The foyer of Demirjian Indoor Golf Facility is lined with dozens of trophies and awards earned during Mike Small’s illustrious tenure as Illinois men’s golf coach, which includes 13 Big Ten Championships, five NCAA Regional wins, 16 NCAA Championships appearances, seven NCAA match play appearances, 13 Big Ten Coach of the Year awards, 12 Big Ten Player of the Year Awards and two individual NCAA Championships (Scott Langley and Thomas Pieters).
Small is recognized as one of the best coaches in the country, and Illinois — which has the inherent disadvantage of playing in the Midwest cold — is acknowledged as a consistent national power.
Of course, there’s just one missing: that elusive NCAA team championship.
Small’s Illini have knocked on the door several times, reaching the NCAA match play semifinals four times and finishing as the 2013 NCAA runner-up. But Demirjian’s foyer is still missing that marquee showpiece.
Yet, that’s not how Small views it. Not anymore at least.
Oh, Small — an intense competitor — still really yearns for a national championship. It’s just that he no longer sees his career defined by whether one of his team’s claims the trophy etched with “National Champion” across the bottom.
“I’m as competitive as anybody and I want to win the whole thing. It’d be great, but I’m not going to judge my career and I’m not going to feel any different if we don’t,” Small told reporters on Monday. “I take a lot of pride in being in seven match plays. That’s seven College World Series in baseball. That’s seven Elite Eights in basketball. I like being in the game often. So if I keep getting back to the game and being in it and having a chance, that’s what I live for, that’s the fun part of it. After it’s done, I probably don’t sit and remember the result as much as I should. I’m on to the next one already. I’ll be on to the next one. I’m OK with it. I want to win more for the kids, I guess is what I really want to do. They got their whole life ahead of them to have that and be proud of that. I’m trying to do this more for them than me honestly. Sure, I’d like to win. I like to win. But if we don’t win it ever, I’m OK. I really am. We got a second, a bunch of thirds, a bunch of fifths. That’s pretty good.
“Don’t get me wrong. I still want to win. I talk to these guys every single day about it. I want to win in everything we do. But maybe I’ve gotten to the mature part of my life where it’s like, ‘You know, if it doesn’t happen, I’m not going to change who I am and think it’s a bad thing.’”
Once again, Illinois heads to this week’s NCAA Championships at Grayhawk Golf Club in Scottsdale (Ariz.) as one the top contenders for a national championship. The Illini have won seven of 12 tournaments this season, including an eighth straight Big Ten Championship. Golfweek ranks Illinois the No. 2 team in the country, while Golfstat ranks Illinois as the No. 3 team in the country. The Illini rank No. 4 in the most recent coaches poll.
On paper, this is one of Small’s strongest rosters, buoyed by fifth-year seniors Adrien Dumont de Chassart (No. 4 individual, per Golfstat) and Tommy Kuhl (No. 8) and strengthened by the addition of Southern Illinois transfer Matthis Besard (No. 78), the continued rise of sophomore star Jackson Buchanan (No. 76) and recent improvement/steadinessfrom junior Piercen Hunt (No. 135).
Dumont de Chassart and Kuhl — longtime stalwarts and all-time great Illini — are out to end their collegiate careers with a crowning achievement. But they also want to bring home the big trophy for their coach.
“The legacy Coach has here, everything he goes through to get us ready, physically and mentally, every single day, he puts his all time and effort into this program,”Kuhl said. “It’s actually pretty incredible to see what he deals with on a day-to-day basis trying to manage everything. I’d love to get this national championship for coach, and I know he deserves one for sure.”
Small tries to point more attention to his players than himself. He said a national championship ultimately doesn’t define him as a coach. The improvement of his players, the character of his players, their professional successes and his program’s continued consistency are what he takes most pride in.
“I’m not going to go to my grave regretting not winning the national championship as a coach because I’m a coach that comes from the standpoint that the players win the championship,” Small said. “They hit the shots. Coaches are important. But I like to explain to the guys that this is their game. It’s not a coach’s game.”
