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Len Ziehm On Golf

Chicago schedule nightmare ends with Singh’s victory at Exmoor

HIGHLAND PARK, IL. – PGA Tour Champions is a funny circuit, especially when it comes to scheduling its major championships. While the other pro tours spread their majors throughout the schedule, the 50-and over men bunch theirs up.

That’s not all bad, just weird compared to the other pro tours. There are five majors for PGA Tour Champions players, and the fourth of this year was a dandy, Vijay Singh beating Jeff Maggert on the second hole of a playoff after both covered the regulation 72 holes in 20-under-par at Exmoor Country Club in the Constellation Senior Players Championship.

The five Champions majors fall in a stretch of seven tournaments. The first teed off on May 17 and the last putt drops on the final one, the British Senior Open at St. Andrews, on July 29. There were two bye weeks in that stretch of big events.

Scott McCarron, a perennial contender in them all, calls it “our Majors Season.’’ He professes to like the schedule the way it is, but not all the players feel that way.

“We’d like to see them spaced out more, and we’ve been trying to do it,’’ said Fred Funk. But so far that hasn’t been possible.

The tournament scheduling in Illinois hasn’t been all that great this year, either.

When one of the LPGA majors, the KPMG Women’s PGA Championship, came to Chicago two weeks ago. It was scheduled opposite the 118th playing of the prestigious Women’s Western Amateur, but that was a minor conflict compared to last week’s when the Senior Players – which has the strongest field among the PGA Tour Champions majors — went head-to-head with Illinois’ only annual PGA Tour event, the John Deere Classic, as well as the inaugural U.S. Senior Women’s Open.

Those three tournaments had the same July 12-15 dates. If each had been held on weeks away from the other that event would have been a highlight of the Chicago golf season. Put on the same dates, all suffered to some extent.

The Senior Players and Women’s Senior Open both struggled to find volunteers. The John Deere Classic had major weather problems but it did land Steve Stricker, the only player in the Champions Tour’s top 70 money winners that didn’t go to the Senior Players. (The Exmoor field was also without two of the circuit’s most popular players — Davis Love III, who played with his son Dru at the John Deere, and Fred Couples).

At least the Senior Players produced by far the most final-round excitement. Laura Davies won the U.S. Senior Women’s Open by 10 shots and Michael Kim took the John Deere Classic by eight. At Exmoor it was a two-man duel between playing partners Singh and Maggert in the final round.

Attendance-wise the Senior Players struggled on Thursday and Friday, when the Senior Women’s Open was making its dramatic debut at Chicago Golf Club an hour’s drive to the west away. The John Deere was another two hours from Chicago Golf Club. The real action in the end, though, came at Exmoor – a private club that dates back to 1896.

One message from this event was that PGA Tour Champions has shed its image as a showcase for Bernhard Langer. He isn’t as dominant as he used to be. Langer had won the Senior Players three straight years before finishing second in 2017. At Exmoor he was eight strokes back in a tie for 17th.

Singh became the seventh different champion in the last seven Champions majors. Langer has won only one of those seven – the 2017 U.S. Senior Open. The other winners in that stretch were Miguel Angel Jimenez, Scott McCarron, Kenny Perry, Paul Broadhurst and David Toms.

In his younger days Singh won both the Masters and PGA Championship among his 34 titles on the PGA Tour and he also won 22 times internationally. The Senior Players marked his third win and first major on PGA Tour Champions.

“It was a little different (than his earlier majors),’’ said Singh, “but any time you win it’s an accomplishment. The Champions Tour is a little more relaxed, but a win is a win.’’

U.S. Senior Women’s Open at Chicago Golf Club is a real feel-good story

WHEATON, IL. –The inaugural U.S. Senior Women’s Open, which teed off on Thursday in the Chicago suburb of Wheaton, has been a celebration of women’s golf. It resembled a high school reunion, too, with the best pros and amateurs of the past re-connecting during three days of practice rounds and pre-tournament activities.

More than anything, though, this tournament for women who have reached their 50th birthday was overdue. In fact, it was long, long overdue.

JoAnne Carner – the only woman owning titles in the U.S. Girls Junior, the U.S. Women’s Amateur and the U.S. Women’s Open — said she had been waiting for the Senior event for 29 years; she’s now 79.

“I was just hoping I’d still be alive to play in it,’’ Carner said.

Jane Blalock first presented the concept of a senior tournament for women to the U.S. Golf Association after a captivating 1998 U.S. Women’s Open ended in a playoff victory by Korean Si Re Pak at Wisconsin’s Blackwolf Run. That tournament triggered a big change in the women’s game, giving it a more global appeal, but it didn’t change the USGA’s view on senior women playing with money on the line.

Blalock formed her own Legends Tour, which provided some competition for players after they turned 45 but had little support even from the LPGA. Last year – in an effort to beat the USGA to the punch – the LPGA conducted its first Senior LPGA Championship at Indiana’s French Lick Resort.

