Behind Burge, Illinois knocks off defending champ Texas
PHOTOS: NCAA Championship (Quarterfinals)
View images from the quarterfinals of NCAA Championship Match Play on Friday.
MILTON, Ga. Coming into this year’s NCAA Championship at Capital City Club’s Crabapple course, Illinois’ Alex Burge felt he had something to prove – to his coach, to his teammates, and, most of all, to himself.
It was a matter of showing he belonged and was worthy of a spot in the lineup at the national championship.
After all, the Fighting Illini sophomore’s best finish in a team event this season was a T-13 in the Louisiana Classics, the team’s spring opener. A T-19 at the Boilermaker and T-17 at the Big 10 Championship was just good enough to get him the team’s fifth spot for the NCAA regional at Blessings Golf Club in Fayetteville, Ark.
But he was a disaster there, never breaking 80 in three rounds and never counting in Illinois’ victorious run to its first region title.
Still, coach Mike Small saw something, felt something, and included Burge in the lineup for the finals.
After posting a non-counting 72 in the first round of stroke play here at Crabapple, he followed with a counting 74 the next day. Then it all kicked in. He shot a team second-best 69 the final round which help lead the Illini to a fifth-place finish and a spot in the Elite 8 of match play.
All he did in his opening match Friday was roll to a 3-and-2 victory over Cody Gribble of Texas, clinching the deciding point in the team’s 3-2 win over the defending NCAA champion Longhorns.
“What Alex did out there today was a huge, huge deal,” said Small, in his 13th season at the Illinois helm. “Coming back from what happened at regional and playing the way he has here, well, that’s what this program celebrates. What a story for that kid. Things like that are what is probably the most satisfying thing for a coach.”
Burge never trailed in his match, winning Nos. 2, 3 and 4 to go 3 up. He won the 10th hole to make it 4 up; after Gribble won the 11th, the two halved holes 12-16 to bring the match to an end.
Freshmen Thomas Detry and Charlie Danielson, playing in the first two matches, completed the Illini winning point total, each posting a 1-up victory.
Detry never trailed against Julio Vegas and was 2-up after nine holes. Vegas won the 10th and then the two halved each of the last eight holes.
Danielson and Toni Hakula went back and forth from the start, with neither leading by more than 1. Hakula went on top by winning the 15th, but Danielson won 16 and 17 to go 1-up. They halved 18 when Hakula’s eight-foot birdie putt slid just by the hole.
Texas got a pair of wins by 2-and-1 margins.
Brandon Stone, this season’s Mickelson Award winner as national freshman of the year, defeated defending NCAA individual champ Thomas Pieters, while Kramer Hickok turned back Brian Campbell.
“We got off to a good start and hung in there all the way,” Small said. “Obviously I’m happy and proud for our guys, but we know we still have to get ready for tomorrow. We still have some golf to play.”
Texas coach John Fields described Illinois as “a wolf in sheep’s clothing.”
“They came in ranked 26th, but we knew how good they were,” Fields said. “They won the Big 10 and the regional at the Blessing, very impressive. We played well today, but in the end they just made more putts than we did.
“Overall, though, it’s been a good week and a great year. We won five times, including the Big 12. For sure this stings a little, but we have nothing to hang our heads about.”
The win sends Illinois to the semifinals, where it takes on No. 1 ranked California and guarantees the program from Champaign its best-ever NCAA finish, topping its fourth-place showing in 1941.
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Saturday's match-ups: Cal vs. Illinois
10:00 a.m.: Michael Weaver, Cal, vs. Thomas Detry, Illinois
10:09 a.m.: Joel Stalter, Cal, vs. Charlie Danielson, Illinois
10:18 a.m.: Max Homa, Cal, vs. Thomas Pieters, Illinois
10:27 a.m.: Michael Kim, Cal, vs. Brian Campbell, Illinois
10:36 a.m.: Brandon Hagy, Cal, vs. Alex Burge, Illinois
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This is the sixth consecutive NCAA finals appearance for Illinois and second time it has reached match play since this format was introduced in 2009. They did it in 2011, but lost in the opening round, 3-1-1, to Georgia.
Now the Fighting Illini face their biggest challenge of the season and they appear ready to take it head-on.
“So far we’ve done what we came here to do,” said Burge. “If you’re going to win a national championship you have to beat the best and we will have our chance at doing that (Saturday).”
Small had much the same feelings.
“We moved one step closer (toward a national title),” he said. “Now we get to play the No. 1 team in the country, a team that has won 11 times and has dominated a college golf season like none other, maybe ever. They have a lineup with five all-Americans.
“This is an opportunity of a lifetime for this team, for this program,” Small added. “Cal has a great team, for sure. But we have a really tough group of guys and they’re not going to shy away from anything.”