Long the class of the Midwest, Illinois looks to bring a national title to Champaign
14 May 2023
by Jordan Perez of AmateurGolf.com

see also: Tommy Kuhl Rankings

Adrien Dumont de Chassart and Tommy Kuhl remember it well.

Ever since their freshmen year, the Fighting Illini would always find a way to the National Championships. Actually, Illinois had done it 13 times in a row. Sure, their senior year hadn’t been their most consistent, but the pride of the Big Ten always got it done.

On the final day of the New Haven Regional in 2022, when the team woke up five shots behind the final seed, 18 holes of opportunity awaited. But instead of surpassing the threshold, Illinois would remain stagnant. Kuhl would finish under par for his final round, but it wasn’t enough. The Fighting Illini ended their 2022 season right outside the cutline, marking the first time in 13 years Mike Small's entourage failed to qualify for nationals.

Illinois has won eight straight Big Ten titles
Their heads hung low as they gathered in the airport, awaiting their flight home back to Champaign. A tough conversation was had. He knew the issue. “We were a good team,” he says. “But we didn’t have the toughness.”

It was a tough pill to swallow for a program that made toughness a trademark. When Small was hired to head coach his alma mater in 2000, he had just lost his PGA Tour card. He knows exactly what kind of attitude that demands: “Conviction, discipline, the grind, the grit.”

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Related: The Road to Grayhawk: Previewing the NCAA Men's Regionals

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His coaching philosophy, he says, was fortified in his time out on Tour. Entrusted to be at the helm of the oldest programs in the NCAA, he’d have to summon that from himself and the athletes he’d coach. The department’s goal was to hire someone who knew college golf but could figure out the coaching part along the way. “I didn’t really know what to do,” Small admits. Donor involvement, facilities, recruiting, and scheduling were an entirely different world.

The Illini's state-of-the-art indoor practice facility
For the first seven years, he’d do it all by himself – no assistant coach by his side. But only within two years had the program begun making NCAA appearances. Fighting beside teams who, on paper, were winning out. Schools in better climates. Schools who won the recruiting races. Schools with better facilities.

Illinois would address the climate part, opening a robust, 14,150 square foot indoor facility in 2007. It had everything a college golfer could ever ask for: Indoor putting, chipping and pitching areas, heated hitting bays, a golf equipment repair room and a full locker room.

Two individual NCAA titles and 13 NCAA championship appearances later, Illinois would become a very difficult program to ignore.

Adrien Dumont de Chassart
Illinois’ longest-tenured active players, Dumont de Chassart and Kuhl, couldn’t be from more different backgrounds: Dumont de Chassart hails from Villers la Ville, a small town in Belgium who admits college golf was nothing like anything his home country had. Kuhl, who grew up a lifelong Illinois fan and attendee of many Illinois golf camps, wanted to fulfill a lifelong dream.

Both called their recruiting processes simple. Illinois had developed an unofficial Belgian pipeline, boasting Thomas Detry and Thomas Pieters – two players Dumont de Chassart had looked up to. He was his country’s amateur champion and played in his first professional event before finishing high school – making him a highly sought-after recruit. Kuhl was his state junior champion, a two-time high school golf champion and had begun to make a splash on the national scene.

Each took two visits, but neither considered playing anywhere else.

“There’s a standard around this program that Coach Small preaches,” Kuhl says. “The way you work in your practice when you train in the workout room, the way you study, the way you treat people,” he says.

Mike Small is in his 23rd year at his alma mater
Often, Small will talk about Illinois hitting its “standard.” On that fateful day at Regionals in 2022, that didn’t happen. The aftermath says otherwise. It took developing Jackson Buchanan, who has blossomed in his sophomore year. It also took bringing on fifth-year Matthis Besard from Southern Illinois, who has soared in his only year spent in Champaign. Two top-10s and a third-place finish at the conference championship are meaningful contributions.

The fire from his fifth-year mature trio is the kind of resolve Small loves. “They practice harder than anybody,” Small says. “They’ve taken ownership of the season.” Kuhl has played some of the best golf of his entire career, with the second-best scoring average and seven top fives. Dumont de Chassart, the 12th-ranked player in the world, has recorded one win and three-runner-up finishes this season.

Small subscribes to a philosophy called PhD: Poor, hungry and determined. As it has been explained to Small’s players, Poor means not being above anyone else, hungry is the motivation to play with what you have, and determined is knowing what you want. That line of thinking has produced seven victories, the best win percentage at the top of Division I men’s golf. In an era where it felt almost impossible to challenge No. 1, the biggest threat to their reign is somewhere a little chillier than the Southeast.

Once upon a time, Small was a coach who had to learn on the job and build a program from the ground up. Now, this group has given Small his best chance at accomplishing the program’s missing feat – a team championship. Yet, he remains as humble as ever.

“The game owes us nothing,” Small says. “All the attention we've gotten last few weeks has been great. But it's just it's noise and we’ve got to put that away. We’ve got to go play golf.”

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