That only accentuated a glaring absence in the USGA tournament schedule. The organization already had a U.S. Junior, a U.S. Amateur, a U.S. Mid-Amateur, a U.S. Senior Amateur and a U.S. Senior Open for men and similar national championship for women with that one exception.

Despite years of pressure from fading stars on the Ladies PGA Tour (and some of the top amateurs as well), the USGA was reluctant to find a place for a U.S. Senior Women’s Open and — once a commitment was made — it took three years in the planning stages to launch the tournament.

Finally, on Thursday at historic Chicago Golf Club, Carner smacked the first tee shot and the event became a reality. USGA executive director Mike Davis made some opening remarks at 6:45 a.m., then came a stirring rendition of the National Anthem by Grammy winner Heather Headley and player introductions by the legendary Nancy Lopez, who can’t play because of her knee problems and the walking-only requirement for the tournament.

After Carner’s 7 a.m. tee shot, made in front of a gallery standing four deep, there were even a few tears mixed in with the enthusiastic applause. Chunks of the gallery from the opening ceremonies followed each threesome, walking with the players down the fairway. It was a real feel-good thing all day long and will likely remain so until the first champion is crowned on Sunday.

The tourney’s reception in the Chicago area was a warm up, though it didn’t hurt one bit that it was held on America’s first 18-hole course. Chicago Golf Club is hosting its 12th USGA championship but the bulk of them were in the first two decades after the course opened in 1893. Prior to this week the last time the club opened its gates to the public was in 2005, for the Walker Cup matches.

Clearly there is a mystique about Chicago Golf Club, and Juli Inkster called it “a perfect place to hold this first one.’’

Lopez wasn’t the only former LPGA great missing from the field.

“We’re missing a few of the legends – the Beth Daniels, the Meg Mallons, the Kathy Whitworths and the Patty Sheehans,’’ said Inkster, “but we’ve got a lot of good ones.’’

The tournament drew 462 entries, and the starting field of 120 included 29 amateurs and 62 survivors of the nation-wide qualifying rounds. The finalists included players from 12 countries, with 95 from the U.S. They took on a course set up at 6,082 yards with a par of 73. Green speeds were around 12 on the Stimpmeter.

And there was decent crowd support despite some miserable planning by t being played on exactly the same dates as two other Illinois events — the Constellation Senior Players Championship, one of the five majors on PGA Tour Champions, and the PGA Tour’s John Deere Classic.

The Senior Players event is at Exmoor Country Club, about an hour’s drive northeast of Chicago Golf Club, and the John Deere Classic is a two-hour drive to the west. Next year’s U.S. Senior Women’s Open will have the stage to itself, at Pine Needles in North Carolina.

Conway Farms pro carries Chicago hopes in U.S. Senior Women’s Open

The only Chicago area qualifier for the inaugural U.S. Senior Women’s Open at Chicago Golf Club is also the youngest in the 120-player field. Gurnee’s Jamie Fischer, who got in through the sectional qualifying round at Conway Farms, in Lake Forest, turned 50 on May 13.

Fischer grew up in Ohio and qualified for three U.S. Women’s Opens — the first when she was just 18 – and four LPGA Championships. Her mother, Andy Cohn-Fischer, played on the LPGA Tour in the 1960s after her graduation from Northwestern.

“When my mother went to Northwestern they had a girls’ team, but it wasn’t run the way the college teams are today,’’ said Fischer. “The Gleacher Center (the indoor practice facility for NU golf teams now) was a swimming pool back then. My mother had a different experience than the kids have today.’’

Jamie went to Texas on a golf scholarship and was an assistant women’s coach at Northwestern under then-head coach Chris Regenberg for several years before beginning her 11-year stint as director of instruction at Conway Farms.

While she has rarely competed in recent years, Fischer decided to try it after learning the Senior Women’s Open was coming, and it didn’t hurt that a sectional qualifier was at Conway Farms either. She shot 77 to finish third to claim one of the 62 finalists’ berths awarded to sectional qualifiers. Both her parents will be attending the finals.

In addition to the tournament practice days Fischer played Chicago Golf Club twice with members in recent weeks. Her mother played against Senior Women’s Open entrants JoAnne Carner, Hollis Stacey and Pat Bradley during her time on tour and Jamie has two college teammates in the field who also survived sectional qualifiers in Sue Ginter and Lisa DePaolo.

Oldest player in the field is Murle Breer, who is 79. Carner, the only woman to win the U.S. Girls Junior, U.S. Amateur and U.S. Open titles, is also 79. Carner will hit the first tee shot off the No. 1 tee at 7 a.m. on Thursday. The field includes players from 12 countries. Ten are 65 or older, and 29 are amateurs.

