Men's Golf
Illini Freshmen Trio Diverse but Single-Minded

Thomas Detry earned Big Ten Freshman of the Year honors after finishing eighth at the 2013 Big Ten Championships.
Thomas Detry earned Big Ten Freshman of the Year honors after finishing eighth at the 2013 Big Ten Championships.

May 13, 2013

CHAMPAIGN, Ill. - When Illini freshman Charlie Danielson first visited the University of Illinois campus in the summer of 2009 and saw the then-two-year-old J.G. Demirjian Indoor Golf Practice Facility, he was sold. The Illini golf program had one of the finest facilities in collegiate golf and the No. 35 American recruit in the class of 2012 couldn't wait to join head coach Mike Small's roster.

"I had a good buddy from Wisconsin who was a pretty good player and we both weren't sure where we were going to go, so we decided to take a visit here," Danielson said. "As soon as I was in Demirjian hitting shots, it felt like the perfect fit. A bunch of other schools I visited said they were going to start building a facility and Illinois already had it all. They were ahead of the curve."

Danielson, a native of Osceola, Wis., became the first of three members of the current Illinois freshman class that helped the Illini to their fifth-straight Big Ten title just over two weeks ago, along with Belgian Thomas Detry and Californian David Kim. The trio has accounted for 74 of Illinois' 177 team rounds this season and has played at a high level, with Detry being named the Big Ten Freshman of the Year and Danielson being ranked as one of the top 12 freshmen in the country by Golfweek after the fall season.

"When you recruit, you have a plan, but it rarely goes according to plan," Small said. "Because some kids commit, some kids don't, some kids hold off. It's a timing issue. Getting Charlie to commit was the big part of the equation because that took the pressure off because we knew we had a quality player, a highly recruited player, committed kind of early."

Danielson was forced to focus his athletic abilities on golf after two knee surgeries ended his basketball and football careers near the end of middle school. His father, Craig, had regularly taken him golfing before that time, but Charlie preferred the court and gridiron over the course.

"The pounding and cutting built up and I had no cartilage under my left kneecap," Danielson said. "The first surgery was minor, but the second one was major and I was out nine months and had a long recovery. I didn't mind playing golf before then, but I wanted to do it on my own, when I wanted to. But after the surgeries, I just started missing it, missing playing with my friends. I started wanting to get back on the course and ever since then, I've loved it."

That love for the game has carried Danielson through an up-and-down spring season after he notched three top-20 finishes during the fall. He started the spring by finishing 16th at the Mobile Bay Intercollegiate, but didn't play as well in the next three tournaments and didn't make the travel roster for the Boilermaker Invitational, the team's final event prior to Big Ten Championships. Danielson qualified for the conference tournament, though, and stood 19th after three rounds before a final-round 78 landed him in a tie for 25th.

Charlie Danielson

"Charlie is a very physically gifted player," Small said. "He's strong and tall and hits it hard. We're still developing his short game and his mind. He showed some flashes of really good play as a junior but he showed that he had some things to work on, which all kids do. I think he's better than he thinks he is. We need to get his confidence up a little bit. His potential is higher than he really believes. Once he grows into that, he could really be a force in the Big Ten."

Next on Small's plan for the 2012 class was landing Detry, but because of the distance between Champaign-Urbana and his hometown of Brussels, Belgium, Detry didn't plan on taking his college visits until later in the process. But the Illini had an ace up their sleeve with fellow Belgian Thomas Pieters already on their roster.

"There were a lot of good players that we were holding off on waiting on (Detry)," Small said. "We didn't want to take somebody else when we could've gotten him because he was a top player, probably a top-25 junior player in the world. Everybody in the country was recruiting him, more or less, but we had an inside with Thomas Pieters, which was good, but we had to wait on him.

"There were a lot of good Illinois players that we could've taken, but we had to hold off on them to save our resources for Thomas. Some of those Illinois kids went elsewhere and I hated to see that. You can't have them all, but we needed to save our resources for Thomas."

It turned out that already having Pieters on campus was a key factor in the Illini signing Detry. The younger Belgian, who participated in the junior Ryder Cup and is a two-time Belgian national champion, was able to get an insider's view of Small's program, thanks to his childhood friend.

"I first learned about Illinois thanks to Thomas Pieters during my junior year in high school," Detry said. "I really started looking for a school and started getting in touch with colleges then. Belgium is a small country, so everybody in golf in Belgium knows each other. We have been playing together since we were five or six (years old) and we're obviously very close friends. That definitely played into my decision."

Thomas Detry

Coming from a country approximately the size of the state of Maryland with a population similar to that of New York City and Chicago combined could have made for a rocky transition to the United States for Detry. But his easygoing nature made the process a smooth one.

"I think I'm pretty adaptable socially, so even if Pieters wasn't here, I don't think it would've been that difficult to get into the American life," Detry said. "But obviously, it's helped me that Pieters has been here. He's been like a big brother to me.

"And I'm rooming with Charlie, so we're very close friends as well. He's been great. I remember the first day I was here, I forgot a few things like sheets for my bed and Charlie's mom took care of me, so that was nice. Also, for Thanksgiving, they hosted me at their house in Wisconsin, so that was really nice."

The Belgian freshman is something of a Renaissance man, speaking four languages (French, Dutch, Spanish and English), spending free time reading articles on scientific research and the global economy, and dreaming of being the CEO of a large company. He is double-majoring in international business and marketing, and isn't easily flustered despite being attending college 4,200 miles from home. That has been on display all season, as 25 of his 28 rounds have finished with scores of 75 or better, including a team-best five rounds at par.

