FAYETTEVILLE — Arkansas senior Austin Cook couldn’t hide his disappointment after playing the last hole at the NCAA Fayetteville Regional on Saturday.
He entered the tournament’s final round at The Blessings with an individual title within reach. The Razorbacks were in first place, too, and in good position to claim the regional crown on the course they knew so well.
But Cook had to settle for second place Saturday. So did the Razorbacks.
“It’s going to take me a couple of days to get over this,” Cook said.
Arkansas was confident the home course would lead to its first NCAA Regional title since 1991, but had to watch Illinois enjoy the championship after carding 1-under par 863 during the three-day tournament. It was three strokes better than the Razorbacks (2-over par 866), who carried a one-stroke lead into the final day.
Cook and the Razorbacks do get a nice consolation prize after their second-place finish in the regional tournament, though. Arkansas qualified for the NCAA Championships along with Illinois, Texas, Oklahoma State and Kent State, and will compete for the national title in Atlanta, Ga., later this month.
So Arkansas coach Brad McMakin couldn’t fault his team for its performance.
“It’s probably as good as we’ve played all year,” McMakin said. “We just got beat by a better team. My hat’s off to (Illini coach) Mike Small and the University of Illinois. Their kids played fantastic. Coming in here and not seeing this golf course and being able to do what they did is remarkable. …
“We ended up 2-over par for the week. That’s as good as we can play. So I’m super proud of the kids. We just came up a couple of shots short.”
Arkansas was in contention Saturday because of its impressive performance in Friday’s second round. The Razorbacks gained nine strokes on the rest of the field to move just ahead of the Illini. But Arkansas couldn’t carry the momentum into the final round Saturday, struggling particularly on the front nine.
Arkansas made the turn at 4-over par, while Illinois was at 2-under. The Illini eventually built as much as a seven-stroke lead early on the back nine.
The Razorbacks did make things interesting on the final few holes. The big jump came after the par-5 No. 16. Arkansas’ scoring four tallied 2-under par on the hole, while Illinois carded 1-over par. The three-stroke swing helped the Razorbacks close to within one stroke heading into the final two holes of the tournament.
Then, Illinois’ Thomas Detry played a key role in helping the Illini hold on after a tee shot that landed in the bunker on No. 17. Detry’s chip out of the bunker rolled into the cup and the birdie gave the Illini a two-stroke lead heading into the final hole.
“He hit a really good shot,” said Cook, who was in the group with Detry. “He was fortunate to be on the uphill slope and he could hit it nice and high and soft. He hit it soft and it trickled right in. it was a great shot.”
Said Small: “It would have gone in a thimble. It was perfect.”
Charlie Danielson closed the door for good on Arkansas’ title hopes with a long birdie putt on the par-4 No. 18. It helped Illinois finish the final round at 1-over par, which was four strokes better than the Razorbacks (5-over par).
“For a young team like this, they’re growing up and it was pretty cool to see that,” Small said. “They came out and they wanted to win. We weren’t just trying to qualify. We were trying to win. So to have the low round two of the three days and second-low round the second day is a statement.”
Arkansas did have a shot at one title as the final group made its way to the 18th hole.
Cook — who shot 4-over on the front nine — recovered on the back nine to remain in contention with SMU’s Mario Clemons for the individual crown. But his putt for a birdie on the final hole just missed. Cook finished tied with Detry and Illinois’ Brian Campbell for second place after shooting 2-under par 214 during the tournament.
“I guess I put a little too much pressure on myself,” Cook said. “It took me a few holes to get relaxed and into the round. I just made some mistakes out there that I don’t normally make and we got second.”
Texas finished in third place at 16-over par 880, which was 17 strokes behind Illinois and 14 behind Arkansas. Oklahoma State finished fourth (18-over par 882), while Kent State was fifth (28-over par 892).
“This course showed its teeth,” McMakin said. “It took 28 over par to make it. That just shows how well the course is set up and what a good job they did to set it up to championship level. It was definitely championship level.”