Regional bounce back key for Goecke, Illinois

May 22—URBANA — Tyler Goecke started Illinois' spring slate with some of his best golf since joining the team in the fall as a graduate transfer.

The former Wright State standout tied for 10th at the Hal Williams Collegiate in February. Two more top-15 finishes followed in the next month at the Southern Highlands Collegiate — where Goecke shot an opening-round 67 — and The Johnnie-O at Sea Island.

But Goecke couldn't maintain that run.

Two OK tournament finishes led into the lone home date on the Illinois calendar where the Fighting Illini Spring Collegiate turned into Goecke's worst performance of the season.

An argument could be made it was among the worst of his collegiate career given all the wins he posted at Wright State — seven of them in three years — as back-to-back Horizon League Golfer of the Year in 2022 and 2023.

Goecke opened the Fighting Illini Spring Collegiate with an 82 at Atkins Golf Club. By weekend's end, he was 21-over par in a tie for 53rd place. A week later, he was out of the Illinois lineup for the Big Ten championship.

"Coach kind of let me know that he was going to take the six guys who were deserving," Goecke said. "I was OK with it. I really wanted us to win a Big Ten championship and was confident in those guys, but I knew I really had to work on my game."

Goecke got a needed reset heading into last week's NCAA regional at Stanford. Three rounds in the 60s — a first for him this season — pushed Goecke to a tie for fifth as a critical part of Illinois' regional title and gave him some needed momentum heading into the NCAA championships, which start Friday at the Omni La Costa Resort & Spa North Course in Carlsbad, Calif.

"In practice, after (the Fighting Illini Spring Collegiate), he had a look in his eye, really," Illinois junior Jackson Buchanan said. "He put his head down and just went to work. He went out to regionals and wasn't going to be denied."

The process to go from out of the lineup to playing a pivotal role in a regional title? That required some self-reflection from Goecke. An understanding of what wasn't working in his game.

A chance to take a few days off with Illinois in Columbus, Ohio, for the Big Ten championship was good, too. Goecke got to spend time with his fiancée, Kaitlyn Miller, who graduated from Wright State that weekend.

"I was able to reset," Goecke said. "Definitely took a little bit of a break there, took a step back, took a deep breath and realized what I needed to work on."

Illinois coach Mike Small said Goecke's bounce-back performance at the NCAA regional showed resiliency and mental toughness. A week away from competition wasn't a bad thing. It was a chance to recalibrate.

"Generally, if they're of sane mind and confidence and have got some moxie to them, they usually come back and figure it out," Small said. "It's the guys who struggle and keep playing and keep playing and keep playing, those are the ones who keep burying themselves and it becomes a bigger problem. A lot of times when you have a tough stretch, you've just got to be honest with yourself and tell yourself, 'No more. I've got to come back and change my mindset around.'

"Good players can do that, and I think Tyler did that. What he did at Stanford was huge for our team. It was a huge deal. It was the extra score we needed and had been looking for."

And maybe it was the type of performance that was only a matter of time coming from Goecke. The Xenia, Ohio, native left Wright State as the program's all-time leader with a career stroke average of 71.29. He won the 2023 Horizon League title and represented the Raiders in a pair of NCAA regional tournaments.

But Goecke was looking forward to the next stage of his career when he decided to transfer. He wanted to test himself further to see if he had what it took to make golf his profession. Landing at a national powerhouse like Illinois provided that challenge.

"It's just a different level," Goecke said. "Everything here is a little bigger. You can't take days off mentally or physically. I learned a lot at Wright State, but the stuff I've learned here has really built on that even further.

"There's a different way to play the game than what I had known for so long. If you don't know it, it might not hurt you, but once you do know it, you realize you've got to tidy up some things. Small stuff. You can't give shots back. You can't let anyone control your space. You have to control your own. Being able to do those things every day has helped."

It just didn't happen overnight for the former Wright State star. An adjustment period ensued to playing at Illinois. To playing for Small.

"It made him a little unsure of himself," Small said. "The courses are different. The competition is different. I think he's settling in now, and I think he's actually starting to grab a hold of what this program is about and the mindset we have to have.

"I think all transfers — especially ones who transfer after being somewhere for four years — they bring all their habits with them. If they don't match, there's always a little bit of a conflict. It takes time to coach the new stuff into them and kind of forget how they did things before. I think that's starting to click."