Eyes on NCAAs after Illinois, USC win East Lake Cup

ATLANTA – They call him “Big Body Burge,” partly because the 6-foot, 185-pounder is a beast in the weight room, but mostly because he mashes the ball off the tee – he’s longer than any player in college golf.

The problem Illinois senior Alex Burge occasionally encounters, of course, is that those big blasts tend to drift off-line, leading to big numbers and squandered opportunities and disappointing rounds.

“He’s been so up and down,” said Illini assistant coach Zach Barlow, and so it wasn’t a total surprise that when he approached the penultimate group Tuesday at East Lake, Burge was searching, 3 down with six to play in his match against Georgia junior Greyson Sigg.

Then Burge won the next two holes with par. Then he drained a 20-footer for birdie on 16. Then he rolled in another one on 17. All square.

With his Illinois teammates now gathered around the tee box on the par-3 finishing hole, Burge flushed what he thought was a perfect long iron into a cold, steady mist. It came up short, in wet, juicy rough on a steep bank, a spot so awkward that he needed to balance on his toes just to avoid tumbling into the bunker.

“It could have come out a million different ways,” Barlow said, but instead the pitch shot came out perfect, soft and with spin, and nestled to within a few inches for a conceded par. Sigg holed an 8-footer just to stay alive.

That’s when Big Body Burge did what he does best, thumping one of his biggest drives of the week, a mighty blow up the hill on the par-5 10th that left him only 214 yards to the flag – and 40 yards ahead of Sigg.

Needing to step on a 3-wood, Sigg came out of the shot and flared it way right, his ball crashing around in the trees. Burge ripped a 2-iron right at the flag, to within 30 feet. His two-putt birdie gave him the win, yes, but also lifted the Illini to the overall team title, 3-1-1, at the inaugural East Lake Cup. It was a significant match-play victory for a squad that has come so close, so often over the last few years in the NCAA Championship.

“It’s a big confidence boost for me,” Burge would say later. “I’ve been on the other side of the spectrum a few times, so to be able to come back and pull it out was exciting.”

Illinois entered this week as the favorite – the No. 2 ranking, the three fall wins, the four top-50 players. But match play has been unkind to the Illini of late. In 2013, they lost in the NCAA final. The next year, they dropped a quarterfinal match. And then, in June, at Concession, they earned the No. 1 seed in stroke play but fell short in the semifinals.

“You just have to keep knocking on the door,” Illinois coach Mike Small said. “Match play is fleeting; it’s a different animal.”

Keep listening to Small and Barlow, though, and it’s clear that lessons were learned this week.

They learned that Belgian Thomas Detry has what it takes to lead off. He went 2-0.

They learned that Charlie Danielson, who is the highest-ranked player on the team (No. 7), is improving every week and makes for a tough out in the middle of the lineup. He went 2-0.

They learned that sophomore Nick Hardy is one of the grittiest competitors in the country, hanging with both USC’s Sean Crocker and Georgia’s Lee McCoy in the anchor spot despite driving it all over the map.

And they learned that they can never count out Burge, the No. 5 man with no top 10s, no rounds in the 60s and a national ranking near 200 this season.

“He never looked fazed today,” Barlow said. “He never looked out of it. Some guys look defeated and you can kind of tell that it’s set in on them, but he stayed the course.”

So did the No. 1-ranked Southern Cal women’s team, after knocking off No. 2 Duke in what could be a NCAA preview.

Last year’s national championship was the first time that match play was used to decide the women’s final. The Trojans struggled to adjust to the format and watched as less-decorated Stanford and Baylor programs slugged it out in the last match.  

Here, Southern Cal appeared more confident. The Trojans pulled away from an injury-depleted Baylor team to reach the championship match, then overwhelmed the Blue Devils with their depth, taking advantage of an off-day from world No. 1 Leona Maguire and winning the women’s team title, 4-1.

“It’s another experience for them,” USC coach Andrea Gaston said. “That’s what matters, to get into the rhythm of match play and know that you’re not just playing the golf course. Anytime players can get this experience, we can bethat much better next time.”

USC put early points on the board thanks to Karen Chung and Kyung Kim. Most impressive was the performance of Gabriella Then, a former U.S. Junior champion who matched up against Maguire, the reigning NCAA player of the year.

Then jumped out to a 2-up lead at the turn, withstood a Maguire rally and put her away with a spectacular up-and-down on the 18th hole.

“That was a huge point for Gaby,” Gaston said, and moments later, across the pond, USC junior Tiffany Chan closed out her match, 3 and 2, for good measure.

“This is a chance for us to see what we can do, Nos. 1-5,” Gaston said, “and I felt we were very strong.”

Georgia coach Chris Haack felt the same way, even in a losing effort. He approached Small at the trophy presentation, shook his hand and couldn’t help but look toward NCAAs.

“I’ll be glad to do this one more time with you in late May,” Haack said.

Big Body Burge will be ready.

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