Len Ziehm On Golf

Mickelson ends the suspense, finally WDs from U.S. Open

ERIN, Wis. – Phil Mickelson ended the suspense before first round play began in the 117rh U.S. Open. He officially withdrew from the championship, ending speculation that he might make a dramatic last minute arrival at the first tee.

Mickelson had said he would skip the Open to attend his daughter Amanda’s high school graduation in California, but his caddie Jim Mackay was on hand to scout the course this week and Mickelson was pondering the possibilities of a weather delay that might allow for his participation.

A runner-up in the Open a record six times, Mickelson had played in 23 consecutive Opens and 26 overall. His spot in the field was taken by Roberto Diaz of Mexico who hit his first tee shot as Mickelson’s replacement at 2:20 p.m.

Diaz, 30, shot 65-70 in a sectional qualifier in Summit, N.J., and was first alternate from that site. He’s playing in his first U.S. Open.

BLIMP CRASH: A commercial blimp – one not affiliated with either the U.S. Golf Assn. or the tournament broadcast, crashed in an open field a half-mile from the course four hours after play began.

First responders were quick to arrive at the scene, and the pilot was treated for unknown injuries that weren’t thought to be serious. No other people were involved in the incident, which is under investigation from local law enforcement personnel.

At least two of the players saw the blimp go down.

“My caddie made a comment on the ninth hole,’’ said Brandt Snedeker. “He said the blimp is not looking good. I guess it was nose down. I saw a puff of black smoke but didn’t know it was a blimp. Glad everybody is OK.’’

“I saw it happen,’’ said Charley Hoffman. “My caddie said `that thing blew up.’ I didn’t see it explode. I saw it fluttering down through the sky.’’

FIRST AND LAST: Wisconsin native Jordan Niebrugge had the honor of hitting the first tee shot at 6:45 a.m. He shot 1-under-par 71 while playing with former Oklahoma State teammates Talor Gooch and Kevin Dougherty.

“We played solid, all three of us,’’ said Niebrugge. “We had a lot of the OSU family and a lot of friends following us. All of us had a lot of fun.’’

The only player with Chicago connections was the last to tee off. Andy Pope, who grew up in Glen Ellyn and developed his game at Medinah, went off at 2:45 p.m. Though he has only conditional playing privileges on the Web.com Tour Pope is playing in his third straight U.S. Open.

FAMILY TIME: Dru Love, 23-year old son of PGA Tour veteran Davis Love III, bettered par in his first round as a pro and his first in the U.S. Open. He shot 71 and became the third Love to play in the tournament. Davis’ father and Dru’s grandfather, Davis Love Jr., was a famous teaching professional who died in an airplane crash in 1988. He competed in six U.S. Opens.

“The course played easier than I expected,’’ said Dru Love, who used his father as his caddie. “The greens were a lot faster than I imagined they would be. I didn’t think the course was going to be this firm. I thought it would be softer with all the rain.’’

Dru, who played college golf at Alabama, is actually Davis Love IV. He goes by Dru as a shortened version of “quadruple.’’

STILL ROLLING: Stephan Jaeger had two wins in his last three tournaments on the Web.com Tour, the latter being last Sunday in the Rust-Oleum Championship at Ivanhoe Club.

In between his two Web.com wins the Germany-born Jaeger was medalist at his U.S. Open sectional qualifier, and Thursday his solid play continued at Erin Hills. He shot 71 to start his second appearance in the championship.

Could this be Rickie Fowler’s time to nab that first major title?

ERIN, Wis. – Rickie Fowler is sure that he’ll win one of golf’s major titles some day. So is most everyone else, and this week could be his time.

In 2014 he finished in the top five at all four of them – the Masters, U.S. and British Opens and PGA Championship – and was runner-up in both the Opens. Fowler’s on target for another such run in this year’s U.S. Open after posting a 7-under-par 65 in Thursday’s opening round at Erin Hills.

Fowler couldn’t have been much better on this beautiful day. He knew it might be his day when he made his first birdie on his second hole and got a big break on his third, when his tee shot hit one of the very few trees on the course and bounced back into the first cut of rough instead of the knee-high fescue.