On that note, the Illini coach feels great about his team heading into this week’s tournament. His team is one of the best in the country, but Small doesn’t yet feel they’ve reached their peak.
“I don’t believe in my heart that this team has played its best golf yet,” Small said. “We keep getting better. I think we’re not near our potential. But it’s been solid all year. It’s been a deep team. Everybody’s been contributing, been consistent. I think the mindset we take is keep doing what we’re doing and keep getting a little bit better every day.”
If this team has another gear, it has a real chance to bring that missing trophy back to Demirjian.
Here are fivekeys for the Illiniat this week’s NCAA Championships, which begins on Friday.
Last ride for the dynamic duo
Adrien Dumont de Chassart and Tommy Kuhl are two of the top-10 golfers in the country, according to Golfstat, ranking No. 4 and No. 8, respectively. No other team has two players in the top-10. On Monday, the Illinois fifth-year seniors and roommates were two of 10 players named to the final watch list for the Fred Haskins Award, given annually to the nation’s top golfer. No other team in the country has multiple players on the final watch list.
So needless to say, the Illini have arguably the best duo in the country. Dumont de Chassart, a Belgium native, tied a Big Ten record with his third Big Ten Golfer of the Year honor and is on pace to break his own program record for stroke average (69.54). Kuhl, a Morton (Ill.) native, is a back-to-back All-Big Ten First Team honoree and has improved his stroke average this season (70.17) by almost two strokes from last season (71.85). The senior teammates and close friends also have NCAA Championships and match play experience, helping the Illini reach the 2021 NCAA quarterfinals.
“It definitely helps the experience being there and playing at the highest level in college golf for a national championship. It definitely helps to have that,” Kuhl said. “We kind of know what to expect when we go out there. Obviously, last year we didn’t make it. But it was nice to be there the year before and see how Grayhawk played. This year, we’re going to have a little experience and hopefully use that to our advantage.”
Dumont de Chassart and Kuhl both have etched their names as Illini greats. But in their final tournaments as Illini golfers following prolonged college careers —which included a COVID setback and a missed NCAA Championships last season — the dynamic duo is trying to conclude their Illini tenuresby leadingIllinois to its one yet-to-be-attained height.
“That’s the goal,” Kuhl said, referring to a national championship. “This is what we’ve been looking forward to all year. We’ve talked about it since the beginning of the year, and I think this group’s pretty special. This is our goal. We got one more shot at it. Bring it home for coach and this program, and hopefully me, Adrien and Matthis leave on a high note.”
Depth charge must continue
Illinois has been strong all season, winning seven of 12 tournaments. But the Illini have gradually improved throughout most of the season because their depth has become more reliable. During 12 fall rounds, Illinois had only two golfers with a stroke average better than 72.8: Dumont de Chassart (70.92) and Kuhl (70.92). During the spring, however, all five Illini rotation players have a stroke average better than 71: Adrien Dumont de Chassart (68.82), Tommy Kuhl (69.78), Jackson Buchanan (70.17), Matthis Besard (70.65) and Piercen Hunt (70.75).
The Illini are receiving better and more consistent play from their depth. The Illini’s lack of reliability beyond the top-two was a big reason they failed to advance to the NCAA Championships last season, but depth has been a big strength this season — and will be key to a national championship run.
Besard, a Southern Illinois transfer, has six top-10 finishes this season, including three straight entering the NCAA Championships. Buchanan has five top-10 finishes this season, including his first career win at the Tiger Collegiate Invitational. Hunt had some early spring struggles but has four straight top-20 finishes, including back-to-back top-five finishes in April.
The Illini’s much-improved depth gives the team a bigger margin for error and a higher ceiling. Plus, it relieves some pressure on the top-two golfers.
“That’s massive,” Besard said. “With golf, anything can happen. It’s so good to have a team that anyone can beat anyone at any time. It makes us more competitive against each other because we hate losing against each other because that’s what brothers do. As a team, I wouldn’t say it gives us a sense of security, but it gives us depth to just fall back on. We don’t need the 1 or 2 guy to go out and play great every single week. We have each other to rely on. That’s probably one of the big reasons we’ve been so consistent this year for sure.”
