LAFAYETTE — Illinois’ strong performance on Monday’s first day of the 29th annual Louisiana Classics Golf tournament was expected.
Christian Verrougstraete’s performance was a surprise.
The Ragin’ Cajun sophomore from Reunion Island threw six birdies and a five-under-par 67 at the talented 72-player field Monday morning to claim the solo first-round lead. Verrougstraete, playing in the third spot in the UL-Lafayette lineup, cooled off to a one-under 70 in the afternoon, but still enters Tuesday’s final 18 holes in third place and two shots out of the lead.
“I had a plan in my head and just stuck to it,” Verrougstraete said. “We know this course by heart, and I know where I can be aggressive and where to just push it along and make par. The difference was, I made two or three putts.”
Verrougstraete’s efforts helped push the Cajuns into third place in the team chase with a 281-286–567 score, five strokes behind 33rd-ranked LSU at 280-282–562.
The Tigers were runners-up last year, but for the second straight year it could be Illinois in a runaway. The ninth-ranked Fighting Illini broke loose from a cold start and caught the field with a nine-under 279 morning round over the 6,898-yard par-72 Oakbourne Country Club layout.
Then the Illini really got rolling.
Coach Mike Small’s squad posted four sub-70 afternoon scores, paced by the six-under 66 of first-day leader Brian Campbell, and fashioned a team 18-under 270 in the second round for a 549 total and a 13-stroke lead over LSU entering Tuesday’s wrapup round.
“That afternoon was special,” said Small, whose team finished eight strokes ahead of the Tigers in winning its first Classics title last year. “We didn’t get off to a great start ... after about eight or nine holes we were getting rolled pretty good.”
Both the Tigers and the host Cajuns led Illinois midway through the morning round, but the Illini got five birdies in the final two holes from its five-man lineup to make up that deficit.
Campbell, ranked 17th nationally, birdied the par-three 17th and the par-four 18th to end the morning round, and followed with three straight birdies to open the afternoon.
The junior also had a streak of birdies at the par-four 10th, 12th and 14th holes sandwiched around an eagle at the par-five 11th. His 66 would have been even better and would have threatened the Classics record of 63 had he not double-bogeyed the par-four fifth hole and bogeyed the par-three ninth.
Still, his nine-under 69-66–135 total was good enough for a one-stroke lead over LSU’s Curtis Thompson (68-68–136) in the chase for individual honors.
Verrougstraete is alone in third place at 137.
The reason for Illinois’ dominance was apparent on the individual scoreboard. Thomas Detry stands alone in fourth place at five-under 139, while teammates Charlie Danielson and David Kim are among four players tied for fifth at four-under 140 along with Tulsa’s Logan McCracken and LSU’s Myles Davis, who is playing as an individual.
“Some of these guys have seen this course twice before,” Small said. “We’ve been a young team for a while. There’s a certain way to play this course and we’ve learned that the last couple of years. Today we were able to play to our strengths, but it was the way we turned it around in the morning that helped us in the afternoon.”
In addition to Thompson, the Tigers got two-under 70 scores from defending Classics individual champion Zach Wright and Smylie Kaufman in the morning round and one-under 71 afternoon scores from Stewart Jolly and Ben Taylor on their way to a 14-under-par day. LSU didn’t count a score above even par in either round.
Verrougstraete, who began on the second hole in the shotgun format, rolled in birdie putts of approximately 10 feet on the par-four fifth and sixth holes and the par-five seventh, and added birdies on the ninth and tenth holes in his opening round. He bogeyed the par-four 18th, but wrapped up with a birdie on the first hole. He added four more birdies to go with two bogeys in the afternoon.
“I didn’t make any long putts,” he said “My long game was good, and I had a lot of good up-and-downs to save some pars.”
“He’s been knocking on the door lately,” Sliman said. “I’m really impressed with where he is mentally. He’s getting comfortable with being in contention and it’s showing.”
Verrougstraete was less excited about his two-round score than he was his back-to-back deuces on the par-three ninth hole in his two Monday rounds. That hole is being shown live on a streaming webcast with commentary throughout all three tournament rounds.
“I hope my folks back home were watching,” he said.