Sep 13, 2023

I'm setting a 90-minute timer for writing this because when I write about Illini golf I sometimes get lost in it. I need to stay on track here, and it's 90 minutes until midnight, so I'm going to pretend like I'll turn back into a pumpkin at midnight and force myself to publish before 11:59.

The last time I wrote about Illini golf, I talked about how 2023/24 would be a "transition year." I'll just cut and paste a few paragraphs from that article back in June:

Tommy Kuhl is playing in the Arnold Palmer Cup as I type this and then he's going to turn pro. Adrien Dumont de Chassart is playing in his first professional tournament right now on the Korn Ferry Tour (and he made the cut, so he'll cash his first professional check). Matthis Besard just used his Covid year to play one more year (transferring from SIU to Illinois) and so he's out of eligibility. So next year's team will look much different. It's 100% a transition year.

So from this view, getting back to match play will be difficult. We still should be the best golf team in the Big Ten (duh), but with three seniors graduating (including two mainstays like Kuhl and ADdC), there's always a transition year. Texas won it all in 2022 and then finished 17th this year. There are sometimes just... transition years.

So what do we do during the first tournament of the fall season?

I took that "8 of the top 27 teams" from the Golfweek rankings. If we use the coaches poll, here are the teams playing at the tournament we just won:

Arizona State #2
Stanford #7
Illinois #9
Texas #11
Pepperdine #15
Oklahoma State #16
Texas Tech #18
Arizona #19
Duke #23
Wake Forest #25

10 of the 12 teams in the Tournament were top-25 teams in the coaches poll (and Washington, the host, was fourth down the list of Others Receiving Votes), and that's a tournament we win? Absolutely unreal. I thought that ranking of 9th in the coaches poll was ridiculously high given everything we lost, but apparently the other college coaches around the country know to never count out Mike Small.

Even with that, though, it's kind of crazy that we won this. In that post from June I used the Texas example. They won it all in 2021, then lost 3 of their main 5, and they finished 17th at NCAA's this past May. Losing your top three guys is usually a huge blow in golf. So to win against a field like that, it's honestly hard to comprehend.

So I want to say two things about all of that in this article. One, and this will be real quick, we need to acknowledge that one tournament win in September doesn't mean you've completely reloaded. We're hosting the Fighting Illini Invitational at Olympia Fields this weekend with a deep field and it's quite possible that we finish 7th or 11th or something. I'm not ready to declare this team a match play contender after only one tournament. Golf is a funny game, and freshmen and sophomores are still going to freshman and sophomore, so there's a long road between here and the NCAA's next May. This is a great start, and we'll get to how I've adjusted my expectations, but it's still just one tournament.

Two, and this won't be quick, I want to talk about how we went from "lost three seniors" to "won a 12-team tournament with 10 ranked teams." And to do that, I need to pull out my AJGA list again. The AJGA list (American Junior Golf Association) isn't a complete list of college golf recruits. ADdC wasn't ever on an AJGA list because ADdC is from Belgium. College golf is heavily influenced by international recruits, and while some play tournaments that make it into the AJGA formula, most never make an AJGA list.

But for those who do, here's my list of Illini recruits in the top-50 of the AJGA during Mike Small's tenure. Lists before 2010 or so are hard to find, so there might be a few Small recruits missing, but I do know that Luke Guthrie and Scott Langley were both AJGA All Americans. So that allows me to put together this list going back to 2007:

Luke Guthrie - 5th in 2008
Nick Hardy - 14th in 2014
Max Herendeen - 14th in 2023
Scott Langley - 18th in 2007
Piercen Hunt - 22nd in 2020
Ryan Voois - 30th in 2022
Michael Feagles - 33rd in 2016
Dylan Meyer - 44th in 2014
Jackson Buchanan - 47th in 2021

So now you have one answer as to "how." Freshman Max Herendeen is a Nick Hardy-level recruit. Third-best recruit (AJGA-wise) that Small has landed. And in his first tournament this past weekend, he, oh, you know, finished tied for 1st (he lost in a playoff to Preston Summerhays, the #12 amateur in the world). When you have a freshman who can go out and T1 against a field of 9 other ranked teams, yeah, you can reload instead of rebuild.

I hesitate to say that Herendeen can keep this up but he did come in with the strongest junior golf profile since Nick Hardy. And you've probably heard Herendeen's name here because I've written about him several times. When I wrote about golf recruiting in the summer of 2022, I was already looking ahead to Herendeen's arrival in 2023:

Anyway, this is about golf recruiting. If you follow me on Twitter, you saw that I was tweeting about the Junior PGA over the weekend. 2023 golf recruit Max Herendeen won this national tournament last weekend at Cog Hill. That's a really big deal.

