Illini men's golf wins thrilling Final Four rematch at East Lake

By Christopher Kennedy

Tweet: @IlliniMGolf wins thrilling Final Four rematch in overtime to take first-ever East Lake Cup

The new East Lake Cup brought last year’s Final Four college golf teams together for a fall rematch. For an Illini team that returned four of five starters from last year’s NCAA semifinal run, it provided a chance for revenge against the USC team that eliminated it from the tournament and another opportunity to win it all.

But the East Lake Cup championship came down to the one Illini golfer who didn’t play in last year’s NCAA Championships: Alex Burge. The redshirt senior defeated Georgia’s Greyson Sigg on a sudden death 19th hole to clinch the victory for Illinois. He rallied all the way back from down two on the 13th hole to come back as the Illini defeated the Bulldogs 3-1-1.

““I learned that Alex can fight adversity, come back, birdie two of his last three to push the match into overtime and win it,” head coach Mike Small said. “This is the way the national championship is going be defined now so we’ve got to get used to it and embrace it.”

The championship match was the opposite pairing of last year’s NCAA final as Illinois and Georgia defeated the teams that eliminated them last spring. The final match was extremely tight in its entirety. Senior Thomas Detry notched the first point for the Illini against Georgia’s Sepp Straka, up four with three holes to play. 

After struggling in the Illini’s last two tournaments, Detry was one of the Illini’s strongest performers at East Lake. He was the Illini’s fifth finisher on the leaderboard at Crooked Stick and Tavistock on Oct. 12-13 and Oct. 18-20, but this week he won both of his matches.

Georgia’s Zach Healy defeated sophomore Dylan Meyer up two. Senior Charlie Danielson scored the Illini’s second point, going up three with two to play. While Burge rallied, sophomore Nick Hardy finished 18 holes tied up with Lee McCoy.

“We have some depth and some good players,” Small said. “I learned that (Thomas Detry) can start off great … I learned Dylan can fight back from being down, I learned Nick can go against anybody and Charlie was a stud for two-straight days.”

The clincher came with Burge on the sudden death 19th hole. With the cameras of Golf Channel rolling, Burge delivered. He missed last year’s historic season as a redshirt — a season Small called “the greatest season in Illinois golf history,” —  and now, he’s a key player in another season with championship aspirations.

Burge took home some additional hardware on Monday night. He was named the first recipient of the Tom Cousins Award, recognizing a “college player who excels in academics, is engaged in the community and has demonstrated an ability to overcome adversity.” He certainly demonstrated that ability on the course Tuesday.

In order to get to the tournament final, the Illini had to defeat USC, the team that beat Illinois 3-1-1  to end its season last year. The first round finished Tuesday morning: play was suspended Monday due to darkness. On Monday evening, the Illini were 1-up in four of their matches and all squared in the other through 16 holes.

“It’s a very tight match,” Small said on Monday. “We have to keep our momentum going tonight and come back tomorrow with the same purpose. This is so close from over it’s ridiculous.”

But the Illini were able to deliver on their tight leads from Monday on Tuesday morning. Detry, Danielson and Burge all won up one in their matches. Meyer won in 19 holes while Hardy’s opponent, Sean Crocker clinched a victory on the 17th hole.

The East Lake Cup victory is the Illini’s fourth win in five tournaments this fall. The team’s only blemish came at its own Fighting Illini Invite, without senior Charlie Danielson. Since then, the Illini have taken home three tournament titles, including face-offs with elite competition at East Lake and Tavistock. The team has won 12 of its last 19 events dating back to last season.

“This winter we’re all be working on individual things as we always do,” Burge said. “Just keep getting better… and then build momentum in the spring to Big Tens and then the national championship.”

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