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How Thomas Detry went from ‘possessed’ to U.S. Open contention

PINEHURST, N.C. – Thomas Detry looked like he’d been in a fight. His collar was stretched, slightly ripped, and his Illinois golf polo missing a button or two. The only saving grace was that he could quickly slip a gray, Big Ten champs T-shirt over the tattered top; otherwise, there would be clear photographic evidence.

The story, however, lives on – and it helps explain how Detry got here, contending at this 124th U.S. Open.

The wavy-haired, passionate and sometimes combustible freshman from Belgium had two holes to play in the final round of the 2013 Big Ten Championship at French Lick. Teammate Thomas Pieters was running away with the individual title, but pesky Minnesota was hot on the Illini’s heels and looking to deny Illinois its fifth straight conference crown.

And Detry, well, he was running hot, having driven it into the lip of a fairway bunker.

“He’s got no shot, and he just started losing his s---,” Illinois head coach Mike Small said. “He would get so emotional and so fired up that’d he’d get this gloss over his eyes, like he’d become possessed, and he wouldn’t listen to anything. He just kept talking about how bad a break it was, and how bulls--- it was, and how he couldn’t believe it. And I’m like, ‘Dude, snap out of it!’ And he wouldn’t. He wouldn’t listen to me, so I actually grabbed him by the collar of his shirt and lifted him off the ground and looked him in the eye.”

As Detry recalls, Small, still with a handful of Detry’s polo, sternly ordered: Thomas, you’re going to shut up right now, hit the green, and make your ‘5.’

Detry finally got the message. He took his medicine, carded the smart bogey and birdied his finishing hole to help Illinois secure a nine-shot victory. He then pulled Small aside, still embarassed, and thanked him.

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“Today I’d probably get fired for something like that,” Small said, “but he said, ‘Coach, I needed that.’”

“I deserved it,” added Detry, “but I’ve made a lot of progress since then.”

Now 31, married and a father of two, Detry has matured into a man capable of handling, at least mentally, the toughest of U.S. Open tests. When he six-putted the sixth green at PGA National back in March, he barely fretted despite going viral in a matter of minutes. He’s missed just one cut since while nearly winning the Texas Children’s Houston Open (T-2, his ninth career runner-up finish as a pro) and contending at the PGA Championship (T-4, his first major top-10).

Physically, he’s starting to show, too, why he could one day lift a major trophy, maybe even by this Sunday evening. He improved from No. 108 on the PGA Tour in strokes gained putting after the Cognizant Classic to No. 13 when he stepped on property at Pinehurst No. 2. He’s gaining this week in all four strokes-gained categories, ranking top 10 in both putting and approach. He’s not carded anything worse than bogey through 36 holes.

“He’s at a different caliber now,” said former Illinois teammate Brian Campbell, who played alongside Detry for the first two rounds; Campbell will make the cut at 3 over while Detry, after rounds of 69-67, is in the thick of things at 4 under, just a shot back of leader Ludvig Åberg. “His putting really showed, especially under this pressure. This was no problem for him.”

Small still considers Detry one of the most accomplished junior players he’s ever recruited – and better than Pieters at that age. Sure, the youngster was prone to emotional outbursts, but they rarely were as bad as French Lick. More concerning to Small was Detry’s short game when he first arrived in Champaign from Brussels.

“Very raw,” Small said. “He had good hands, but he didn’t know how to use them. His exit numbers weren’t good, and he couldn’t really control his loft, height, spin, distance, things like that.”

And it cost him playing time as a freshman. When Detry played a tournament as an individual during his second semester, prior to Detry’s Big Ten meltdown, Small asked Detry how he liked teeing off last off the 10th tee.

Detry responded, “This will never happen again.”

He went on to become a three-time, second-team All-American, a Big Ten individual champ as a senior and was a couple shots shy of beating Bryson DeChambeau at the 2015 NCAA Championship. He also helped the Illini to NCAA match play four times, one of just a handful of college players to do so. Perhaps more importantly, he grew up and developed into, according to Small, “One of the best scramblers we’ve ever had.”

After wrapping up his second round Friday afternoon, Detry went through a well-earned car wash of interview requests. During his scrum, he revealed that he purposely practiced each day this week after 4 p.m., when the course was basically empty.

“I was spending 20 minutes on each green, kind of having a feel for the slopes, having a feel for the grass, for the greens,” Detry said. “I thought that was pretty nice.”

Detry also pointed to a few weeks ago at Valhalla, when he got that first taste of major contention. There’s no secret that Detry, other than his lone Challenge Tour win, has yet to win as a professional. He’s collected nearly $6 million on the PGA Tour and an additional almost 7 million euros on the DP World Tour since joining the play-for-pay ranks in 2016. He’s knocking on the door to being a top-50 player in the world (No. 55 in the OWGR). He just has no notable titles to show for his strong play.

Being within reach of the Wanamaker last month showed Detry that he could remain calm and committed down the stretch. He bolstered that belief again Friday.

“It was nice to see that with some of the good golf [at the PGA] I was able to compete against the best,” Detry said. “I feel like I’m utilizing that confidence quite nicely this week. … My confidence is good. My play is good. I feel mentally stable as well. I think I’ve got all my chances. I think it’s going to be a fun challenge.”

Following a 20-minute phone interview on Friday morning, Small dialed back. He wanted to further praise the player and person that Detry had become. He still is passionate, Small says, but he’s armed with complete control of his emotions.

“He’s not going to say, ‘Oh, well, I’m just going to try and do my best,’” Small adds. “Forget that; he wants results.”

Small only still tells the story from Detry’s freshman year to contextualize how far he’s come:

From possessed to potentially, if this Pinehurst fight goes his way, possessing some major hardware.