Bullington, India in JDC

Frankfort’s Brian Bullington and Deerfield’s Vince India survived Monday’s final qualifying round to earn spots in the PGA Tour’s John Deere Classic. Illinois’ only annual PGA Tour event begins its four-day run at TPC Deere Run in Silvis on Thursday.

JDC qualifying has become a popular affair. An abundance of entrance necessitated two pre-qualifiers being held last week before Monday’s final elimination at Pinnacle Golf Club in Milan. Bullington was low man with an 8-under-par 63 and India tied for second after posting a 65. Both played collegiately at Iowa and have been struggling to get into tournaments on the Web.com Tour this season.

The PGA Tour also announced its 2018-19 schedule on Tuesday and it produced no change for the JDC. It will be held July 8-14 and remain the week before the British Open. As expected, the BMW Championship, which returns to the Chicago area in 2019 — but at Medinah instead of Conway Farms — shifts from September dates to Aug. 12-18 as the second event of the FedEx Cup Playoffs.

Here and there

The U.S. Golf Association will collaborate with the Chicago District Golf Association and Illinois Junior Golf Association on a Play9 Community Day on Saturday at Cantigny’s Youth Links in Wheaton. There’ll be a nine-hole round in the morning and a clinic for the participants at Chicago Golf Club from noon-2 p.m. while the Senior Women’s Open is in progress.

Tournament play won’t stop after the Senior Women’s Open and Constellation Senior Players Championship at Exmoor, in Highland Park, end on Sunday. The 24th Illinois Women’s Open begins its three-day run at Mistwood, in Romeoville, on Monday and the three-day 88th Illinois State Amateur starts the following day at Bloomington Country Club.

The Illinois PGA Senior Masters tournament will be held on Monday at Onwentsia, in Lake Forest. This year’s honorees are Don Habjan, from Makray Memorial in Barrington, and Ron Skubisz, from Pottawatomie in St. Charles.

Small will compete in Senior Players while 2 ex-Illini stars are in JDC

It isn’t that Mike Small hasn’t gotten into big golf tournaments before. The super successful men’s coach at the University of Illinois has remained a competitive player in large part by taking advantage of sponsor’s exemptions.

Small didn’t get an invitation to this week’s Constellation Senior Players Championship, which tees off at Exmoor Country Club in Highland Park on Thursday, however. It’s the third of the season’s five major events on PGA Tour Champions, and the only way Small could get into the field was by making it into the top 70 on the circuit’s Charles Schwab Cup money list.

“This is real special because you have to qualify to get in,’’ said Small. “I’m excited to have the opportunity to play. Majors are always something you get up for….majors are different.’’

So, at the same time that Dylan Meyer and Nick Hardy – the stars of Small’s Illini teams of the last four seasons – are playing in the PGA Tour’s John Deere Classic in downstate Silvis, Ill., on sponsor exemptions the coach will be part of the strongest field of the season on the 50-and-over tour.

Small made it off his performances in three tournaments in which he received sponsor invites. He used those three starts to earn $103,895. That moved him to No. 68 on the Schwab Cup money list.

“I knew I had to have a top 10 finish in Wisconsin (the American Family Insurance Classic in Madison) to make the field,’’ said Small.

He barely made it thanks to a tie for 10th in a tournament organized by Steve Stricker that ended on June 24. Small and Stricker were teammates on Illini teams in the 1980s.

Two weeks before his strong finish in Wisconsin Small tied for ninth in the Principal Charity Classic in Iowa and he also had a tie for 24th in the Cologuard Classic in Arizona in March. Small learned that his spot in the Senior Players field was official while he was on the Exmoor course over the weekend.

“It’s always fun to play in front of Chicago fans,’’ said Small. “I played in the Western Open many times when it was at Cog Hill, and being at Exmoor is going to be a semi-home game for me. We have a lot of Illinois alumni and friends who are members at Exmoor. I’m excited to go up there to compete.’’

Vince Pellegrino, vice president of tournaments for the Western Golf Association – the manager of this Senior Players event, is excited, too.

“Mike’s well-known and respected throughout the Midwest, and we expect his presence to add an extra energy level and excitement to the championship,’’ said Pellegrino.

Interestingly, Stricker – one of the top players on PGA Tour Champions – will skip this major to compete in the John Deere Classic instead. He’s a three-time winner of that event. Davis Love III, who is also eligible to compete on the 50-and-over circuit, will also play in the JDC, in part because that tournament gave a sponsor’s exemption to his son Dru.

The Western Golf Association had planned to hold its Western Amateur championship at Exmoor this year, but the club campaigned for the senior major over two years ago and was successful. So, the Western Amateur will tee off later this month at Sunset Ridge, in Northfield, and Exmoor will serve as that tournament’s host at a later date.

