Pick My Post - Golf
My brain is pretty fried from writing the preview. My wife has been gone on a business trip so all I've done since Sunday is go to work and write the preview. Sometimes I just need to get my brain thinking of something else. So I put out a PMP on Twitter and this was the winner:
How high can the golf team fly in the next few years, best case scenario season?
-- Don Smith (@DCSThree) August 23, 2019
This will be good. It might freak you out, but I can do this from memory.
I see great things for the golf team the next few years. Another one of the Pick My Post suggestions was asking about our next national title and what sport, and it would be neck and neck between volleyball and golf. I really do think golf has a serious surge coming. Last year was the step-back year with no seniors and Mike Small trying to replace Dylan Meyer and Nick Hardy. But next year should be a jump right back up, and that jump seems sustainable.
First off, let's talk recruiting. Small is on a run of three top players in three consecutive classes. Last year it was Belgian Adrien Dumont de Chassart (ADDC), this year it's a golfer from the Netherlands (Jerry Ji, yes, just like Jerry Gee), and next year (2020) it will be a golfer from Wisconsin (Piercen Hunt). This is probably pushing it a little bit, but I would consider all three to be top-10 recruits.
I follow this stuff a little too closely lately, but I'm constantly checking the World Amateur Golf Rankings. I've said this before several times here, but those rankings are much more accurate than college football or college basketball rankings. It's just one big formula of who beat who in what Tournament. Win an "A" or "B" Tournament, your ranking is going to skyrocket. Beat the #144 player on the list consistently, you're going to be ranked #143 or higher.
For some perspective, by the end of their college careers, both Nick Hardy and Dylan Meyer were in the top-15 on the WAGR. And when you have two of the top 15 amateur players in the world, your team is going to be really good. Last year, with Meyer and Hardy gone and only Michael Feagles (a junior last year) anywhere near the upper part of that list, you knew the team was going to take a step back. When ADDC arrived last fall, he was immediately the highest-ranked player (per the WAGR) on the team. And he proved that by going out and winning the Big Ten Championship as a freshman.
I just checked it the other day (again, I'm doing this from memory), and I believe ADDC was #55 on the list. He was something like #175 when he arrived, so his great freshman year pushed him from #175 to #55. By his senior year (if he doesn't turn pro before then), he'll be in the Meyer/Hardy range. To make things better for Mike Small, Jerry Ji arrives this fall ranked as the #56 amateur in the world. That's higher than ADDC when he arrived, higher than Meyer and Hardy when they arrived - that's a five-star recruit.
I looked it up one day (it's hard to research since it's amateurs from all over the world, many of which who won't play college golf in the United States, but I believe Ji was 4th on the list of NCAA freshmen this fall. So, a top-5 recruit.
Then in 2020, Piercen Hunt joins. Hunt had a fantastic summer where he won the Western Junior (a tournament won in the past by many PGA Tour names you know), And I believe he won by six shots? Again, I'm not doing research, but it was at least five shots. As a 16 year-old, he went out and beat many of the top under-19 golfers in the United States.
So with normal progression, I think we could say that Hunt arrives as a top-10 recruit in 2020. Case in point: winning the Western Junior got Hunt a berth in the Western Amateur a few weeks ago. And in the Western Amateur, he was competing almost everyone on the current golf team (everyone except ADDC and Noah Gillard, I believe). Of the eight Illini players in the field (7 current + Hunt), care to guess who finished with the best score in the first two rounds? Piercen Hunt. Only Hunt and Gio Tadiotto made the cut (Tadiotto passed Hunt in rounds 3 & 4 but neither made the top-16 to get into the match play).
So when you stack Hunt on top of Ji on top of ADDC, you're hopefully building another team that can compete for the title. It should get Mike Small back to the days of Langley and Pieters and Danielson and Detry.
But that's the future. We should talk about this year. This year has the potential to be special IF the three seniors can all put it together at the same time. Their inconsistency (calling it what it is) was the reason the Illini golf team dropped from a top-10 team to "only" a top-25 team last year. The three seniors (Michael Feagles, Bryan Baumgarten, and Giovanni Tadiotto), as juniors, never seemed to all be playing well at the same time. Tadiotto and Baumgarten each fell out of the lineup as some of the sophomores and freshmen were playing better than them.
Tadiotto had the best finish at the Western Am, so hopefully he's putting it together. Feagles will be in the lineup all year, so it's up to Baumgarten to put it all together. If they can, the best case scenario for Small is probably three senior leaders + ADDC + Ji moving the Illini back into the top-10 and pushing for an NCAA match play spot (top-8 teams). Last year broke the string of (no research so I'm going from memory here) 5(?) consecutive match play appearances for the Illini. Just think of it as Illini Basketball making the Elite Eight five years in a row.
So, best case scenario is the three seniors + ADDC & Ji. But that ignores a sophomore and a freshman who pushed past Baumgarten and Tadiotto in the lineup last season. By the time NCAA's came around, Tadiotto had climbed back into the lineup but Baumgarten had not. He was passed by sophomore Varun Chopra and freshman Tommy Kuhl. So I really shouldn't go around saying "the three seniors plus ADDC plus Ji". It's quite possible that the lineup will be Feagles, ADDC, Ji, Chopra, and Kuhl.
And, I mean, Ji is just a good player on paper at this point, having never played in a college tournament. So it's possible Ji isn't in the lineup yet and it's two seniors, ADDC, Chopra, and Kuhl.
But THAT ignores a junior (Brendan O'Reilly who was in the lineup at the start of the year last year) and two sophomores (Noah Gillard and Luke Armbrust). If you just look at the US players (leaving ADDC and Ji out of this since they played different "high school" tournaments), O'Reilly was probably second to only Feagles in terms of high school ranking in the United States. So whose to say he doesn't come out of nowhere and grab one of the spots?
Quite honestly, I'm surprised all of these guys are still on the roster. Golf has partial scholarships, so Mike Small can spread it around however he wants, but I'm used to seeing a roster of seven, not 10. I have no idea how he's going to choose a lineup.
So the PMP asked for a best case scenario season, and I'll give you two.
All three seniors put it together (it happens all the time - see Ohio State late in the season last year as their four seniors finally woke up and started playing amazing golf), ADDC takes a leap to becoming one of the top 20 players in college golf, Ji is one of the top-3 NCAA freshmen, and the Illini make a deep push in NCAA match play. Three seniors and two international superstars? Sounds perfect.
This is the year I'm staring at. If everyone is still here and hasn't turned pro early, the lineup for the NCAA's would be something like:
Pick a player, any player from the 2018 through 2021 recruiting classes.
If Kuhl can keep progressing (he had a really good freshman season, only overshadowed by ADDC) and if Ji and Hunt live up to their billing, you're looking at an outstanding golf team in 2021.
Best case scenario for that squad? A national championship.