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Len Ziehm On Golf

Gritty Meyer could become Illini’s third NCAA medalist

The individual champion will be crowned Monday in the NCAA men’s golf championship at Rich Harvest Farms in Sugar Grove, and that player could well be Illinois junior Dylan Meyer.

Meyer starts the fourth round in a tie for third among the individuals, three strokes behind Scottie Scheffler of Texas. Scheffler, after three straight rounds of 4-under-par 68, stands as 12-under 204 for the first 54 holes, two strokes ahead of Mississippi’s Braden Thornberry.

Meyer (71-67-69) is tied with Mattias Schwab of team leader Vanderbilt. If Meyer should rally to win the individual title it’ll be a great testament to his determination in the face of a major health scare.

The week before the Illini were off to West Lafayette, Ind., for their NCAA regional qualifier the junior from Evansville, Ind., was diagnosed with ulcerative colitis, an inflammation of the large intestine. He spent three nights at Carle Foundation Hospital in Champaign while hospital personnel administered him intravenously.

He left the hospital the day before the Illini departed for the regional and his play there wasn’t typical of the season he had before that. One of three finalists for the coveted Ben Hogan Award as the nation’s top college player, Meyer shot 75-74-75 at West Lafayette and tied for 28th place among the individuals.

Without superb play by fellow junior Nick Hardy, who shared medalist honors, the Illini might not have made it to Rich Harvest for the final. Hardy, who visited Meyer every day while he was in the hospital, sparked an Illini rally in the final 27 holes of the regional as the team climbed from sixth place to third. Only the top five teams qualified for the finals at Rich Harvest.

Meyer’s game returned to its former self in Saturday’s second round of the finals and he shot a sizzling 31 on Rich Harvest’s front side on Sunday to climb the individual leaderboard.

If Meyer wins he would become Illinois’ third NCAA individual champion in seven years. Scott Langley ruled in 2010 and Thomas Pieters in 2012. Meyer downplayed his run at the individual title after Sunday’s round, however.

“Of course you want to play well for yourself,’’ he said, “but now is the time to play for your brothers. We’re finishers. We’re grinders. We want to win stroke play. We want to win match play. We’ll bring a stronger mindset tomorrow and won’t settle for second. We’re going to hunt. That’s when we play our best.’’

As a team the Illini are in fifth place, four strokes behind Vanderbilt. Vandy is at 18-under-par 846 followed by Oklahoma, Nevada Las Vegas and Southern California – all tied for second at 847. The top eight teams advance to the two-day match play portion of the tournament on Tuesday. That’s where the team champion will be determined.

“We’re not looking to make it into the eight spots,’’ said Meyer. “We’re looking to win.’’

“Illinois thinks about the top of the leaderboard,’’ said Hardy. “Our goal is the top seed.’’

Coach Mike Small, who has taken his last 10 teams to the NCAA tournament, doesn’t think seeds are all that important. His 2013 team finished second and his last two wound up third in the NCAA finals.

“I don’t think seeds matter,’’ said Small. “They should seed by how you’re ranked nationally.’’

To reach match play, though, the Illini need another solid round by five players – Meyer, Hardy, sophomore Edoardo Lipparelli and freshmen Michael Feagles and Giovanni Tadiotto – on Monday. For Lipparelli that’s extra important as the NCAAs will be his last event before turning professional.

“It’s pretty special,’’ said Lipparelli, who is from Italy. “It’s my last amateur event, and I’m excited about having a new page in my life, but I want to make this tournament memorable for me and my teammates.’’