Exmoor is one of Chicago’s most historic golf venues. The club was founded in 1896 and is the third oldest in Illinois behind Wheaton’s Chicago Golf Club (1893) and Lake Forest’s Onwentsia (1895). Chicago Golf Club will host the inaugural U.S. Women’s Senior Open at the same time the Constellation Senior Players Championship is in progress.

Charles Blair Macdonald, founder of Chicago Golf Club, also designed Exmoor’s original nine-hole course. Donald Ross turned it into an 18-hole course in 1915 and architect Ron Prichard completed a renovation of the course in 2003.

Forty-one of the 78 players in this week’s field were expected to check in on Monday and the rest can practice on the course on Tuesday. Gates open to the public for Wednesday’s pro-am before four days of tournament play begin on Thursday.

John Deere Classic is a throw-back to the PGA Tour from decades ago

Golf-wise, this little community on the outskirts of the Mississippi River towns of Moline and Rock Island in Illinois and Davenport and Bettendorf in Iowa is a phenomenon. A PGA Tour event has been played here every year since 2000, and the entire area known as the Quad Cities has commanded a tournament for 47 consecutive years.

The PGA Tour doesn’t seek out markets the size of the Quad Cities. It’s just too small, but the circuit is lucky to have it on its annual schedule. No community has been more supportive of the pro golf tour than the Quad Cities. As proof , note that the John Deere Classic – which tees off next week at TPC Deere Run – was the circuit’s Tournament of the Year in 2016, is a six-time winner of the Most Engaged Community award and has won the Best Social Media Activation award the last three years.

Yes, the John Deere Classic does a lot of things right. That’s what two-time winner Jordan Spieth has said. Three-time champion Steve Stricker considers the JDC a throwback to the days early in his career when community involvement was a bigger thing than it is now. That’s in part why Stricker is skipping a major on PGA Tour Champions – the Constellation Senior Players Championship, being played just two hours away in the Chicago area – to compete at TPC Deere Run.

In its early years the tournament was known as the Quad Cities Open, and eventual PGA Tour commissioner Deane Beman won the first two tournaments in 1971 and 1972 at Crow Valley, which is on the Iowa side of the Mississippi.

Crow Valley remained the site for two more years and Quad Cities was in the title until 1986, when fast-food chain Hardee’s started a nine-year run as tournament sponsor. Then it was back to the Quad City Classic for four years until Moline-based John Deere & Company, the agriculture equipment manufacturer, took over.

The tournament is expected to top $100 million in its charity giving this year, and more than 99 percent of it has come since John Deere became the sponsor. The company put its name on the tournament in 1999 — the last of the 24 years the tournament had been played at Oakwood Country Club in Coal Valley, Ill.

Oakwood was a short par-70 layout. It never played longer than 6,762 yards, the purse was but $2 million for the last playing there and the best feature was those delicious pork chop sandwiches that are still a tournament tradition.

In 2000 – the event’s 30th anniversary –the tournament was moved to 7,183-yard par-71 TPC Deere Run, a course designed by Illinois native and three-time tournament winner D.A. Weibring.

The tournament has endured some tough times, but the arrival of John Deere eventually solved most of them. The event was upgraded in a variety of ways – signage, seating, fan experiences and hospitality options — while somehow maintaining its “down home’’ feeling.

Date problems – the tournament has been played a week before the British Open — made it difficult to land some of the top players, but Clair Peterson – the tournament director since 2003 – appealed to their sense of loyalty. He made a point of using his sponsor exemptions on up-and-coming young players in hopes that they would enjoy the tournament enough to want to return when they became top stars.

In addition to Spieth among those getting those invites included Tiger Woods, Bill Haas, Jason Day, Webb Simpson, Patrick Reed, Justin Thomas and Jon Rahm. Some didn’t been back, but many did.

In 2004 the R&A gave the JDC the last British Open exemption. That helped the tourney’s credibility and Peterson took it a step further with what now seems a stroke of genius. In 2008 he began providing a charter jet to the British Open site. It’d fly directly from the Quad Cities Airport, and players and their caddies could depart a few hours after the last putt dropped at TPC Deere Run. Reduced travel expenses to the British proved a much better enticement for players to come to the JDC than any increase in prize money could.

This year the JDC may have its best field ever. Bryson DeChambeau is the defending champion. Long-time favorites Stricker and Zach Johnson (an Iowa native who is on the JDC board of directors and a tournament ambassador) are fixtures. Brandt Snedeker is returning for the first time since 2009, when he was the tourney runner-up. There’s also a nice foreign touch with Italy’s Francesco Molinari, who won the Quicken Loans National last week, and Joaquin Niemann, the 19-year old Chilean sensation.

Those sponsor exemptions will also bear watching again. All were collegiate stars with Illinois ties. Dylan Meyer and Nick Hardy played at the University of Illinois. Ben Hogan Award winner Doug Ghim grew up in the Chicago suburbs and Norman Xiong won a Western Amateur in the Chicago area.