After that it was easy, as Fowler matched the tournament’s low round in relation to par set in the 1980 tournament at Baltusrol when Jack Nicklaus and Tom Weiskopf were both 7-under. Baltusrol played to a par-70 that year, so their scores were 63. Erin Hills was set at its maximum length of 7,845 yards on Thursday – making it the longest to host any of golf’s four majors – so the par was higher for Fowler.

“It was nice. You don’t get many rounds at the U.S. Open that are stress=free,’’ he said. `A simple day, when you look back on it – how we pieced our way around the golf course. But that’s a lot easier said than done.’’

Just ask defending champion Dustin Johnson, who shot 75 and admitted he was a little frustrated.

“I didn’t play that bad. I just didn’t putt very good,’’ summed up Johnson.

Neither did Jordan Spieth, the last player to make the Open his second major title. The last six Open champions have been first-time winners of majors. Spieth posted a 73.

“I hit the ball phenomenal, just didn’t make anything. That’s all it was,’’ said Spieth.

But the putts wouldn’t fall. So, Fowler’s top challengers after Round 1 aren’t quite among the sport’s elite. England’s Paul Casey and Californian Zander Schauffele, both late starters, carded 66s to get within one stroke of Fowler.

Leading is nice, but Fowler doesn’t want to think too far ahead.

“It’s just the first round,’’ he said. “It’s always cool to be part of some sort of history in golf, but I’d rather be remembered for something that’s done on Sunday. There’s definitely a lot of golf to be played.’’

Fifty-four holes to be exact, but Fowler has the resume to handle them – even without a major title to his credit. He won the so-called “fifth major’’ at the 2015 Players Championship and captured the Honda Classic this year. He may well have inherited the title of “best player to have not won a major’’ after Sergio Garcia won the Masters in April.

“I take that as a compliment,’’ said Fowler. “There are a lot of really good players who haven’t won a major, so it would be nice to get rid of that at some point. I’m not saying that this is the week or isn’t the week. But, I like the way this golf course suits me and we’re off to a good start.’’

Fowler’s round was highlighted by a choked down 5-iron second shot from 195 yards on the par-4 fourth hole. The plan was to lay up off the tee of that hole, so he had a longer approach shot after driving with a 2-iron.

“We missed our number by two yards which, from that distance with a 5-iron and trying to cut it, was pretty spot on,’’ said Fowler. No. 4 turned out to be Fowler’s last birdie (he started at No. 10). He made birdies on all four par-5s before walking hand in hand with girlfriend Allison Stokke, a former star pole vaulter.

Fowler played early in the first round and will tee off at 1:36 p.m. off the No. 1 tee in today’s second round paired again with Japan’s Hideki Matsuyama and Jon Rahm. Both of Fowler’s partners struggled in Round 1. Casey and Schauffele will go off in the morning.

Could this U.S. Open produce seventh straight first time major champion?

ERIN, Wis. – It would seem that the more established players would have the most success in a tournament as difficult to win as the U.S. Open. That hasn’t been the case lately, however.

The last six U.S. Opens have had champions who won their first major title, and another could be in the offing when the Open tees off for the 117th time at Erin Hills on Thursday. Erin Hills would be appropriate for another first-time champion, since it’s a new venue for any major championship and the first Wisconsin course to host an Open.

At 7,693 yards Erin Hills will be the longest course used for any of golf’s four majors.

Jason Day started the run of six first-time major winners at the 2015 PGA Championship, which was also played in Wisconsin. His triumph came at Whistling Straits, in Kohler. Last year the four majors were won by Danny Willett (Masters), Dustin Johnson (U.S. Open), Henrik Stenson (British Open) and Jimmy Walker (PGA Championship). Sergio Garcia nabbed his first major at this year’s Masters.

“Just luck,’’ said Day during a break from practice at Erin Hills on Tuesday. “It’s been a stretch where guys just popped up and won. They’re all different in ages and are at different times in their careers.’’

