Illinois notebook: Golf team gets to see Augusta, Tiger up close

John Supinie

Junior Scott Langley and his Illinois golf teammates didn't complain about an early-morning wakeup call Monday. The Illini were headed to Augusta National Golf Club to see the cathedral of golf and watch the first practice round for the Masters. They also witnessed the game's biggest sideshow in decades.

Most of the Illini traveling party stepped onto the property for the first time, although they came to know it from TV. Besides seeing Amen Corner and all those recognizable holes tucked into such a small tract of land, the Illini were also there for the return of Tiger Woods to competitive golf.

"It was a little different waking up to go to the Masters than a normal day,'' Langley said.

While finishing seventh among 18 teams in the Augusta State Invitational Sunday, eighth-ranked Illinois earned valuable experience playing on Bermuda grass that could pay dividends in postseason. The Illini also took advantage of the tournament's fringe benefit -- tickets to the Monday practice round.

"After watching it for years on TV, you don't really understand what it's like until you see it,'' Langley said.

The Illini experienced it all. The tight security (no cell phones on the course). The elevation changes and the undulating greens. The cheap food in the concession tents (the pimento cheese sandwich is the specialty).

Some Illini followed Steve Stricker, the former Illini golfer ranked No. 2 in the world, and they covered the course's 18 holes and the driving range. This wasn't as much of a class trip as it was a day off.

"This day was meant to get an opportunity to see the best course in the world and the best players,'' Illinois coach Mike Small said. "Just enjoy themselves, maybe have a day to dream a little bit.''

Woods played a practice round leading up to his first tournament since his off-the-course scandal made headlines in November. The Illini still like watching Woods, even though they might think differently of someone they originally saw as a role model.

"The off-the-course stuff was a little disappointing to all of us,'' Langley said. "We all look up to him. At the same time, as any golfer would, we have great respect for him as a player. We all view him as that.

"A lot of us liked watching him play. We're all pretty pumped that he's back.''

FOOTBALL: Sophomore running back Justin Green is expected to fully recover prior to preseason camp following surgery Sunday to repair a broken left ankle suffered in a scrimmage Saturday at Memorial Stadium. 

A speedster from Louisville, Ky., Green could miss eight weeks while recovering. Surgeons installed a plate in Green's ankle.

"Surgery was successful,'' Illinois coach Ron Zook said. "He's in really good spirits, and we expect him to be back and ready to go for Camp Rantoul.''

Green was considered the third running back behind juniors Mikel Leshoure and Jason Ford. Green turned down a scholarship offer from Ohio State, where his brother played, for a chance to play running back at Illinois. He gained 88 yards and scored two touchdowns on 19 carries last season in his first year in the program.

Green is a former Kentucky state high school champion in the 100- and 200-meter dashes.

The spring game is April 24. Admission and parking is free for football and all events during the spring sports festival. Also on April 24, the Illini host Wisconsin for the annual world's largest softball tailgate; women's soccer exhibitions against Wisconsin-Milwaukee and Marquette. Men's tennis also hosts Michigan on April 23 and April 25. The softball team faces Wisconsin on April 25.

SOFTBALL: Illinois (26-4 overall, 1-1 in the Big Ten) enter the week ranked No. 18 in the national coaches poll and could set a program mark this week. The highest the Illini have been ranked is No. 17 in 2004. Coach Terri Sullivan returned to the dugout Wednesday after missing 23 games while on maternity leave.

The Illini have three of the Big Ten's top four hitters -- first baseman Meredith Hackett (.419) ranks second with leftfielder Hope Howell (.410) and second baseman Danielle Zymkowitz (.410) tied for third. Hackett batted .229 with 21 RBIs last season but she already has 31 RBIs to rank second in the Big Ten. The Illini host No. 21 Ohio State Saturday and Sunday.

BASEBALL: Illinois (11-10 overall, 2-1 in the Big Ten) took two out of three from visiting Penn State over the weekend to move over .500 for the first time since winning the season opener.  

Sophomore centerfielder Willie Argo ranks fourth in the Big Ten in hitting (.418) and second in on-base percentage (.505). Illinois plays at Bradley Tuesday (6 p.m.) and meets Missouri at Busch Stadium in St. Louis Wednesday (7 p.m.). The Illini play a three-game series at Iowa Friday through Sunday.

GYMNASTICS: The Illinois men nearly completed the sweep at the Big Ten Conference championships. The Illini won the team title for the second straight season. Individually, junior Paul Ruggeri won the vault and high bar while junior Daniel Ribeiro (pommel horse) and sophomore C.J. Padera (parallel bars) also won titles.

Coach Justin Spring, the former Illini and Olympic medalist, earned coach of the year in his first season, and Yoshi Mori received co-freshman of the year. Illinois competes in the NCAA championships April 15-17.

The Illini women may get a boost from Melissa Fernandez, who bruised her right fibula, during the Big Ten meet. She hasn't practiced since the injury on March 27 but hopes to compete in two events at the NCAA regional competition Saturday. She finished seventh at the NCAA championships last year on the beam.

John Supinie can be reached at