And with just about every top junior golfer in the country trying to win the same tournament, it's something that's going to push him up the rankings. Herendeen also nearly qualified for the US Open this year (as a 16 year-old), so his ranking profile just keeps getting better.

OK, but that's just one of three spots replaced. You can't win a tournament like this with just "Jackson Buchanan is a true number one and Piercen Hunt returns as a fourth-year starter." There has to be something else.

Well, look back up at the AJGA list above. Right between Hunt and Michael Feagles. The top recruit in the 2022 class, Ryan Voois, was also in the lineup this past weekend. He was the 6th man last season (in golf, the 6th man travels with the team but usually does not compete and is just there as an injury fill-in or to play in the tournament as an individual whose score doesn't count), and now he moves into the lineup. He did appear in the Illini lineup one time last season, but this was his first true "time to make it count" tournament. And he did quite well: T21 in a field of 72 golfers. His 69 in the second round helped the Illini surge into the lead.

Again, Voois has now played six rounds as part of the lineup, so I'm sure there will be struggles ahead. Tommy Kuhl struggled when he first entered the lineup and it was a roller coaster for a bit but by his final season he was one of the 20-best college golfers. That's hopefully the path for Voois as well.

But this only gets us four golfers. Who was the fifth? Well, this summer we learned that Tyler Goecke was transferring from Wright State to Illinois. Goecke was the two-time Horizon League Golfer of the Year and apparently wanted to give big time college golf a shot for his final season.

If you're wondering how "2-time Horizon League POTY" translates to Big Ten golf, here's Goecke's ranking on Golfstat last season (RIP Golfstat rankings):

There's some big college golf names there. Moll at Vandy. Lorenz at Oklahoma. Roberts at Florida State (who I followed for an entire round when I covered his match with Piercen Hunt at match play). The fact that Goecke's numbers put him in that company last year is very encouraging. In fact, using those Golfstat rankings, he would have been the #3 guy on last year's team (ahead of Buchanan, Besard, and Hunt).

Uh oh. The clock just struck midnight. I just turned into a pumpkin.

Goecke also finished T21 at this first tournament (tied with Voois). So the real answer to "how do you win a deep tournament the first month after you had to fill three spots?" is "get four players to finish in the top-21". And the answer to "how do you get four players to finish in the top-21?" is "add a superstar freshman, the 6th-man from last season, and a portal guy who was a top-50 player last year." Sprinkle in your budding superstar who just finished 2nd at the NCAA's in May (Jackson Buchanan) and you might really have something.

So yes, this win does change my expectations. I thought the coaches poll was crazy for having us ninth but... maybe we really are a top-10 team again? I mean, we haven't even talked about Jerry Ji, hopefully back from his injuries and ready to contribute in his final season (didn't make the lineup for this one). And then there's Loyola transfer Timmy Crawford who, playing as an individual also finished T21 in this tournament (so it was actually five Illini golfers T21 and above). We won't learn the lineup for the Fighting Illini Invitational until Thursday, but with Crawford finishing T21 as an individual and Piercen Hunt finishing 46th as part of the team score, it's possible you might see Small put Crawford in the lineup this weekend.

Bottom line: Mike Small apparently just reloaded. He appears to have his best freshman in nearly 10 years and this Wright State transfer might be our #2 golfer this season. Voois appears ready to contribute, and when you combine that with Jackson Buchanan making a move to becoming a top-10 player in college golf (as a junior), all you need to do is find a senior to provide leadership (Hunt, Crawford, or Ji - one of those three if Voois is ready, two of those three if he's not).

Sure, I'm getting ahead of myself, but what can I say?

I'm a pumpkin.


jdl on September 13, 2023 @ 11:23 AM

I wasn't even sure we'd be the B1G favorite as tOSU has 2 studs in their lineup. And it probably will be a battle to keep that streak going, not sure what kind of depth they have.

The floor now seems pretty high with these new additions. The ceiling is about Herendeen as you covered and also Buchanan, who was somewhat of a late starter in golf. We know he's pretty damn good after his NCAA runner-up last year, but just HOW good?

illinizeeman on September 14, 2023 @ 11:05 AM

For me, there is nothing that makes me feel better about Illinois sports than listening to Mike Small speak about his program.

Speak Your Mind

Please login or register to post comments on the IlliniBoard.

Post Preview