Belgian connection benefits Detry, Illini golf


Junior Thomas Detry has become one of the top college golfers in the country since moving from Belgium.

By Lauren Mroz

Thomas Detry had only been to the United States three times before deciding to make Champaign, Illinois, his college home.

Originally from Belgium, Detry grew up in Ukkel, a wealthy suburb of Brussels, where he was introduced to golf at a young age and started competing for the Belgian national team in his early teens.

In 2012, Detry left his family, his friends and his first language behind in Belgium to join head coach Mike Small and the Illinois men’s golf team. The only time Detry had previously spent in the U.S. was in Florida and Texas for golf tournaments and a one-time trip to Champaign for an official visit.

When Detry arrived in Champaign for his freshman year, he did not experience much of a culture shock. Of course, the food was different. He had to learn how to speak a new language. But Detry said, considering the changes he faced, that his transition was easier than expected — especially with one of his best friends and fellow Belgians, Thomas Pieters, by his side for Detry’s freshman year.

After winning the second individual national title in school history in 2012, Pieters played one more season with the Illini before beginning his professional golf career. Pieters is from Nijlen, Belgium, which is about an hour away from Detry’s hometown. The two shared a solid relationship on the course, having competed for the Belgian national team, but it is their even stronger bond off the course that played a major role in Detry’s decision to play at Illinois.

Detry had also considered Florida State, Northwestern and TCU before committing to Illinois. His decision came down to Illinois and Florida State; however, he said there was not much of a decision to be made. Illinois’ reputable business school, combined with Small’s continuous success, played heavy roles in Detry’s decision. But what ultimately removed any hesitation Detry might have had was his comfort in knowing he would have Pieters by his side for his first year.

“He is kind of like a big brother to me.” Detry said. “He took care of me my first couple of weeks freshman year and helped me get used to everything. He helped me fit in here.”

One of the first golf-related changes Detry faced when he arrived at Illinois was that he was no longer competing as the individual he had gotten used to representing before college. He would now be practicing with, and playing for, a team.

In addition to competing in junior national tournaments, Detry competed for Belgium in the 2013 World Amateur Team Championships and helped Team Europe win the 2014 Palmer Cup; however, Detry did not feel the same sense of playing for a team that he does at Illinois.

“When I was playing for the Belgium team, it was more representing Belgium but playing for myself,” Detry said, now a junior. “(At Illinois), I’m representing a team and playing for a team, and that’s really important.”

Having teammates has allowed Detry to feed off of other players competing for the same goal: winning an NCAA Championship. Detry said he likes the change in the fact that he and his teammates want each other to improve and to reach their highest potentials. He still strives to beat out his teammates, but it is more of an incentive to get better as opposed to a task to win a tournament.

Having adjusted to his new life in Champaign, Detry would finish his freshman season posting a 72.88 stroke average, which was second on the team behind Pieters. He was also named the 2013 Big Ten Freshman of the Year.

As an upperclassman now, Detry is taking a more prominent leadership position and is trying to give the team’s four new freshmen the assistance that Pieters gave him. He has consistently been one of the top-three golfers for the men’s team during his time in Champaign.

This season, Detry missed the team’s first tournament to compete in Japan at the World Amateur Team Championship. He did well his first two rounds but hit a rough patch in the third round that kept him out of individual contention. He finished tied for 51st, while Team Belgium finished tied for 13th. 

Detry was back with the Illini for their win at the Wolf Run Intercollegiate on Sept. 20-21, where he tied for fourth individually at 5-over-par. Detry is looking to help the Illini stand up to their No. 1 national ranking.

“He really enjoys being here, and he really enjoys being an Illini,” Small said. “I think that’s a big part of his success and has helped his transition a lot, too.”

Lauren can be reached at [email protected] and on Twitter @MrozLauren.