Added Small: “I think Matthis and Jackson and Piercen have been a huge part of the last month of this team. They’ve had flashes of really good play. If we can just sustain that, then we’ve got something special. The seniors will be there. …But our strength has always been consistency.”
Beat the heat
The NCAA Championship includes enough pressure to make one sweat. But temperatures in Scottsdale (Ariz.) next week will push triple digits during the NCAA Championships. After all, Grayhawk Golf Club is set in a desert. Dry heat or not, that's hot.
Dumont de Chassart and Kuhl played at Grayhawk in the 2021 NCAA Championships — and Hunt was in attendance as an alternate — and handled the heat well.
“Probably the only time I’ve played in a 100-degree weather type of course,” Dumont de Chassart said. “That’s a little different, but we know what to expect. We know it’s going to play short. It’s going to be flying far. Greens are going to be firm. But it is nice that we got the chance to play there two years ago.
“I just have a wet towel around my head when I walk, and it’s probably the only time of the year when I have a 6 a.m. tee time. Waking up at 2:30 isn’t easy, but when you know it’s going to be 75 and not 100, it’s kind of nice.”
Added Kuhl: “It’s not a long golf course, but obviously it’s very hot out there. The greens are very firm. The rough’s very thick, and they tuck the pins. You just got to stay patient out there and just let the solid golf beat other people. Don’t beat yourself up out there and just let other people make the mistakes.”
Mike Small coaches technique and strategy, but the 13-time Big Ten Coach of the Year admits a big part of his job is acting as a sports psychologist. And a lot of that mental work will be put to the test this week as Illinois’ mettle will be tested under the most intense pressure of the season’s biggest tournament.
But Small is confident his team, which won the Big Ten Championship by 17 strokes and finished second at last week’s NCAA Bath Regional, is prepared for the moment.
“I think when you’re here practicing every day and grinding, you put yourself in those positions to make yourself nervous here envisioning being there as often as you can,” Small said. "Then when you’re there playing in the national championship, you put yourself back here when it’s relaxed and you’re in a comfortable environment and you’re making all those five- and six-footers and hitting beautiful shots at the practice facility. I think you play games with yourself. That’s what you have to do.”
Dumont de Chassart, a fifth-year veteran, said the key is to make the game simple.
“Just be who you are, play your game, be on the right side of the hole, just do the little things right,” Dumont de Chassart said. “And if everyone does that, that’s how you beat most of the competition.”
Preparing for a marathon, then a sprint
The NCAA Championships is a long marathon of a week with the national championship team being crowned after seven rounds of golf in six days. But crowning the champion is a sprint with three match play rounds conducted over two days.
After three rounds of stroke play, the field of 30 is cut to 15. After a fourth and final round of stroke play, the field is cut to eight. Until 2008, stroke play determined the champion. If that remained the case, Illinois would’ve won the national championship in 2015 when it led after four rounds of stroke play and earned the No. 1 seed for match play.
But match play — when five players from each team compete against each other for a team point — adds a more unpredictable (and hence, more entertaining) form of crowning a champion, similar to the NCAA basketball tournament.
“Anybody can beat anybody. That’s what makes this championship so unique,” Small said. “This is like the NCAA basketball championship. We’ve been the No. 1 seed going into this thing twice, didn’t win it. Probably one of the weakest teams I’ve had on paper of all these national championships we’ve been to, we finished second.”
Small’s Illini have advanced to match play seven times, tied for the second-most in the country, and finished second once (2013), tied for third three times (2015, 2016, 2017) and tied for fifth three times (2011, 2014, 2021).
“Once you get into match play, it is a sprint,” Small said. “I tell people it’s a 15-minute basketball game. Normally, college events are three days, 54 holes. Now, you do a one 18-hole match to determine a winner? That’s like a 13- or 14-minute basketball game. How many good teams are getting beat after 13 minutes? You got to get on them early. It’s an inexact science, but it’s for TV. TV loves it, and the suspense loves it. A lot has been benefited because of it, but it doesn’t always identify the best team.”