Illinois falls to Oklahoma in NCAA semifinal

Writing from Sugar Grove, Illinois

Tuesday, May 30, 2017

Napoleon had Waterloo.

Titanic captain Edward Smith had the iceberg.

Illinois’ men’s golf team has the 490-yard par-4 17th hole at Rich Harvest Farms.

It was there that the Fighting Illini dream of an NCAA men’s golf title won in their state went and died late on Tuesday afternoon. And while there were countless other miscues in the course of their semifinal match with Oklahoma, beginning at the first tee, the penultimate hole was the killer.

Hours after an improbable and dramatic rally against Southern California in the quarterfinals, the Illini couldn’t stage a repeat, and fell 3.5-1.5.

It wasn’t that the Sooners, who will play Oregon in Wednesday’s championship match, were so tough. It was that Illinois committed too many unforced errors. The 17th is the ultimate example. To Giovanni Tadiotto and Michael Feagles, Illinois’ two freshmen, it might as well have a chalk line around it.

“We’re going to put a positive spin on this,” junior Dylan Meyer, who won his match against Oklahoma’s Brad Dalke, 1 up. “We’re going to be stronger, more experienced.”

Tadiotto had hit his drive into the right rough in the morning quarterfinal against USC, so adjusted his line and aimed at the left side of the fairway in his semifinal match against Max McGreevy, who was 1 up. Tadiotto drilled his shot through the wind and ended up behind a pump house for the pond on the hole.

“We were grasping for straws, and he hit a drive five yards off the fairway, and behind the house, which is tough,” coach Mike Small said.

Thus began a 20-minute misadventure that included him getting relief, dropping on wood chips, electing to hit a full shot rather than pitch out, slipping on the swing and whacking the ball no more than 40 yards, hitting his third out of heavy rough over the green, finally reaching the putting surface with his fourth stroke, and two-putting for a double-bogey 6. McGreevy made a less adventurous par 4 to score a 2 and 1 victory.

“I was already 1 down, so it was hard to beat that,” Tadiotto said. “I don’t know if I slipped or not. I just found myself on the ground when I hit.”

That was Oklahoma’s second point of the necessary three to advance. Some 45 minutes earlier, Oklahoma’s Blaine Hale had closed out sophomore Eduardo Lipparelli, 4 and 3, despite Lipparelli chipping in for a matching bogey 5 on the 15th hole. After the match, Lipparelli announced he was returning to Italy and turning pro, expecting a start on the European Challenge Tour within weeks.

Meyer had taken control of his match against Dalke and Nick Hardy was going back and forth with Grant Hirschman. That meant Feagles, who had seen a 2-up lead after five holes evaporate, needed to win the last two holes of his match against Rylee Reinertson to force extra holes and keep Illinois alive.

But Feagles played the 17th similarly to Tadiotto, minus the drop. His tee shot landed on the weed chips to the left, his second flew the green, and after relief from a Golf Channel tower, he left his third in the rough. His fourth skidded 10 feet past the cup, and he lipped out his bogey putt. Another double-bogey 6, and a 3 and 1 loss to Reinertson gave the Sooners the nessessary third point to advance. The Hardy-Hirschman match was ruled all square.

With that, Illinois’ season was over. Five straight finishes in the NCAA top-five and six times in seven years, this time on home turf and with hundreds of Illini fans roaming the vast playground in Jerry Rich’s backyard, but again without a championship.

“We just can’t figure out this second afternoon match,” Hardy said. “But we’ll figure it our way out next year for sure. We know what we came here for. We expected bigger.”

It could have been mental exhaustion. Illinois, specifically Tadiatto and Hardy, had to come back to beat Southern California in the morning, scoring a 3.5-1.5 victory. Lipparelli also won his match, and Meyer halved his. But that grind carried over.

“I gave out a lot of gifts,” Tadiotto said. “Too much stuff like three-putts. In a national championship, you can’t give out gifts.”

“It started on the first hole,” Small said. “The stuff we teach, we didn’t do very good today. Whether it was emotional or mental fatigue, or nerves, we weren’t on point and were always playing catchup. They made a lot of great putts and we made a lot of mistakes.

“The course was tough, but we didn’t play like we’ve been playing.”

Small then turned philosophical.

“Do we all want to win? Yeah, we do,” Small said, “but I’m good with it, I really am. But I told the guys the fun is the ride, the journey. It really is. To get this close, it is tough not to win, but I’m not going to get hung up on that. I’m going to take away being in Chicago, the fans, the way they treated other teams, the way they treated our guys, the response our fans got from Golf Channel and worldwide is really cool. They were awesome. There’s never been consistent crowds like this at the national championship. That speaks volumes for Illini Nation and golf.

“We would have loved to have given them a win, but this was a young team that overachieved. We really did.”

Lipparelli revealed that he decided over the winter to turn pro after the season concluded. That means Small’s starting five will change next year, with either Bryan Baumgarten getting a regular berth or one of his incoming freshmen grabbing the fifth spot.

“I wanted to give all the best effort I could with every shot today,” Lipparelli said. “I love this team. My plan was to stay here four years but I had some opportunities. It’s tough it ended this way. I hoped this would end on a higher note.”

Hardy, meanwhile, will skip defending his Illinois Amateur title in July because of conflicts, but has lined up the Western Amateur, Illinois Open and U.S. Amateur, presuming his qualifies for the latter, in August.

Wednesday’s championship match starts at 2:10 p.m.

Tim Cronin

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