The Loop

Illini looking to end Big Ten match play woes

February 10, 2012

For the fourth straight year, the Illinois men enter the Big Ten Match Play Championship as the No. 1 seed. Still, the Fighting Illini are searching for victory in the tournament, having finished fourth, fifth and fourth.

Mind you, the disappointing performances haven't necessarily kept the team from having successful springs. Illinois has gone on to claim the last three conference title despite their lackluster showing in the early-season event. Illinois coach Mike Small actually credits the innovative match-play event, established in 2009 as a complement to the introduction of a match-play format of the NCAA Championships, for helping his team to postseason success.

"That's the goal of our program, to play great golf in April, May and June, not necessarily in February," Small said. "We want to play well, and want to win, but there's a method to our madness, and the Big Ten match play really fits it perfectly."

The conference's match play tournament starts today at The Concession GC in Bradenton, Fla., with all 12 teams (Nebraska making its debut) playing in the two-day, four-round event, which will crown a champion on Saturday.

Carefully positioned at the start of the 2012 spring campaign, the match play has taken place in Florida all four years, allowing the Big Ten schools from the north a chance to shake off the rust in the warm weather before hitting the stride of the season.

Northwestern, which returns to Florida for the second straight weekend after its most successful golfing alum, Luke Donald, hosted the team at the Bear's Club for their annual alumni match last weekend, is looking for its third-straight conference match-play title.

But__Pat Goss__ is more proud of the rise of the event and how it's developed. "The event really has elevated Big Ten golf," Goss said. "From a player development aspect I love the match play. I've learned a lot about my players competing in this event, and my guys have really stepped up in some tough situations and shown that they can compete.

"The match play has really helped us develop some attitude and toughness in our players."

At last year's Callaway Collegiate Match Play, held in March,, Illinois won three straight matches against teams from the south (Baylor, Texas A&M and Texas Tech) to advance to the finals, including an extra-hole battle with the Red Raiders. While Small's team hasn't fared as well at the Big Ten event as he would like, he's seen the difference it has had on his players.

"The match play is just another piece of the puzzle and another example of how our conference is trying to evolve and do things to be special and help our players," Small said. "This event is a unique event, it's not the same old, show up and play 36 holes like we do all year, there's a little variety to it."

For Small, he looks at one simple fact: The Big Ten had the most teams finish in the top 10 of the stroke play at last year's NCAA Championship, the most since the Pac-10 had four in 2008.

It's not a coincidence that a tough venue such as the Jack Nicklaus and Tony Jacklin-designed Concession Club, ranked amongst Golf Digest's 2012 rank of the Toughest Courses in America.

"The red carpet has been rolled out here," Goss said. "And [Concession] is really treating the event like a really high level, along with the Big Ten Network [which airs a tape-delayed broadcast of the event in March] really makes it a cool deal. It really means a lot to us, really put in red marker in our calendar and try to be as prepared as we can for to get the most out of the weekend."

*--Stephen Hennessey