“I’m not sure why that happened,’’ said Jordan Spieth, the last player to notch a second major, at the 2015 U.S. Open at Chambers Bay, in Washington. “They were all world-class champions, and it’s very difficult to win a first major.’

“It was their time. It goes like that,’’ said Rory McIlroy, the world’s No. 2-ranked player with four major titles. “Some guys need a little more experience in the majors to break through, to get that first one. I just hope I end that streak this week.’’

“It’s nice to see some of those first-time major winners that maybe deserved for a while to get their own,’’ said Garcia, “but I’m sure it’s going to finish at some point. My goal is to make it stop this week and hopefully get my second one.’’

On an even far more lengthy streak the U.S. Open hasn’t had an amateur champion since Johnny Goodman won at North Shore in Glenview in 1933. He was the fifth amateur to win the title, following Francis Ouimet, Jerome Travers, Chick Evans and Bobby Jones.

The Open had just 915 entries when Goodman won. This year’s tournament had almost 9,000 (actually 8,979) and 14 amateurs survived the local and sectional qualifying rounds to earn their spots among the 156 finalists.

Here and there

Dustin Johnson, the defending champion and world’s No.1-ranked player, is to be the last player to hold a formal pre-tournament interview today (WEDNESDAY). He became a father for the second time when his fiancé Paulina Gretzky gave birth on Monday. Johnson, who had two practice rounds at Erin Hills last week, was expected to travel back to Wisconsin on Tuesday.

While the men didn’t have a U.S. Open sectional in the Chicago area, the women did. Sixty-two players competed for two spots at Prestwick in Frankfort on Monday. South African Ashleigh Buhai was the medalist at even par 144 for the 36 holes. The other berth in next month’s U.S. Women’s Open at Trump National in New Jersey went to Elin Arvidsson, of Las Vegas.

Two-time Illinois Amateur champion Tee-K Kelly is off to a great start as a touring pro. He won the Puerto Plata Dominican Republic Open on the PGA Latinoamerica Tour on Sunday by seven strokes. The 22-year old Medinah member and Ohio State product opened with a 61 and finished at 21-under-par 263.

At least 25 players who have entered next month’s John Deere Classic in the Quad Cities are in the U.S. Open field here. Defending JDC champion Ryan Moore isn’t among them. He’s nursing an injury but is expected to defend his title at TPC Deere Run.

Wheaton’s PGA player, Kevin Streelman, didn’t compete in U.S. Open sectional qualifying after holing a 35-foot chip to conclude play in the Memorial tourney the day before. He will return to the tour next week in the Travelers Championship in Hartford, Ct. Streelman won that event in 2014 by making birdies on the last seven holes.

It’s on to the U.S. Open for Rust-Oleum champion Jaeger

Stephan Jaeger took care of business on Sunday, nursing a four-stroke lead at the start of the day to nab a two-stroke win in the $600,000 Rust-Oleum Championship. Now it’s on to the U.S. Open.

The Germany-born Jaeger survived a 36-hole U.S. Open sectional qualifier on Monday before claiming the $108,000 first prize in the Web.com Tour stop at Ivanhoe Club. That boosted Jaeger into the top spot on the Web.com Tour money list and assured him a place on the PGA Tour next season.

And still bigger things are looming, starting with next week’s U.S. Open at Wisconsin’s Erin Hills.

“I can’t wait to get started next week,’’ said Jaeger. “It will be a tough week with a lot of fast, firm greens – a lot like this week, honestly. This week was probably a good preparation for next week.’’

Most of the 156 qualifiers haven’t played 11-year old Erin Hills, but Jaeger has. He competed in the 2011 U.S. Amateur there but knows the course has undergone some major changes since then.

One thing that Jaeger knows he’ll have going is momentum. He won the BMW Charity Pro-Am on the Web.com Tour three weeks ago and showed some flashes in the following week’s event prior to earning his U.S. Open berth and winning at Ivanhoe.

“Momentum’s a factor, it really is, and I’m playing better than I ever have,’’ he said.