Thirty-seven years later, and Pat Bradley tries to win another U.S. Open in Chicago

Golf was a different game when Pat Bradley won the ultimate title available to her, the U.S. Women’s Open. She did it at LaGrange Country Club in 1981, coming from three strokes behind in the last round to post a 66 and beat out Beth Daniel and Kathy Whitworth. It was the crowning achievement in Bradley’s Hall of Fame career.

“I went back 25 years later and played the course from the same yardage,’’ said Bradley. “But I found the ball and equipment had changed. I didn’t have metal woods back then. I had persimmon. In today’s world the equipment and balls are much stronger. We weren’t fitted for our clubs. If it felt good, we’d take it.’’

Bradley played her last U.S. Open at Merit Club, in Libertyville, in 2000 but she never stopped competing. Her last event on the LPGA tour was the 2004 Dinah Shore Championship, when she was 53 years old and a World Golf Hall of Famer for 13 years.

“Even that was stretching it,’’ said Bradley. “A lot of us hung on longer than we should have beause we knew that when it was over it was really over.’’

Eventually The Legends Tour was created for players who had reached their 45th birthday. That meant Bradley could compete in a few tournaments each year but it wasn’t the same as the men’s immediately popular Senior PGA Tour (now called PGA Tour Champions).

This week, though, the past merges with the present for Bradley. She’s part of the 120-player field for the inaugural U.S. Women’s Senior Open, which tees off on Thursday at Chicago Golf Club in Wheaton. The U.S. Golf Association’s newest national championship will be played on America’s first 18-hole course. There’s something special about that.

“I’ve been waiting for this Open for 17 years. I wish it was 17 years ago, but it’s here now and I’m grateful,’’ said Bradley, now 67.

There are other special things playing into Bradley’s golf career now. The rest of the golf world was slow to show respect for the players of her era, but last fall the LPGA scheduled its first event for its former stars — the Senior LPGA Championship at Indiana’s French Lick Resort. That meant the end of The Legends Championship, but a bigger and better event was put in its place.

And, what was once the LPGA Championship is now called the KPMG Women’s PGA Championship – an event played at Kemper Lakes in Kildeer two weeks ago. The PGA of America took over management of that tournament from the women’s group three years ago and made it bigger and better.

Bradley’s nephew, Keegan Bradley – every bit the fierce competitor his aunt is – won the men’s PGA Championship in 2011. That’s a source of family pride, too, but it took far too much time for the women’s game to catch up to the men’s.

The PGA has held its men’s Senior Championship since 1937 and the PGA Tour has had its senior circuit, now called PGA Tour Champions, since 1980. That same year the USGA conducted its first U.S. Senior Open for men.

PGA Tour Champions will also be playing in Chicago on the same days as the U.S. Women’s Senior Open this week. It’ll hold its Constellation Senior Players Championship at Exmoor, in Highland Park.

Schedule conflicts aside, at least the women will finally get their chance. Unlike the Senior LPGA Championship, the U.S. Women’s Senior Open is a walking-only event for those who have reached their 50th birthday. Also, unlike the LPGA, this national championship had nation-wide qualifying rounds. Entries hit 462, with this week’s field comprised of players (like Bradley) invited off past performance with those who survived the qualifiers.

The walking-only requirement has ruled out several LPGA stars of the past, most notably Nancy Lopez who has undergone knee replacement surgery. Lopez will be on hand as a starter.

Bradley, though, won’t be there for ceremonial purposes. She is serious about competing and has contacted her former swing instructor, Gail Davis, to sharpen her short game. Davis, now 81 years old, is living in Garland, Tex. She was an LPGA player in the 1960s. Bradley has also re-connected with Bob Rotella, her psychologist.

“We’re trying hard, and we’ve had a great run-up to the tournament,’’ said Bradley. “We’re very excited, and I’m thrilled to be a part of it. We’re going to make history here.’’

The favorites would seem to be Scotland’s Trish Johnson, who won the first Senior LPGA Championship; Juli Inkster, who still competes on the LPGA Tour; and England’s long-hitting Laura Davies, who needs a win to qualify for the LPGA Hall of Fame.

“This is a huge event for Laura,’’ said Bradley.

It’s also a big event for Chicago Golf Club, which has hosted 11 USGA championships. The club last opened its doors to the public for a tournament in 2005, when the Walker Cup matches were played there.

“The USGA really found a beauty for this tournament,’’ said Bradley. “This course will be fair, whether you’re a short hitter or a Laura Davies hitter.’’

The field will play 18-hole rounds on Thursday and Friday, and the low 50 including ties will play 36 more holes on the weekend to determine the first U.S. Women’s Senior Open champion.

Ex-Illini Dylan Meyer is this JDC’s sponsor exemption to watch

This is an ideal time for the top college golf stars to get a jump-start on their professional careers, and Illinois’ Dylan Meyer has already done just that.