"One of my strengths is that I'm never shooting high scores," Detry said. "I can't remember the last time I shot in the 80s. Even when I have a bad day, I can always bring it around par. What I need right now is when I have a very good day, I need to go lower and keep that aggressive mindset instead of playing conservative golf and trying to preserve my score. I feel like I'm very close to playing very well."

Having said that before the Big Ten Championships, Detry delivered on his claim, finishing eighth at the event with a seven-over-par 295 for his first career single-digit finish. Detry was named a second-team All-Big Ten selection and the Big Ten Freshman of the Year, becoming the first Illini to win that award since Scott Langley in 2008.

"He just needs to keep doing what he's doing," Small said. "Short game, wedge play needs to get better with him, too. But he plays within himself, he knows the game and is a very mature player. That's something that's going to bode well. He's just above the curve there. Look at his scores this year, his finishes are consistent. Nothing off-the-charts great, but nothing bad. Just rock solid. He just has to believe that he can do it and expect to do it.

"His putting, wedge play and short game need to improve so he can take advantage of one or two more instances a round and turn that 70 or 71 into a 68 or 69. Golf is such a thin line between winning and finishing 15th that he needs to find those opportunities and take advantage of them."

The third member of the freshmen class is something of a late-comer, not only to Illinois in the recruiting process, but to the game of golf in general. While Danielson and Detry both started seriously playing golf before their 10th birthday, Kim wasn't introduced to the game until he was 13 years old.

David Kim

"My cousins introduced me to the game," Kim said. "They were at a golf camp, so my mom took us over there to try it out and ever since then, I loved it. It just seemed interesting and I thought it was the perfect fit. (Before then) I didn't really know what golf was or anything. It makes me want to practice more because I know everybody else has had more of a head start. It just makes me want to work harder to try to make up for all those years that I missed."

Kim didn't get in touch with the Illini coaches until 2011, late in his junior year of high school. That summer, he was playing in a tournament in the area and made the trip to Champaign to visit. He was hooked.

"My list got down to about 25 schools, then I noticed Illinois," he said. "I had never heard of (their team before), so I looked into and realized that the golf program had really transformed. I was like 'This is what I want to be when I grow up, so why not go here?'"

"We liked what we saw of David on paper," Small said. "We saw a young kid who wanted to come here, but we didn't know what his aspirations were. So we had to go watch him in the U.S. Amateur. He qualified for the U.S. Amateur and made the cut, which showed me a young kid that age can play at that level and under that pressure, which was pretty impressive."

Coming from Redondo Beach, Calif., Kim's selection of Illinois as his college destination may have surprised some onlookers. But it was the foundation that Small has established that attracted Kim.

"This place is just awesome," Kim said. "Coach Small and what he's been through and everything he has taught his players and the success they have had are really impressive. And the fact that there are five golf courses within about five minutes of campus also helped. Everything about the golf program is special."

Kim played well immediately in the fall, finishing tied for 13th at the Wolf Run Invitational and tied for 10th at the D.A. Weibring Intercollegiate while playing both events as an individual. A rough final two fall tournaments as a counting member of the squad brought him back to Earth, but Kim went undefeated in the Tinervin Cup and Big Ten Match Play Championships match-play events to start the spring. He tied for third at the USA Individual Tournament, carding a four-over-par 146 in two rounds, then placed 33rd at the Louisiana Classics and Desert Shootout.

But he struggled at the Augusta State Invitational and couldn't crack the team's top five for the Boilermaker Invitational or the Big Ten Championships. Still, Kim's continued development is important, as he will most likely be relied on for counting scores in the 2013-14 season after the departure of Pieters and senior Mason Jacobs.

"Lately, I really learned that I have to own my part of the game and not worry about anyone else's," Kim said. "I hit it kind of short, so Coach (Small) has really emphasized that I have to be great at the short game. I have to know my strengths and my game so much better than everyone else and not worry about what anyone else is doing. You've got to grasp it and it's a learning process. It's taken me a year to really grasp that you have to know your strengths and weaknesses."

"David is a strong competitor and he wants to be good," Small said. "All three of these freshmen want to be good and that's important to me. They're not going to lose that drive or desire to play golf, even into their mid-30s. They realize that you don't reach your peak in golf until your mid- or late-30s. I think his desire and dream is there. He's a competitor and he generally keeps the ball in play. When he's playing well, he's not scared to play well, but he needs to get more consistent."

Despite the various paths that these three freshmen have taken to Illinois, they have quickly bonded as a class and understand that they have the ability to uphold the standard of success that the Illini have established in recent years. That drive will be tested this week, when Illinois attempts to reach the NCAA Championships for the sixth-straight season at the NCAA Fayetteville Regional at The Blessings Golf Club.

"What strikes me is that they couldn't come from more different backgrounds, but they all get along very well," Small said. "That's important. They like each other, they consider themselves a class and even though they come from different backgrounds, it's been neat to see them meld together. They're three diverse people, yet they've come together and I believe they're taking ownership in this program.

"They know they're the ones who are going to carry this program over the next two or three years, and that's a responsibility that they're willing to take. If they do that and they work on their games and what they need to do, and put the effort in and believe in themselves, I think they can carry that banner. I know they're all good enough to do that."