That’s saying something because last year Jaeger made major golf history when he became the first player to shoot 58 in a PGA sanctioned tournament. He did that at a Web.com Tour event in California, but Jim Furyk received much more notoriety when he matched the score in a subsequent PGA Tour stop.

Jaeger, 28, really had only one player to beat in Sunday’s breezy final round at Ivanhoe. Ted Potter Jr., a lefthanded golfer with a PGA Tour win on his resume, played one group in front of Jaeger and got within one shot after Jaeger made bogey at the par-5 ninth.

That was no big deal to either player. Potter didn’t realize he had closed the gap that much after starting four back and Jaeger answered quickly with a 10-foot birdie putt at the par-3 eleventh. He got his lead back to what it was at the start of the day, four strokes, when his chip at the par-5 14th hit the flagstick and left him with a tap-in for birdie.

Jaeger coasted in from there, a meaningless bogey on the final hole the only blemish on his tactical play over the last four holes.

Jaeger, Potter and nine other players who competed at Ivanhoe will head for Erin Hills on Monday to begin preparations for Thursday’s start of the year’s second major championship and the first ever in the state of Wisconsin.

“I’m sure it’ll be different at the Open, but it was nice to see wind and fast, firm greens here,’’ said Potter. “That should help me some next week.’’

Like Jaeger, Potter has played in a previous U.S. Open. He competed at Merion, in Philadelphia, is 2013. Jaeger was in the field at Chambers Bay, in Washington, in 2015.

After the Erin Hills Open is history both will resume play on the Web.com Tour, though their play at Ivanhoe likely assured both places on the PGA Tour next year. Potter won the Greenbrier Classic on the premier circuit in 2012 before declining play relegated him to Web.com events.

With two Web.com wins already this season, Jaeger wants to get one more before the years is out. Any three-time winner in the same year on the circuit get a “battlefield promotion,’’ meaning he automatically becomes a PGA Tour member and won’t have to wait until the following year to get into the bigger money tournaments.

Women’s Western Amateur reaches milestone at River Forest — and it’s all good

The Women’s Western Amateur has been put on by largely Chicago area volunteers for 116 years and this week’s tournament at River Forest Country Club, in Elmhurst, will mark the end of an era.

The tournament, which tees off today and concludes on Saturday, isn’t folding. It’s just that the Women’s Western Golf Association will turn over the management of the prestigious event, as well as the selection of future sites, to the Western Golf Assn. as soon as this week’s event is over.

“It’ll be a new beginning with an old partner,’’ said Susan Wagner, who has held many leadership positions – including president – with the WWGA for 40 years. “We’re so fortunate to have the WGA behind us.’’

Basically it’s a win-win for both organizations. The WGA has put on men’s events since 1899 that include the PGA Tour’s BMW Championship, the Western Amateur and Western Junior. Both organizations raise funds for college scholarships. The WWGA Foundation has distributed $3.6 million towards scholarships for 690 women since 1971

The WWGA and WGA started working together with the first Women’s Western Amateur in 1901. The women took complete control of the event two years later and also conducted the Women’s Western Junior tournament starting in 1920. It’ll be played for the 91st time next month in Dubuque, Ia.

In addition to those two events, the WWGA conducted a Senior Championship from 1979 to 2007 and the Women’s Western Open, which was considered a major event for players in the Ladies Professional Golf Assn. from 1930 to 1967. The revival of that event has been under discussion since the WWGA and WGA resumed working together in recent years.

Chicago courses hosted most of the WWGA championships prior to 2000. The Women’s Western Amateur, though, hasn’t been played in the area since Exmoor, in Highland Park, hosted as part of the club’s 100th anniversary celebration in 2001. The Junior was last played in the area in 2011, at Flossmoor Country Club.

River Forest members are excited about the tourney returning to the Chicago area. The club opened in 1926 and hosted an Arnold Palmer-Gary Player televised exhibition in 1961 but 24-year head professional Chris Gumbach said this week’s tournament “will go down as our biggest event.’’

The club began talks to host the tournament five years ago and just completed a $1.5 million bunker renovation this spring.