After four years of stardom for the Illini Meyer made his professional debut at the U.S. Open. After surviving sectional qualifying he finished in a tie for 20th place, and that was worth $122,387. Then, like many of the top collegians, he received a sponsor’s exemption into a PGA Tour event, last week’s Quickens National. He tied for 17th and picked up another $96,086.

Meyer has at least one more chance to cash in next week, along with former Illini teammate Nick Hardy and Arlington Heights resident Doug Ghim – the national collegiate player-of-the-year for Texas. They are among the invitees to Illinois’ only annual PGA Tour stop, the John Deere Classic at TPC Deere Run in Silvis, Ill.

The JDC, in its usual spot on the PGA Tour schedule – a week before the British Open, has a $5.8 million purse on the line for its July 12-15 tournament rounds.

Hardy, who survived the 36-hole cut at last year’s JDC while competing as an amateur, is three-for-three in making cuts since turning pro at the Rust-Oleum Championship last month at Ivanhoe Club. Combining his invites to two Web.com Tour events and the PGA Tour’s Travelers Championship Hardy has pocketed $19,575 in his first month as a pro.

Ghim, who played in the U.S. Open as an amateur, earned his first check at the Quicken Loans National — $13,987 for a tie for 71st. Sponsor’s exemptions are an annual sidelight to the JDC, as tournament director Clair Peterson pays special attention to the collegiate ranks in awarding his invitations.

This year, though, the young pros will be part of one of the strongest fields in JDC history. Bryson DeChambeau is the defending champion, and he’s adjusted quickly to the professional ranks after winning the 2015 U.S. Amateur at Olympia Fields. He claimed his second professional victory last month at the Memorial tournament and is already a strong contender to make the U.S. Ryder Cup team for this fall’s matches in France.

Steve Stricker, who won the JDC three times before turning 50 and eligible for PGA Tour Champions, has opted to return the John Deere rather than play in the Constellation Senior Players Championship – one of the five majors on the 50-and-over circuit. It’ll be played at Exmoor, in Highland Park, the same days as the JDC.

In addition to veterans like Zach Johnson, Davis Love III, Ryan Moore and Kevin Streelman, the JDC has picked up Brandt Snedeker, who tied for second in his last appearance in the tourney in 2009, and two notable foreign stars – Italy’s Francesco Molinari and 19-year old Chilean sensation Joaquin Niemann. Molinari claimed his first win on the PGA Tour at the Quicken Loans National last Sunday.

Young at heart

Ellen Port, who has won four U.S. Women’s Mid-Amateur titles and three U.S. Women’s Senior Amateur crowns, competed against much younger players in last week’s Women’s Western Amateur at Mistwood in Romeoville. The St. Louis resident did it for one big reason – she wanted to get ready for the inaugural U.S. Senior Women’s Open, also July 12-15 at Chicago Golf Club.

Port, 57, hadn’t played in the Western Amateur since 2005 and her 119 rivals were mainly elite college players. Port had won the St. Louis Women’s Metro Championship for the 17th time before heading to Mistwood, because she needed a bigger challenge to tune up for the Senior Open.

“Every tournament is big, and the Women’s Western Amateur is wonderful,’’ said Port, a high school teacher and coach for 32 years before spending the last three as the women’s golf coach at Washington University. “But the inaugural U.S. Women’s Senior Open – there’s only one of them, so it’s a big one. I love the Western, and I’ve jumped into events before that I wasn’t really ready for. That’s why I got as good as I was as quickly as I did.’’

Posting scores of 78 and 81 on a par-72 course set up at 6,131 yards, Port wasn’t among the 32 players who qualified for the match play portion of the Western Am but she’s excited about competing against legendary touring pros like Pat Bradley, Jane Blalock, Juli Inkster and Jan Stephenson on a par-73 course 46 yards shorter than the one she played at Mistwood.

Exmoor update

The third event sharing the July 12-15 dates, the Constellation Senior Players Championship, is the second of three consecutive majors for PGA Tour Champions players. David Tomas won the U.S. Senior Open at The Broadmoor in Colorado on Sunday and the British Senior Open follows the Exmoor stop from July 23-29 at St. Andrews, in Scotland.

The Western Golf Association will conduct the Exmoor tourney, the first major in the Chicago area for senior men since the 1997 U.S. Senior Open at Olympia Fields. Gates at Exmoor open to the public on Wednesday, July 11 for the Accenture Pro-Am, and the tournament rounds will be held the next four days.

Golf has proven to be a tonic for this Parkinson’s sufferer

Gary Smith, by his own admission, is not a champion golfer but his golf story is well worth telling. Tim Rosaforte, a long-time friend of mine who works for The Golf Channel, told it first as a TV feature. Now it’s my turn.

Smith is a Naperville resident, but I met him at the International Network of Golf’s Spring Conference in Biloxi, Miss., in May. He was a featured speaker there and provided a compelling report on what golf has done for him.

