Don't Call It A Comeback
We're Illini fans. We don't believe in comebacks anymore. When our team is trailing late and starts to surge, we say one thing: "fake rally". We're only pretending to come back, not actually doing it. We're just making things interesting before the inevitable loss.
Which is why following the golf team is such an anomaly. The comebacks are real. They're never out of it. Mike Small has built the anti-Illini team.
Well, that's not fair. "Anti-" as in "counter to Illini Athletics in the 2010's". There were plenty of comebacks in the past (see: Arizona, 2005), it's just that they don't seem to happen much anymore. With the golf team, they seem to happen all the time.
Take last year's Big Ten Championships. The Illini were -2 going into the final round, trailing Iowa (-10) by eight shots. What do they do? Shoot 24-under as a team (while Iowa goes 3-under) to win by 13 strokes. I remember one college golf commentator on Twitter asking aloud if it was the greatest team round of golf in college golf history. In college golf you send out five golfers and drop the lowest score; the Illini dropped a -4 that day because everyone else had a better score.
It's just such a weird thing to follow a team that consistently pulls it out late. And yes, "follow" is true here, at least for me. I should probably explain that.
I watch more golf than the NFL, NBA, MLB, and NHL combined. I don't play fantasy football, and I don't have a Stratomatic baseball team, but I do play fantasy golf. 68% of all IlliniBoard posts have been written with the Golf Channel on in the background. If I flip on the TV in the morning, I don't watch the Today Show or Headline News - I watch Morning Drive. It still makes me so angry that the Golf Channel took their reality show (Big Break) off the air.
So following college golf comes naturally to me. The Golf Channel holds a fall college golf event now (the East Lake Cup), featuring the four teams from the Final Four the year before. Illinois has participated in both East Lake Cups so far. Illinois has won both East Lake Cups.
And get this - the first year, we needed a giant comeback in the championship match (led by Alex Burge) to win it all. I've been following this golf team for a long time, and comebacks are the norm. 2014 NCAA championships and Illinois is on the outside of the Top-8 on the back nine of the final day? Never fear - a late surge (and a big drop from Georgia I think?) and Illinois qualified.
Now, it's not like they ALWAYS come back. In the national semifinals last year, the Illini staged a big comeback against Oregon but Charlie Danielson's putt on 18 did a 180 around the hole and out, preventing a playoff (and sending Oregon to the title match, which they won over Texas). Obviously, any tournament they lose didn't have a "comeback" associated.
But on days like yesterday, when Illinois, who had made nine consecutive NCAA Championships, had fallen into a tie for 7th at the turn (only the top-5 move out of the regional and on to the Championships), it seemed like all hope was lost before a giant surge on the back nine. It was a different kind of surge - the kind with pars and not birdies - but a team that knew how to play in the 35 mph winds (us) surged past teams that didn't (Florida, New Mexico) and we parred our way up to third place. With the best round of the day, of course.
I'll admit that I had just about given up hope when the T7 appeared on the screen (tied for 7th place, top 5 teams move on). One of the teams we were tied with at the time (Augusta, which Patrick Reed led to two NCAA titles 7-8 years ago), had started on the much-more difficult back-nine. So with us facing all the hard holes, and Augusta facing much easier holes, I wasn't sure we could even surge past them (let alone pass four others). But this is a Mike Small team, and they seem to consistently hold firm while other teams fade. Florida fell apart, Purdue fell apart, St. Mary's fell apart, Augusta fell apart, and New Mexico fell apart - the next thing you know we're in third, finishing 7 shots clear of the cut line.
And remember, this is the down year. There are no seniors. The roster includes two juniors, one sophomore, and three freshmen. When you go into a season knowing you'll have to rely on at least two freshmen, it tends to take a big step back. And this "step back" means the golf team is only ranked 8th nationally (using Golfstat's "relative rankings", a results-based system that ranks you based on how you performed head-to-head against all other teams in all tournaments over the season). So if the "down year" finds them falling all the way to eighth, where do they go next year when they return everyone including two rising seniors ranked in the top-20 of all amateur golfers in the world? Preseason #1 again?
Oh, and next year they add two recruits listed in the top-100 of all high school seniors (Brendan O'Reilly and Varun Chopra). And the next year they have verbals from two high school juniors ranked in the top-65 (Noah Gillard and Tommy Kuhl). And this summer, Mike Small will probably fly to Belgium and find the next Thomas Pieters or Thomas Detry.
The goal, of course, is a national championship. The NCAA's are a four-day stroke play event which trims to eight teams for the final three days of match play. The Illini have made the final eight an insane five times in the last six years, losing in the quarterfinals in 2011 and 2014, losing in the semifinals in 2015 and 2016, and losing in the final in 2013. Last year was a tough loss to Oregon in the semifinals on their home course. This year the finals are being held... in Illinois (at Rich Harvest Farms in Sugar Grove just outside Aurora).
Will it happen this year? Probably not. There are lots of really good teams with lots of upperclassmen - Illinois is still probably a year away. If the NCAA Championships were being held in Illinois next year, I'd be all-in on "this is the year", but with a young team like this, it's really hard to hold up under all that pressure.
Of course, this is Illini Golf I'm talking about. We probably shouldn't count them out of anything.