Since its staging at Exmoor the WWGA has taken the Women’s Western Amateur to courses in 11 other states. The 140-player field at River Forest will have elite players from 24 states and 10 countries. Thirty-eight are from Illinois. They include Barrington resident and University of Minnesota golfer Heather Ciskowski, who won the Western Junior in 2013, and Kate Lillie, another Minnesota player from St. Charles who was the Junior winner last year.

Six Northwestern golfers – among them Janet Mao, Hannah Kim and Stephanie Lau off the Wildcats’ team that finished as the runner-up in last month’s NCAA Championships at Rich Harvest Farms — will also be in the field.

The schedule calls for 18-hole qualifying rounds on Monday and Tuesday before the field is cut to the low 64 players. They’ll go into four days of match play competition climaxed by a 36-hole championship match on Saturday.

Jaeger, Rocha prove the best wind players at Ivanhoe

With winds blowing steadily at 25 miles per hour and gusting to 35 at times Saturday didn’t figure to be a good day for scoring at the Rust-Oleum Championship. A couple players apparently didn’t get that memo, however.

Alexandre Rocha, who started the day in a tie for 52nd place, shot an 8-under-par 64 and climbed all the way up to a tie for second in the $600,000 Web.com Tour event at Ivanhoe Club.

Stephan Jaeger teed off just as Rocha was holing his final birdie putt on the 18th green, and he found a way to score, too. Posting a 68, Jaeger wound up the only player ahead of Rocha entering today’s final round.

Rocha, a 39-year old from Brazil who played collegiately at Mississippi State, had been struggling with his game. His frustrations spilled out in an interestingly worded Tweet on Friday night.

“I really need to get the good and evil voices inside my head to work in a bipartisan way so we can all achieve some success,’’ he tweeted.

After completing his hot round on Saturday he said the Tweet was just a joke, but admitted “I’ve been playing well but my mind gets in the way.’’

Not much got in the way on Saturday as Rocha hit the flagstick twice, the ball dropping for eagle on one at No. 14. He also made six birdies in getting within one stroke of the course record.

“Doing 8-under is fantastic. That’s really golfing your ball,’’ said the 28-year old Jaeger, who was born in Germany and played collegiately at Tennessee-Chattanooga.

As impressive as Rocha’s round was, Jaeger still takes a four-stroke lead into Sunday’s final 18. Rocha is tied with Andrew Landry, Jaeger’s playing partner on Saturday, and Ted Potter Jr.

Wind or no wind, Jaeger will be tough to beat. He’s the first player to shoot 58 in a PGA-sanctioned event, having gone 12-under en route to winning the Ellie May Classic at TPC Stonebrae in Hayward, Calif., last year. He had just conditional status on the Web.com Tour then. That 58 was later matched by Jim Furyk in a PGA Tour event.

Now Jaeger’s magic might be coming back. He won the BMW Charity Pro-am three weeks ago in Greenville, S.C., then opened the next tournament — the Rex Hospital Open in Raleigh, N.C. –, with a 65. He faded to a tie for 60th place in the next three rounds but bounced back in Monday’s 36-hole U.S. Open qualifier to earn a spot in next week’s major event at Wisconsin’s Erin Hills.

The good play has carried over to Ivanhoe, where Jaeger was a solid 68-67-68 in the first three rounds. His mother flew directly to Chicago from Germany after learning Jaeger had qualified for the U.S. Open. She was also on hand when he shot the record 58 and has seen all three rounds at Ivanhoe.

Saturday’s was highlighted by an eagle on the par-5 ninth, Jaeger hitting a 6-iron second shot to seven feet. His short game kept him in the lead after that, as he played the back nine in even par despite hitting only two greens in regulation. He was the only player in the last nine groups to better par in Saturday’s windy conditions.

“Weather like that made for a very, very tough round of golf,’’ he said. “It get funky out there. It’s such a grind, so tiring. I don’t think anybody’s comfortable playing in the wind. We’ve just got to learn how to play in it.’’