In short, golf served as an effective treatment for Parkinson’s disease. That’s a neurodegenerative brain disorder that has very negative life-changing effects for its victims. Smith was diagnosed with it in 2008, but suspects he had symptoms as many as five years before that. His father had died of the disease the same year that Gary was diagnosed with it and his father had battled it for 22 years. Gradually the disease took its told on Smith as well.

“My life was really getting dark,’’ he said. “My dexterity was gone. I had tremors. I was walking very slowly. My voice was wispy. Basically my life was not good.’’

He lost most of his ability to smell and taste. He felt strange aches and pains and his energy level was dropping off. He was barely able to walk his daughter Morgan down the aisle at her 2010 marriage.

This was especially painful, given the active lifestyle Smith had led prior to the devastating diagnosis. He played basketball and baseball in high school and college and was a skydiver for 20 years. He once para-glided off a 3,800-foot cliff in New Zealand. In his fifties he was a surfer and ran a marathon on his 55th birthday in 2011.

Married with three children, Smith had worked as a psychotherapist, then took on a second career as a loan officer. He continued to work for seven years after getting his Parkinson’s diagnosis before retiring on his 60th birthday in 2015. He wanted to play more golf then, mainly because his wife Nan liked to play the game.

Smith tried other forms of exercise, and some would work for a while, but he came to the realization that “everything goes slow.’’

“My kids said `Please don’t quit’ and I kept looking for exercises,’’ said Smith. “My son said I should go to TopGolf.’’

That fast-growing franchise has a facility in Naperville, and Smith hit lots of golf balls there – up to 1,000 a week.

When Smith turned 60 he and Nan took a trip to Scotland, and she encouraged him to play a round at the famous Old Course at St. Andrews. Using rental clubs, he got through that round and was inspired by the experience. That led to more sessions at TopGolf when they returned to Naperville.

“When we got back there was some freakish weather, temperatures in the 50s,’’ he said. “I started walking (in rounds at Naperbrook and Springbrook, Naperville’s public courses). I was confused. I felt good because I was walking. But it wore me out.’’

Eventually the Parkinson’s symptoms went away. After five weeks he could walk more upright and actually stride, rather then just shuffle his feet. His right foot and arm had been stiff. They started to loosen up. He could type with his right hand again and manage facial expressions. His voice got stronger, too.

Now 63, he usually walks his 18-hole rounds and has done as many as 36 holes in a day. His handicap also dropped from 24 to 10.

Initially Smith felt his “recovery’’ wasn’t the real thing, just a carryover from the St. Andrews experience. His neurologist, Dr. Martha McGraw at Northwestern Medicine Center DuPage Hospital in Winfield, had her doubts as well until Smith demonstrated his regained walking ability at her office.

She declared him back to his pre-Parkinson’s fitness level. Though Smith couldn’t understand his recovery either, he was determined to take his message to others who suffer from the disease. He’s trying to raise money for the Parkinson’s Foundation to fund a scientific study on the potential benefits of golf for Parkinson’s patients.

While he’s thankful for his improved health, Smith still has concerns his old symptoms might return.

“Every day I wake up I just wonder if this will wear off,’’ he said, “but so far, so good.’’

We will all have to deal with `THE BIG CONFLICT’

This is my 50th year reporting on the Chicago golf scene and I can assure you there has never been a month like the one confronting us this July. There have been busy tournaments times in the past, but never anything like what’s coming in the next few days.

I’m calling the whole scenario “The Big Conflict,’’ and I’m not happy about it.

Everything kicks in during the second week of July, but especially on Thursday, July 12. That’s the starting day of competition for the PGA Tour’s John Deere Classic at TPC Deere Run in downstate Silvis.

That’s also the day that the Constellation Senior Players Championship tees off at Exmoor Country Club in Highland Park. This is one of the five major championships on the PGA Tour Champions circuit. It’s a big deal.

And that’s not all. The inaugural U.S. Senior Women’s Open starts its 72-hole run at Chicago Golf Club in Wheaton on July 12 as well.

Three very big tournaments, all of them played over the same four-day period. The John Deere Classic is the only annual PGA Tour stop in Illinois with Bryson DeChambeau coming in as the defending champion with $5.8 million in prize money on the line.

The Constellation Senior Players Championship is the first major on the 50-and-over circuit played in the Chicago area since the U.S. Senior Open was contested at Olympia Fields in 1997. With no other major championships on any tour scheduled in the Chicago area this could be the last chance to see the Champions Tour’s dominant player, Bernhard Langer, and Chicago’s own Jeff Sluman compete on home turf.

And the U.S. Senior Women’s Open – a long-awaited and long overdue event organized by the U.S. Golf Association – means a chance to see legends like Pat Bradley, Juli Inkster, Meg Mallon, Jane Blalock and Betsy King in competition again. Plus, the tournament offers a rare opportunity for spectators to get inside the gates of the North America’s oldest 18-hole golf course. Chicago Golf Club last opened its doors to spectators for the 2005 Walker Cup matches.

