Dylan Meyer and Illinois, hardened by struggles, lead early at Isleworth

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Dylan Meyer and Illinois, hardened by struggles, lead early at Isleworth

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Dylan Meyer and Illinois, hardened by struggles, lead early at Isleworth

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WINDERMERE, Fla. – It’s seemed so easy for Illinois for so long. The Illini always found a way to be one of the country’s top teams.

But that mindset had become a problem.

Through three events this fall, Illinois hasn’t won. And the team entered this week’s Tavistock Collegiate Invitational 36th in the Golfweek/Sagarin rankings. For reference, the Illini hadn’t lost at this point last season and were No. 1 in the country.

“We just need more mental toughness,” said Mike Small, Illinois’ head coach. “The momentum (these guys) built from the summer and the mindset they brought into the fall was not up to their standards or our standards.”

The good news: That may be changing, and quick.

Illinois fired a 9-under 279 Sunday at Isleworth Golf and Country Club and opened up a three-shot lead through 18 holes – against a Tavistock Collegiate Invitational field that boasts seven top-20 teams.

How’d the Illini change course? Find that tough-minded approach: Limit the mistakes, grind out the round, don’t feel entitled to a good result.

“Getting back to that blue-collar mentality.” said senior Dylan Meyer.

Meyer practiced that beautifully Sunday, as he missed just two fairways and greens, played to the correct sides and fired a 5-under 67 to share the individual lead with Florida’s John Axelsen.

Four Illini broke par on the day, as Giovanni Tadiotto (T-7, 2 under), Michael Feagles (T-11, 1 under) and Brendan O’Reilly (T-11, 1 under) joined Meyer.

Meyer admitted that previously this fall he and other teammates, aside from Nick Hardy (T-22, even par), had taken their golf for granted, a lack of determination that doesn’t work for the Illinois program.

“The minute you take this game for granted, the minute you think you’ve got it licked is the minute it bites you in the tail,” Small said.

Illinois began its charge back after a tough fifth-place showing late last month at the Bearcat Invitational. With the team throwing up a jarring number of mistakes – “We’ve led the country, in my opinion, in unforced errors this year,” Small said – the head coach told his team it was time to change up.

They went from three days of workouts per week to five and coaches have pounded into players’ heads the need to get back the focus and accountability that have been a staple of the program.

“We’re just reinforcing what our personalities should be,” Small said.

Meyer’s own progress seems to be coinciding with that.

His junior season, the Evansville, Ind., product finished ranked 11th by Golfweek. But his summer results were less than ideal, and his best finish this college season is 18th.

Currently, he’s ranked 246th this season by Golfweek.

Meyer went through a life-alterting moment last spring when he was diagnosed with ulcerative colitis, an inflammation of the large intestine.

Prior to the diagnosis, Meyer basically ate whatever he wanted.

The disease forced a change in diet: nothing with wheat or seeds, nor spicy food. Meyer paid heed, but as the summer wore on and he felt better, he branched back out into his old eating habits.

“I kind of just took (ulcerative colitis) for granted, rather than taking it the way I should’ve: Head on,” Meyer said.

He felt OK for the most part during play, but his body and mind were doing so much extra work to deal with the disease (flaring up due to what Meyer was eating) that he felt exhausted toward the end of rounds and afterward.

There were a couple of days in the summer he simply had to lie down and could do nothing else. The worst of UC could cause a vicious upset stomach and brutal lower abdominal discomfort.

“It’s extreme pain,” Meyer said.

When he returned to school, Meyer got back his focus.

The senior has been working with dietitians and has meals at Illinois specifically catered to his needs. Meyer is on a 3,000-calorie-per-day diet to avoid losing weight – UC can make it harder for the body to absorb nutrients from food – and generally eats 4-5 smaller meals per day.

He also must generally avoid those “trigger” foods (noted above) with UC. Among those is pizza, which Meyer used to eat “all the time” and misses the most.

He’s taken an anti-inflammatory three times per day since his diagnosis as a way to manage any issues. He still gets Remicade treatments every two months.

As Meyer has taken his UC head on, his energy has improved and he’s starting to recover his old mentality.

“Dylan’s the type of player that has to play with a little chip, little Rat Terrier mentality,” Small said. “I think that change in his health maybe caused him to lose his identity on the golf course. Hopefully, he’s now getting it back.”

Meyer himself says he feels “10 times better” now than he did over the summer.

The Illini are certainly feeling better, too: They’re starting to get their winning mentality back.

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