Watch What Happens Next
"Oh great", I thought. "The one time I attend the Big Ten Championships is the one time we don't pull it out on Sunday."
I was sitting on the hillside above the 7th green. I had walked with the final group for a bit, but once they teed off on five, I cut across the little hill over to the seventh green. Gio's group had just left the green, so I sat there and watched the rest of the groups come through.
Sorry, if you're not an Illini golf fan, I'll just give you the names I'm going to use:
Giovanni Tadiotto will be Gio.
Adrien Dumont de Chassart will just be ADdC.
Tommy Kuhl will be Tommy.
Michael Feagles I just go with "Feagles".
And then Jerry Ji's name has to be said first-and-last because, you know, Jerry Gee.
It was at some point while I was on that hillside - I want to say it was around the time that Tommy missed his par putt on seven - that I checked the scores online and saw that Iowa was up eight shots. As I recall, at the time, it was something like Iowa +18, Illinois +26. Maybe it was when Feagles group was on that green? Can't remember. Doesn't matter.
Down eight, I had my "the one time I attend is the one time we don't pull it out" thought. I had seen some replies in my Twitter feed saying things like "really rough start" and "this one is slipping away", and I had contemplated replying with things like "it's Illini Golf - watch what happens next", but at that point, I was really glad I hadn't. Who wants to have that tweet out there when Iowa wins by nine shots?
Illinois won by a shot.
See, as a fan, I don't get to do this. I don't get to Ohio State Football. Ever. I don't get to be down 17-3 after a few fluke turnovers and then say "watch what happens next", fully confident that a comeback is coming. I mostly think things like "17-3? Wonder how we blow this lead". I'm a bad fan.
So it's quite an interesting (and fun!) experience to watch yet another comeback play out in front of me. Especially a "scramble to beat an opponent who is clearly playing better" comeback. I don't think it's an exaggeration to say that on the holes I watched, Illinois players hit 40% of fairways and Iowa players hit 80%. Mike Small noted the same thing afterwards, talking about how poorly the team drove the ball today (yet still found a way to win).
Just think about that. Iowa is playing out of their minds. Illinois is really struggling. Iowa flips a two shot deficit into an eight shot lead. Iowa still plays well and finishes even for the day, the best score for any team all week. Illinois continues to play poorly... and erases the eight-shot deficit to win by one.
That's how this one played out. It's so hard to describe to someone who doesn't follow golf.
"Illinois played so poorly and won."
"Well if they erased an eight-shot deficit then they didn't play poorly."
"No, they did. It was a total scramble-fest. Illinois would be in the greenside bunker, Iowa would have 18 feet for birdie, and then Iowa would three-putt while Illinois would get up-and-down."
"Then they played well."
"Not really. Driving? Poor. Ball-striking? Just OK. Scrambling? Incredible."
If you're a golfer, you probably understand how frustrating it is to play someone who scrambles well. You're on the green, they're in the bunker (or you're in the fairway, they're in the rough) and yet you tie the hole. So frustrating to do everything right, tap in for an easy par, and then watch your opponent drive it under a tree, punch out to 110 yards, hit it to 16 feet, and then drain the putt for par.
(I mean, so frustrating for people capable of tapping in for an easy par. That's not me.)
If you want one way to describe this title, it's that. Illinois did hit some great shots and, as a team, were 7-under on the back nine. But the key to this win wasn't the red numbers on the scorecard. It was all the pars that should have been bogeys.
Which was so much fun to watch. Iowa had to be impossibly frustrated. You're opponent is playing poorly, you're playing well, and you're tied.
On the back nine I spent a lot of time on the 11th, 14th, and 16th holes (plus 18 for the final three groups). I didn't want to walk with any groups on the back. I wanted to get to a spot and then watch all five pairings come through. Maybe I should just list some of the moments where Iowa should have taken control but they failed to capitalize (or, worse yet, dropped a stroke).
Iowa led by eight. Watch what happens next.
- I didn't get to see it, but the turning point was the Gio eagle on 11. Mike Small told me he immediately got the word out to all of his players - Gio just eagled, let's do this.
- On the 14th hole, Jerry Ji and his Iowa opponent (Gonzalo Leal) are both in the rough off the tee. It's a tricky green, so Jerry Ji lays up to 35 yards. Leal goes for it but is in the rough to the right of the green. Ji hits it to 8 feet. Leal's chip struggles as it rolls down the hill. Ji makes his par putt. Leal misses and bogeys.
