Illini golfers are awaiting another crack at that elusive NCAA title

Mike Small couldn’t compete in last week’s PGA Professionals Championship in Florida – which offers a spot in the field for the PGA Championship coming up in two weeks at Kiawah in South Carolina – for one good reason.  He’s a college coach first and foremost and his Illinois team had to win the Big Ten Championship again.

Though Small was prevented from winning a major individual title for the fourth time, his team got the job done, capturing the Big Ten title for the sixth straight year and 11th time in the last 12 at Crooked Stick in Carmel, Ind.

And now comes the good part.

As  as successful as the Illini have been in conference play, they have yet to win the NCAA title and their path to it starts on Wednesday when The Golf Channel announces the regional assignments for the national championship.  The Illini are hoping to be assigned to a May 17-19 regional at Sagamore, in Noblesville, Ind. – a good steppingstone for them to get to the NCAA finals.

Whether they get their preferred close-to-home regional assignment isn’t all that important.  The Illini, enduring an 11-month layoff from competition because of pandemic concerns, still won five tournaments and qualified for the NCAA tournament for the 13th straight year.

“College golf is very thankful we could play this spring after being on the shelf for so long,’’ said Small, in his 17th season guiding the Illini. “Winning the Big Ten is always special for the kids. You try to get as many wins as you can.’’

Illinois has a fine indoor facility to use in the winter months but its outdoor course, formerly Stone Creek and now called Atkins, is undergoing a renovation.

“We’re adding 800 yards and redoing all the bunkers and greens,’’ said Small, who expects the work to be completed next spring.  The NCAA finals will be long over by then.

This Illinois team has two solid seniors, Michael Feagles, who won the Big Ten’s Les Bolstad Award for low scoring average this season, and Belgium’s Giovanni Tadioto, who has also been on four straight Big Ten Championship teams.

Adrien DuMont de Chassard, a recruit from Belgium who tied for second individually in the conference tournament, is waiting in the wings to lead next year’s Illini as are junior Tommy Kuhl and sophomore Jerry Ji, a recruit from The Netherlands. They formed a solid starting five throughout the Illini season.

BEST AT DUBS:  Chicago’s first of three local qualifiers for the U.S. Open was dominated by Brian Bullington, a former University of Iowa golfer from Frankfort, on Monday.  He scorched the famed Dubsdread course at Cog Hill, in Palos Park, with a 7-under-par 65.

Four others advanced to sectional play – Jeremy Nevius, of Mountainside, Nev., who shot 67; Elmhurst’s Jordan Less, who plays for Northern Illinois, who posted a 68; and Chicago’s Larry Blatt and Zach Burry, of Appleton, Wis., who carded 70s.  Blatt is a former University of Illinois player.

Cog Hill hosted one of 109 local qualifiers that feed into the finals at Torrey Pines, in California, next month. Cantigny, in Wheaton, will host the next Chicago local qualifier on Monday and the final one in Illinois will be May 17 at Illini Country Club, in Springfield. Most of the local survivors will bid for spots at Torrey Pines in sectionals in Ohio later this month.

HERE AND THERE: Two of the top Midwest golf resorts have named new head professionals.  Mike Weiler, former head pro at Wynstone in Barrington, has taken over at Eagle Ridge in Galena and Ryan Brown, who had been at Eagle Ridge, is now in charge at Grand Geneva, in Wisconsin.  Dave Hallenbeck, who has been at Grand Geneva in various capacities for 48 years ,  is now the resort’s ambassador while planning for his retirement…..Luke Donald, the long-ago Northwestern star and former world No. 1, snapped a streak of 10 straight missed cuts on the PGA Tour with a tie for 54th place showing in the Valspar Championship on Sunday……Brad Helms, one of the longest-running superintendents in the Chicago area, is retiring.  He’s been on the job at Palatine Hills for the last 39 years…..Abbey Daniel, of Covington , La., and Celine Herbin, of Doral, FL., were the survivors of last week’s qualifier for the U.S. Women’s Open at Kishwaukee, in DeKalb…..Foxford Hills, in Cary, will host a Pars in the Stars tournament teeing off a 7 p.m. on Saturday.