Illinois holds off LSU; Lewis top individual golfer

LAFAYETTE — Illinois’ expected waltz to the Louisiana Classics Golf Tournament championship turned into anything but that Tuesday.

Facing a seemingly-insurmountable 13-stroke deficit, some big stroke swings at the mid-point of Tuesday’s final round had LSU nipping at the Fighting Illini’s heels and within three shots of the ninth-ranked defending champions.

But Illinois proved itself as one of the nation’s top collegiate units, with strong play down the stretch resulting in a final six-stroke margin and leaving the Tigers as runners-up for the second straight year.

“They gave us a scare,” said Illinois coach Mike Small of LSU’s final-round rally. “They came out playing and got some momentum, and when guys sense that momentum it makes them get after it even more.”

The Illini’s stellar 18-under-par 270 score in Monday’s afternoon round helped forge that big lead going into Tuesday’s final trip around the 6,898-yard Oakbourne Country Club layout. That margin was still double digits nearly halfway through Tuesday’s rain-marred final round.

But three Illinois players found the water on the par-three ninth hole, and LSU’s Stewart Jolly, Smiley Kaufman and defending Louisiana Classics individual champion Zach Wright all eagled the par-five 11th. Jolly came within two inches of holing out for a double-eagle 2 on that hole on his way to a four-under 68 score. Suddenly, the margin was down to three strokes.

“We needed to put pressure on them early if we were going to have any chance,” said LSU coach Chuck Winstead. “Around 11, we got their attention. Our goal was for our guys to beat their guys on every hole, get the tee box and put pressure on them, and I felt we did that.”

But Illinois held on, got a couple of key birdies from Charlie Danielson and Thomas Detry on the final three holes and finished with a 2-over 290 in the final round and a three-round score of 25-under 864. LSU had the only sub-par final round with a 5-under 283 and finished at 845, while host team Louisiana-Lafayette held onto third place with an 868 score despite a 13-over-par final round.

LSU also claimed the top individual honor, and for the second straight year it went to a player who was not a part of the team lineup. Junior Myles Lewis, playing as an individual, carded a stellar six-under 66 in the final round and finished with a 10-under 206 score for a three-stroke win over Danielson, Detry and LSU teammate Curtis Thompson all at seven-under 209.

“That final round felt really good,” said Lewis, a three-time state Class 5A individual champion at Jesuit in his prep career. “All my fellow juniors that came in with me had won, so it feels good to join that crowd.”

Lewis began his round on the 15th hole in the weather-induced shotgun start and was still even par through five holes before birdieing six of the final 13

“I had a little more experience here than some of the guys. I’ve played this course a little more that most of them,” Lewis said. “It was just a matter of picking up my lines and having fun.”

UL-Lafayette’s Christian Verrougstraete, the first-round leader Monday after an opening 67, finished with a 2-over 74 on Tuesday but hung onto fifth place with a 211 score. The Ragin’ Cajuns held off a final-round charge from Louisiana Tech to improve its finish by two spots from the 2013 Classics.

“We didn’t play really well but we didn’t lose any ground,” said UL-Lafayette coach Theo Sliman. “I’m very proud of the way Christian played for three rounds. He has a lot of confidence right now and is doing everything right, and he got rewarded with some great scores at home.

“Playing two days with two ranked teams, that’s going to help us. We’re going to see more long-term benefits of a day like today. Our guys learned a heck of a lot, it’s hard to fault them for trying too hard.”

Illinois, LSU and UL-Lafayette were paired together in Tuesday’s final round, just as they were in Monday’s opening 36 holes. The Tigers finished with consistent 280-282-283 scores in the event, but they and the Cajuns watched as the Illini posted the lowest team round in Classics history Monday afternoon. But Illinois opened the door with its 290 final-round score led by Danielson’s 69.

“We were able to finish strong. Our last four or five holes were solid,” Small said. “Everybody says it’s hard to come back from a really low round like we had yesterday, but we can’t use that as an excuse. We weren’t sharp and they (LSU) came out firing.”

“All that lead they had was from that second round yesterday,” Winstead said. “We didn’t finish the 36-hole day in a fashion that would have let us make a big charge today.”