On the third day of this year’s East Lake Cup, probably the best back nine of the tournament featured Illinois’ Nick Hardy battling Vanderbilt’s Patrick Martin in back-and-forth match play. It was the kind of competition golf fans dream of.

Martin jumped out to an early lead on the front nine, winning the first hole and the fourth, before Hardy beat back against the current and earned a win on the sixth. But Martin took a two-hole lead into the 14th hole, a par 5, and that’s when Hardy, a senior, began to make his move. He capitalized on misfires from Martin on back-to-back holes and evened the match on the 15th. The two traded close putts and dazzling bunker shots on the 16th and 17th holes, each narrowly avoiding falling behind by a single point. Heading into the rolling 18th, the match all tied, it was suddenly called. Vanderbilt had won match play with a 4 & 3 victory from John Augenstein.

The culmination of a week in which Hardy felt he’d had started slow, before making improvements as the tournament went on, was just starting to pick up steam when the match was waved over.

“I was happy with how I played this week, and Patrick and I, we had a great match today,” Hardy said afterward. “It was a lot of fun.”

If anything, the week was a microcosm of the way Hardy’s seen his Illini fight to improve this season.

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“We definitely came out not like a normal Illinois team to start the fall. We were pretty disappointed. Everyone was disappointed on the team. We got two fifths, then a third, and then a second at Isleworth, which was nice, but we didn’t close it off.”

To call a fall full of top-five finishes, including a second-place tally at Isleworth, anything other than a success might be to stretch the truth, but then this is a Mike Small-coached Illinois program we’re talking about. Success isn’t easy around these parts.

“For the past decade, coach has had a pretty high standard for our program, he’s held it really high. I would say this fall hasn’t reached that standard, but I also feel like I really like where our team is trending for the spring. We made so many improvements throughout the fall season, which was nice to see.”

When Hardy arrived at Illinois in 2014, he looked around at the school’s campus and fell in love. His college years spread out in front of him like a rolling fairway and he felt like he would be in Champaign forever.

Hardy’s had an incredible collegiate career with the Illini, not to mention playing in the 2015 U.S. Open and finishing T-55th at this past summer’s John Deere Classic, an experience he called unbelievable.

“I love that tournament,” Hardy said. “I hope when I’m on tour I get to go back to that tournament every year. They’ll be the first one on my calendar, for sure. Just because of the opportunity that was given, and the chance to compete on the weekend was really cool. I’m gonna keep that with me forever.”

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But there’s only so much time to be doled out, and now, as he walked down a grassy hill at the East Lake Golf Club, his final fall tournament in the rearview, reality was catching up with him. Hardy and senior teammate Dylan Meyer know if they want to capture that elusive national championship, the time has to be here and now.

With a young team, it’ll require a hard-working winter and even more improvement in the spring, but the chance is there.

“This team, this year, I think there’s so much potential,” Hardy said. “Michael (Feagles), I think he’s gonna be a stud. He’s really getting ahold of things, he’s maturing a lot, and he’s understanding what it takes to be one of the best in the country. Yesterday (when Feagles beat Oklahoma’s Brad Dalke) was a perfect example. He stepped up to the plate, coach put him in a good spot for him to shine, and he did.”

If Feagles and company work, they’ll put themselves in a good position.

And then, come spring, it’ll be Hardy’s final push in the orange and blue, something he said he’s not taking for granted.

“I mean, it’s bittersweet, for sure,” Hardy said. “When I got here, those first couple years, I thought I was going to be here forever. I told myself I’d be here for six years if they let me, I love it that much. But time passes so fast.”

Which is why Hardy and the Illini are going to try and make this season one worth remembering.