Thirteen-under-par was good enough to win the first Rust-Oleum Championship at Ivanhoe last year, and champion Max Homa came from seven strokes back in the final 18 holes to win. Homa’s on the PGA Tour now. He won $108,000 for his victory, and the same first prize is on the line today.

CDGA’s amateurs beat IPGA pros, regain Radix Cup

The Illinois PGA pros used to dominate their amateur counterparts in the annual Radix Cup matches at Oak Park County Club, but no more.

Though the IPGA owns a 35-19-2 overall edge the amateurs won for the 10th time in the last 18 meetings on Wednesday. The CDGA’s best took a 10-8 victory. Neither team, though, has won two in a row since 2000.

Wednesday’s competition was decided in the fourth and fifth of the day’s six matches, both swept by the amateurs against two of the professionals’ strongest teams. Kyle Nathan, of Glen View Club, and Chadd Slutzky, of The Grove in Long Grove, swept Skokie’s Garrett Chaussard, who played in a U.S. Open sectional qualifier on Monday, and University of Illinois coach Mike Small, who has won the IPGA Championship a record 12 times and the Illinois Open four times.

“It was a fun day even though we didn’t play great,’’ said Chaussard, who played for Small as a student-athlete at Illinois. “They just played better and beat us.’’

The clinching points came from amateurs Charlie Netzel, of Chicago Golf Club, and Kyle Slattery, of Mauh-Nah-Tee-See in Rockford. They dominated Medinah’s Traveis Johns, a perennial contender in the IPGA events, and Hinsdale’s Matt Slowinski, a three-time IPGA Assistants player of the year before he took his present position. Johns is the reigning Illinois PGA player-of-the-year.

Stricker, Pope head U.S. Open qualifiers on golf’s `longest day’

If any player should have received a special invitation to the first U.S. Open ever played in Wisconsin it would be Steve Stricker. He won 12 PGA Tour events including the 1997 Western Open and three straight John Deere Classics from 2009-11. He’s also the current U.S. Presidents Cup captain.

U.S. Golf Association leaders, however, didn’t think Stricker, at 50, merited that honor for next week’s 117th U.S. Open at Erin Hills in suburban Milwaukee. The snub drew criticism in golf circles, but in the end it didn’t matter. Stricker saw to that on Monday when he was medalist at a sectional qualifier at Germantown Country Club in Tennessee.

Stricker shot 67-65, and his 132 total for 36 holes was 10 under par. Though he never complained about not receiving an Open invite, he’s happy he’ll be played in the tournament for the 20th time next week.

“If means a lot,’’ he said. “Not getting an exemption was a motivational factor. Not that I deserved one, but it’s been driving me to achieve this goal. And, I’m just happy that I’m going to get to play. It’s a relief to get to play in the first one in my home state.’’

He doesn’t have much inside knowledge of Erin Hills, which opened just 11 years ago. The biggest event played there so far has been the 2011 U.S. Amateur.

“I’ve played it maybe a half-dozen times,’’ said Stricker. “I’ll be like everybody else next week – playing a few practice rounds and trying to find an extra 20 yards on my driver. It’s a big golf course.’’

Stricker beat a field that included a number of PGA Tour players preparing for this week’s St. Jude Classic in Memphis.

Monday is traditionally called “the longest day in golf’’ for good reason. All the U.S. sectionals for the Open – 10 this year — are played at 36 holes on the same day, and 902 players competed for 72 spots in the 156-man field that tees off at Erin Hills on June 15.

The Erin Hills Open started with 8,979 players and that number was whittled to 525 after 114 local qualifiers were played across the U.S. and Canada in May. As always Chicago area players were prevalent in the sectional eliminations but only one, Andy Pope, earned a place at Erin Hills on Monday.

Pope, a 33-year old who grew up in Glen Ellyn and played collegiately at Xavier, tied for second in a sectional at Canoe Brook in Summit, N.J. He’ll be heading to Erin Hills with loads of momentum. Last week he tied for 17th in the Web.com Tour’s Rex Hospital Open in North Carolina.

