LAFAYETTE — Illinois golf coach Mike Small knew going in that his top-ranked team would be tested by Oakbourne Country Club in its first stroke-play outing of the season.
As it turned out Monday at the 31st annual Louisiana Classics tournament, the defending champion Fighting Illini are being tested by the competition as well.
Both Texas A&M and Kansas are within striking distance of the nation’s top team going into Tuesday’s final round, with Illinois holding a one-stroke lead over the Aggies and a five-stroke lead over the Jayhawks with 18 holes to go.
“We knew there were some very good teams here,” Small said after the Illini carded an 18-under-par 558 (277-281) in Monday’s first two trips around the 7,098-yard Oakbourne layout. “This is a good golf course, and these were our first rounds of the spring. It wasn’t our best tee to green, but I saw a lot of positives today. We just have to go out and play the course and play ourselves first.”
A&M and Kansas were both within a shot of the Illini, who stand atop the GolfStat national rankings, after Monday’s first round. The Aggies then matched Illinois at 7-under 281 in the afternoon when the winds picked up and made scoring more challenging especially on the closing holes.
Ask Louisiana-Lafayette’s Haraldur Magnus about those final holes. The Ragin’ Cajuns senior had a strong round going in the afternoon before bogeying his final three holes and finishing at even-par 72-72—144 to tie for 26th. Junior Fernando Cruz Valle posted a 71-72—143 score and is tied for 14th as the top Cajuns finisher, while first-time junior Ragnar Gardarsson followed a disappointing first-round 79 with a 4-under 68 in the afternoon and is tied for 35th.
“Both Fernando and Haraldur had a solid performance,” said UL-Lafayette coach Theo Sliman, whose team is eighth at 5-over 581. “Fernando had a cold putter that prevented him from getting on a run. Haraldur was pretty fired up the way he finished, so I expect him to go after some redemption (Tuesday).
“It was nice to see Ragnar with that 68. I think he learned a lot playing with Thomas Detry (Illinois’ individual defending Classics champion). ... He saw how tough he is mentally, and that will be good for him.”
Detry posted a 4-under 67 in windy conditions for the afternoon’s low round and is tied with Texas A&M’s Adria Arnaus for medalist honors at 6-under 138. Southeastern Louisiana’s James Anstiss, Zach Galliford of Texas-Arlington and the Kansas pair of Ben Welle and Chase Hanna are all one stroke back at 5-under 139, and five others are at 140, including Illinois’ Charlie Danielson, who blazed to a 7-under 65 in the morning.
Illinois won last year’s title by a 22-stroke margin over the field. That’s not likely to happen Tuesday when the Illini, A&M and Kansas are paired in the final grouping.
Texas-San Antonio (573) is another 10 strokes back in fourth at 573, in a tightly bunched group with Kent State and SLU both at 575, Texas-Arlington at 577 and the host Cajuns at 581.
“It’s going to be really good competition (Tuesday),” Sliman said about both the team and individual chases. “This early in the season, that’s what we want out of this tournament.”
The final round is in staggered tee times off the Nos. 1 and 10 tees beginning at 7:30 a.m., with the three leading teams beginning play at 8:50 a.m. off the No. 1 tee.