- Nearly the same thing with the next group, except Tommy Kuhl's Iowa opponent (Garrett Tighe) yanks it left out of the rough trying to reach the green and splashes it into the creek. He takes a double bogey. Tommy gets up and down for par.
- I get to the 16th green and I see that Jerry Ji has 8 feet for par while Leal is just off the back of the green in two. Leal chips to 3 feet but misses the putt. Jerry Ji drains the eight-footer.
- Kuhl and Tighe are also just off the back of the 16th green in two. Tommy gets up and down. Tighe doesn't.
- Feagles hits a bomb off the 16th tee and is maybe 50 yards in front of his playing partners (I asked him afterwards and he said he had 99 yards to the pin - the hole was playing 433 today so yeah, he rode the wind and the downslope and hit a 334-yard drive). Feagles hits it to three feet and makes the birdie. His Iowa opponent (Alex Schaake) misses his 12-footer for birdie.
- Feagles chopped it out of the deep rough on 17 and left himself eight feet for par. Schaake had maybe four feet for par (I was 100 yards away so distance was tough to see). Feagles made the eight-footer. Schaake missed the short putt.
- Ji and Kuhl both made their par putts on 18, Kuhl's a knee knocker from about five-feet.
- Feagles was left rough (maybe bunker?) on 18, and Schaake was in the fairway, with the corner cut, maybe 100 yards out? Feagles' shot rolled through the green and just off the back. Schaake chunked one and didn't reach the green.
Which meant that Schaake made bogey. Which meant that Feagles had this putt for the win:
The putt: pic.twitter.com/hRImVl2834— Robert Rosenthal (@ALionEye) May 2, 2021
Comeback complete. Sixth consecutive Big Ten championship secured (and 11 of the last 12). Once again, a Mike Small team digs deep and makes it happen.
And I get to be a Watch What Happens Next fan.
A few more fun moments from today:
+ I noted earlier how I watched the last group tee off on 5 and then jumped over to the 7th green. Well, when I did this, I nearly walked right out into the 5th fairway while a group was on the tee.
I had walked with that last group on 2, 3, and 4 and there wasn't anyone behind them (that's the "last group" part). So, for example, after they hit their approach shots on 4, I walked straight across the fairway to watch Feagles' group tee-off on 5. But after I then watched ADdC's group tee off on 5, I headed out to cross the fairway in the same spot. I got to the first cut of rough when I heard THUNK - a ball landing in the fairway in front of me. I look back and the first group of the Indiana-Maryland-Minnesota pairing, the threesome that had teed off on 10 at 8:00 am - had reached the fourth hole.
20 more seconds and I would have been "what's this guy doing?" guy.
+ There was a Michigan State dad rocking the FootJoy Originals and just want to note how much I respect that. They were immaculate, too. I like to think that he has an entire closet of FootJoy Originals.
+ Josh Whitman was there. He said hello when walking past me near the 7th green. First time I've seen him since I made a fool of myself at Penn State, so I'm glad he said hello. He probably doesn't even remember me making a fool of myself. I sure do.
+ Big shoutout to the guy with the golf cart who drove me to my car. The parking lot was full when I arrived so I had to park in the neighborhood. I brought my little remote phone charger because I knew I'd be on my phone all day. BUT, I left it in the car. And when Mac McClear missed his birdie putt, giving Illinois the outright title, I was at 7% battery. I walked towards the parking lot and saw a guy getting in his golf cart. I asked him if he worked at the club and he said no but what did I need. I told him my car was about a quarter-mile away and I needed a charger out of it. So he drove me there and I was able to charge my phone while taking photos/videos of the awards ceremony.
I told him I had an Illini website and he said that Ken Dilger is a good friend of his. I told him to tell Ken that I was there at Missouri when he dropped the touchdown in 1991. And then I immediately regretted telling him to tell Ken that I was there at Missouri when he dropped the touchdown in 1991.
+ Decent number of Iowa fans there today. My guess: locals from Indianapolis who saw that Iowa was only two shots back and thought "I want to be there tomorrow if Iowa wins". Which meant that there were a lot of Iowa groans when the Illini player would make the 10' putt and the Iowa player would miss the 5' putt. I almost felt bad for them.