The top 25 in a Web.com Tour event earn places in the following week’s event, so Pope earned a played in the $600,000 Rust-Oleum Championship, which tees off on Thursday at Ivanhoe Club.

While Pope made it to the Open on Monday, several others with Chicago connections could only come close. Arlington Heights amateur Doug Ghim, who played for Texas in last week’s NCAA Championships at Rich Harvest Farms in Sugar Grove, missed qualifying for Erin Hills by just one shot in a sectional at Springfield, Ohio. He tied for fifth in a sectional that offered only four spots in the Open proper and Ghim’s 69-65 effort, 6-under-par, wasn’t quite good enough.

The field at Springfield was loaded with Chicago players and among those coming up short was Illinois junior Nick Hardy, who used the Springfield sectional to advance to the 2015 and 2016 U.S. Opens. This time he came up five shots short, as did Illinois teammate Dylan Meyer and Deerfield Web.com Tour player Vince India.

Others who couldn’t earn spots in the biggest tournament in American golf on Monday included three players with Illinois roots who have won multiple times on the PGA Tour — Luke Donald, D.A. Points and Mark Wilson.

A third straight Final Four finish for Illini golfers

Illinois coach Mike Small looks on as junior star Dylan Meyer puts on the No. 18 green.

Illinois reached the Final Four of the NCAA men’s golf tournament Wednesday. Unfortunately, for the third straight year, that’s where the season ended for coach Mike Smalll’s perennial powerhouse.

The Illini qualified for the match play climax to the tourney for the sixth time in the past seven years and got through the quarterfinals for the third straight time on Tuesday morning. That was even easy. The first three players Small sent out – Eduardo Lipparelli, Giovanni Tadiotto and Nick Hardy – all won their matches and that eliminated Southern California.

In the afternoon, against Oklahoma in the semifinals, it wasn’t so easy. The Illini lost their first three matches and – even though veterans Dylan Meyer and Hardy were still on the course and in position to win their matches — another impressive season was over. It’ll be the Sooners taking on defending champion Oregon for the national title starting at 2:10 p.m. on Wednesday.

Oregon knocked out Vanderbilt, which earned the No. 1 match play seed in the 72-hole stroke play qualifying portion of the tournament, in the other semifinal. Oklahoma, the No. 2 seed, dispatched the No. 3 Illini to reach the final for the first time.

“Our problems started at the first hole. We didn’t do very well, whether it was fatigue, emotion, nerves,’’ said Small. “We didn’t control the ball in the wind. We were always playing catchup. We didn’t play like we had been playing.’’

A Final Four finish in the national championship reflects a great season, and this one may be considered a surprise. Illinois played without a senior on the roster and had two freshmen in the tournament lineup.

“This was a team that over-achieved,’’ said Small. “Yes, we could have won easily, but this has still been a great year. The results may have been the same (as the last three years) but the fun is in the journey. People thought we’d be rebuilding this year, but we’ve sustained this level of play for eight-nine years.’’

Nick Hardy belts his opening tee shot in Illinois’ NCAA semifinal loss to eventual champion Oklahoma.

“We knew what we came here for,’’ said Hardy. “Unfortunately it was the same (result). We can’t seem to get by this (semifinal match), but it’s still been a great season.’’

Though Small had a very young team, the Illini had one thing that was missing in their previous runs to the NCAA finals. For the first time they were the home team. The gallery was filled with Illini fans, but they couldn’t get their team over the hump.

“It’s tough not to win, but I’ll take away from it how awesome the fans were,’’ said Small. “There have never been consistent crowds like this at the national championship.’’

“The fans were amazing, and that meant everything,’’ said Meyer.

Wednesday’s championship match concludes a two-week run of the best in college golf at Rich Harvest, a private facility with a brutal 18 holes designed by owner Jerry Rich. This was only the third year that the men’s and women’s finals have been played back-to-back on the same course.

The NCAA men’s event was played on a Chicago course for the fifth time, but the first since Conway Farms, in Lake Forest, hosted in 1997. The women, playing their 33-year old national championship in Chicago for the first time, started on May 19 and endured brutal weather for six days before Arizona State beat Northwestern in the title match.

