Illinois has long sent hordes of summer visitors to the Door County golf courses and the Wisconsin Dells. And Wisconsin returned the favor, at least by sending a few favorite sons to support the University of Illinois golf program.
In the 1980s, Edgerton’s Steve Stricker bypassed his home university’s golf program to play in Illinois, where he won only three All America awards along with three Big Ten championships and a host of other awards. Two years ago, Hartland Arrowhead golfer Piercen Hunt, a two-time WIAA national champion, signed with the Illinois, where, in his sophomore year, he is already showing signs of celebrity. Most recently, he shot consecutive career-low 69s as he put his team in the top five at the Blessings Collegiate Invitational in Arkansas, a live tournament broadcast live on Golf Channel.
Now the latest Wisconsin entry to the Illinois program is Jim Buyze, who after 17 seasons as Head Pro at Wild Ridge Golf Course in Eau Claire signed with Troon Golf to become Golf Director at the Atkins Golf Club facilities. Buyze began his duties at Champaign-Urbana in September, arriving at a time when a program that already offers some of the best facilities in college golf was undergoing significant improvements.
This month the university will open the pro shop, driving range and putting green to the public, and next spring the newly renovated golf course itself will have restricted play, a gift to the school’s intercollegiate athletics department last year. The course, formerly Stone Creek Golf Club, was built 20 years ago by the Atkins Development Company as a venue for the university’s men’s and women’s golf teams.
“Mr. Atkins was an avid golfer and decided the university needed a better place to play,” said Buyze. After the builder’s death, his family, who had no patriarchal ties to the game, decided to continue owning the golf course but eventually to leave the golf course to the university.
“But that’s not the whole story,” said Buyze. “The university didn’t want it.”
For the past several years, the school’s teams haven’t even played Stone Creek because it had gotten “soft and slow,” Buyze said, and didn’t offer the championship-level stamina the teams needed. So the family sweetened their offer, adding $ 5 million to pay for a full renovation of the greens, bunkers, and other course features. This work, overseen by the Wadsworth Golf Construction Company, will produce a course that is fast and firm and suitable for men’s teams that have won the last six Big Ten championships and 10 of the last eleven, as well as the tough Illinois Women worthy of play is the program.
“This is going to be a great course,” said Buyze, which can extend up to 7,500 yards from the tips. The greens have been renovated six times each and are growing well, he said, and plans for men’s and women’s teams to use them until April before they open to the public on June 1.
Still getting used to his new role on the Illinois program, Buyze occasionally uses the third person to describe events before catching himself. “I have to stop saying it,” he laughed. “Now it’s ours.”
Buyze may have spent 17 years in Eau Claire and earlier in top golf resorts on Lake Geneva, but he also claims to have his roots in Illinois. He went to Sterling high school and played college basketball and golf at Parkland College in Champaign. As a junior golfer, he recalls competing against Mike Small, Illinois men’s golf coach for 22 years whose teams won 11 Big Ten titles and numerous NCAA awards, and Todd Hamilton, the former PGA Tour professional, who Won 14 international titles, mainly in Japan.
“Going back to the place where many of these memories were made … was just an opportunity too good to be missed,” said Buyze. “There are a lot of local connections into our younger days, and that’s fun.”
It also helped make the change after touring the Illinois golf courses that even his wife, a non-golfer, recognized as “really big,” he said. Demirjian Indoor and Lauritsen / Wohlers Outdoor training facilities feature team lounges, indoor and outdoor short game areas, driving bays with the latest in high-tech analytics, and multiple fairway and teeing areas that mimic all the conditions golfers could find, including different types of grasses.
Add to this a newly renovated championship caliber golf course and the school is poised to maintain its prominent place at the top of the college golf food chain for some time to come.
“Yes, we want to be at this level. We want a place in the Big Ten that everyone wants to play, and the NCAA wants to play too, ”said Buyze. “But to be competitive in recruiting, you have to have it. The university has just committed to it. They are all there while golfing. You are 100 percent committed to golf. And yes, it’s not a high-volume sport, but… golf isn’t that expensive either.
“Other than that, the expectations and requirements will match,” said Buyze, and the school’s new association with Troon, a national golf management company, will give him the resources he needs to get the job done.
It also helps with recruiting that so many Illinois players have embarked on professional careers. Small, the men’s trainer, played mini-tours for many years and is still competitive. He recently won his fifth Illinois PGA senior tournament. Other successful alumni include DA Points, Thomas Pieters, Charlie Danielson – another Wisconsin contribution to the Gulf of Illinois – Scott Langley, and of course, Stricker.
Buyze said golf alumni are strong supporters of the program, both financially and otherwise. When Stricker recently couldn’t attend a team fundraiser because he was the captain of the Ryder Cup team, he sent his signed Ryder Cup golf bag up for auction and teased that he might bring a certain famous trophy if he went to participate in the future would.
Recruits notice such things.
“Getting that kind of support from alumni, and obviously Steve is the most successful, that makes it pretty attractive,” said Buyze. “That’s part of it. It doesn’t hurt if a Steve Stricker speaks to a bunch of recruits. If you have this story and people want to play on tour, they will go where others have. As long as Coach Small is here, they will continue to get these top players. I think setting up the facilities for the future is part of the process. “
The school’s women’s team is also strong and should fight for the Big Ten title next season, Buyze said. The team is coached by Renee Sloan in their 16th season. Former Renee Heiken played in Illinois from 1990-93 and is still the most highly decorated golfer in school history. Sloan was named Big Ten Coach of the Year in 2019 after taking her team to the first NCAA championship tournament.
When it opens in 2022, Atkins Golf Course will charge $ 79 per round, more than most public courses in the Champaign-Urbana area. Buyze said he hopes local players will still find value in the higher green fees, but expects the course to draw in Chicago, Rockford, Indianapolis and other nearby cities as well.
“Hopefully some travelers will come down from Wisconsin,” he said. “The trip will be worth it.”