thomas Detry and Brian Campbell have continued to build this team to nine conference championships over that span of time, with a pair of individual National Championships to boot. Since the NCAA switched their national tournament format to match play back in 2009, no program has qualified for the final bracket more than the University of Illinois (not even Oklahoma State, this year’s NCAA tournament host).
What makes this year’s version of this time-honored tradition is the relationship between the two seniors, Nick Hardy and Dylan Meyer. While we’ve seen dynamic duos in this program before (Langley/Guthrie, Pieters/Detry), we haven’t seen a pair of players with a “brother-like” relationship before. With Hardy supporting Meyer through some health complications that surfaced last season, and Meyer supporting Hardy early in his Illinois career, the two were surely destined to bring a national championship home in front of 12,000 fans in Sugar Grove, Illinois, last season.
Thing is, we are now in the age of collegiate golf where two guys cannot carry a team all the way through to the promised land. What used to earn a program a national championship in playing two “work horses” during the stroke play era, has become obsolete now that teams face opponents head-to-head in the final rounds. What helped shape this Illini program in terms of “dynamic duos” was no longer the key to developing a winning team.
Last year, this program realistically didn’t have a clear “shot” at a title. Given the youth at the back-end of its roster in three freshman and a sophomore, Illinois was not quite ready to step into the record books as national champions. Players like Tadiotto, Feagles and Baumgarten needed to absorb the national exposure and experience, while learning how to adapt to playing with the weight of expectations resting squarely on their shoulders.
This year, it looks like this team might be ready to take their first legitimate shot at winning it all.
While the biggest story this spring has been the play of Bryan Baumgarten (the guy is averaging 5 strokes better than his average in fall, which is like going from a .230 batting average to a .315 batting average in the span of a month), the most important story has been the health of Dylan Meyer. After watching Meyer slug his way through the regional tournament while battling through some health concerns, Michael Feagles stepped up to boost the Illini into an NCAA tournament qualification. A sophomore at the time, his contribution is the reason Illinois made as big of a postseason run as they did.
This year, Meyer seems to have his health and his game in working order headed into nationals. Staring down a Top 10 finish this week, Dylan will surely be a player to watch at Karsten Creek in Stillwater next weekend. Given the lack of concern in Nick Hardy’s game, consistent scoring from Michael Feagles, and the unanticipated rise of Bryan Baumgarten, Illinois has four players with their games ready to roll to a national championship.
Not saying that it’s going to happen...but there’s a damn good opportunity to make it happen.