As was the case with the NU women, Illinois was the only local team in the men’s competition. The Illini finished third in stroke play with Meyer, shaking off a bout with ulcerative colitis (inflammation of the large intestine) tying for sixth as an individual. He’ll bid for a berth in the U.S. Open at Monday’s sectional qualifier in Springfield, Ohio, and will also defend his Western Amateur title at Skokie Country Club later this summer.

Meyer falters, but Illini advance to match play at Rich Harvest

Illinois didn’t play its best golf on Monday in the final round of stroke play at the NCAA Championships. Coach Mike Small even had to talk tough to his players late in the round at Rich Harvest Farms in Sugar Grove.

“But that was exactly what we needed. We needed someone in our face,’’ said junior star Dylan Meyer, who lost out on his chance for the individual title after shooting a 77.

The bottom line is the Illini are still playing for the national championship. They go into Tuesday’s match play quarterfinals as the No. 3 seed and will play No. 6 Southern California. A win would put them against either No. 2 Oklahoma or No. 7 Baylor in the afternoon semifinals. Morning matches tee off at 7 a.m. and the afternoon matches at 1:30 p.m.

The other bracket has morning matches pitting top-seeded Vanderbilt against No. 8 Nevada Las Vegas and No. 4 Oklahoma State against No. 5 Oregon. The title match is at 2:20 p.m. on Wednesday.

Small, who has taken his last 10 teams to the NCAA tournament and guided six of the last seven into the match play climax to the event, said the 17th hole was the key to survival on Monday when 15 teams battled for the eight match play spots.

“We were leaking oil bad. Most of our players had cotton mouth. It was a stressful time,’’ said Small. “We weren’t controlling our space. I told them they had to look at this as a blessing.’’

The players responded, playing the 17th in 1-under-par. Meyer, playing in the fifth spot after going off third in the first three rounds, put some life back into his teammates with a 5-iron approach to the green and a 12-foot birdie putt.

Sophomore Edoardo Lipparelli followed with an eagle at the par-5 18th. His second shot, a 6-iron from 181 yards that he had to bend around a tree, stopped 25 feet from the cup and Lipparelli rolled in the putt to stir up the Illini faithful surrounding the green.

“It was a great experience in front of the crowd. To finish like that is pretty amazing,’’ said Lipparelli, who plans to turn pro as soon as the tournament is over.

That could be on Wednesday if the Illini win both their matches todayand reach the championship match. Last year the Illini lost to eventual champion Oregon in the semifinals when the Ducks enjoyed playing on their home turf. Now the Illini have that advantage, albeit with a young team.

Small is without a senior on this squad, but juniors Meyer (the reigning Western Amateur and Big Ten champion) and Nick Hardy (the Illinois Amateur titleist) are battle-hardened. Two freshmen – Michael Feagles and Giovanni Tadiotto – join Lipparelli in rounding out the team.

Small has had stronger teams, but he’s not afraid of the youth that this one possesses. He also had two freshmen on his 2013 team that went to the NCAA title match before losing to Alabama.

“This team is similar to that one,’’ said Small. “We were ranked 40th in the country in March that year. We weren’t very good.’’

But the Illini rallied late to have their best NCAA finish so far. This team is relatively inexperienced as well, but playing close to campus is a plus. Rich Harvest galleries have been dominated by fans dressed in orange all week.

“We try to let the players know that this is a fun thing,’’ said Small. “The fans aren’t out there to judge you, they’re out there to support you.’’

Meyer, who shook off a bout with ulcerative colitis – an inflammation of the large intestine — that hospitalized him for three days immediately before the NCAA regionals, believes he’s healthy and his teammates are ready to finish the job. He wound up tied for sixth as an individual, six strokes behind champion Braden Thornberry of Mississippi, but winning the team title was the top goal all along.

“I feel all right, and now we’re going to get that match play championship,’’ he said. “That’s what we came here to do – play solid golf and win at all cost.’’