While Chicago Golf Club is old – it dates back to 1892 – the tournament that it will soon host is the USGA’s newest national championship. It’ll have 120 of the best women players who have reached the 50th birthday. They’ll be playing on the same course that hosted three U.S. Opens (1897, 1900 and 1911), four U.S. Amateurs (1897, 1905, 1909 and 1912), the 1903 U.S. Women’s Amateur and the 1979 U.S. Senior Amateur. It was only fitting that Chicago Golf Club be the site for the first U.S. Senior Women’s Open. It’s just too bad that the tournament will have to share the spotlight when it’s here.

The only time I can recall anything close to this weird bit of scheduling was in 1975, when the USGA and PGA Tour opted to schedule big tournaments back-to-back. The U.S. Open was played at Medinah one week and the late, great Western Open was contested the following week at Butler National in Oak Brook.

Such high-profile events were never scheduled so close together in the same geographical area back then. It was simply taboo. There were concerns then that golf interest – including that of potential sponsors – would wane if tournament play was stretched out too far.

As things turned out, there was only a minimal break in the action then. The ’75 U.S. Open carried over to Monday, with Lou Graham beating John Mahaffey in a playoff to decide the title. Three days later Hale Irwin started his run to the Western title on one of the most difficult courses in the country.

Somehow, that glut of golf 43 years ago worked out okay. In fact, it was the start of big things for Irwin. He earned the moniker of “Mr. Chicago’’ as he went on to win the 1990 U.S. Open at Medinah in the tourney’s first-ever sudden death playoff against Mike Donald and then captured the Ameritech Senior Open three times. That tourney was a fixture in Chicago back then, with Irwin winning in 1995 at Stonebridge in Aurora and 1998 and 1999 at Kemper Lakes in Kildeer.

This year’s strange scheduling is a little different than that of 1975. In any other year any one of those three tournaments would be considered the highlight of the Chicago golf season. This year, I’m afraid, the interest in each one will be diluted.

Frankly I’d like to see every round of all three tournaments, but obviously I can’t. You can’t be in two – or three – places at once. As of this writing – a few weeks before the firing begins on July 12 – I don’t know where I’ll be or when. But I guarantee you I’ll be keeping tabs on all of those events.

Unfortunately, after “The Big Conflict’’ is over a smaller version will begin. On July 16, the day after the John Deere Classic, Constellation Senior Players Championship and U.S. Senior Women’s Open all wrap up, the focus shifts to state competitions.

The Illinois Women’s Open begins at Mistwood, in Romeoville, the day after “The Big Conflict’’ and the day after that the Illinois State Amateur tees off at Bloomington Country Club. Both are three-day tournaments, the IWO ending on Wednesday, July 18, and the State Am on Thursday, July 19.

When all is said and done there’ll be eight consecutive days of very meaningful tournament golf at both the professional and amateur levels. Multiple tournaments will be played on seven of those eight days.

Obviously the schedule-makers from the various golf organizations could have done a better job communicating with each other in choosing dates for their 2018 championships. While tournament conflicts are sometimes inevitable, this year’s scenario defies the imagination.

There’s no point in getting into the blame game on this issue. The tournaments will all be played on the dates announced, and they’ll all be good. I just hope we never have to go through something like “The Big Conflict’’ again.

Kemper’s Gauntlet is no problem for champion Sung Hyun Park

Sung Hyun Park has won two majors in her first two years on the LPGA Tour.

Where do you start to explain this one?

The climax to the KPMG Women’s PGA Championship at Kemper Lakes had it all on Sunday – a sparkling 18-hole score, a miracle shot from the edge of a pond, clutch birdie putts at dramatic moments, a lightning delay that interrupted a two-hole playoff. And it ended with a clear indication of the differences between the men’s and women’s pro tours.

The women’s tour is a more global circuit than the men’s PGA Tour, and it has more up-and-coming young stars. This tournament was a testament to that. The last two players in contention were Koreans, with 24-year old Sung Hyun Park beating So Yeon Ryu, 28, thanks to birdie putts on both extra holes.

Japan’s Nasa Hataoka, 19, also made the playoff after shooting the low score of the tournament, an 8-under-par 64. Two of the three in the playoff needed translators to tell how they got there, but all are willing to let their clubs do their talking.

Despite their youth Park and Ryu have already won two of the women’s major titles and Hataoka took her first LPGA tournament with a six-shot victory a week ago. Last year Park and Ryu shared Player-of-the-Year honors. Park, also the U.S. Women’s Open champion, became the first player since Nancy Lopez in 1976 to win both Player of the Year and Rookie of the Year in the same season. Obviously they can all really play.

Tying for fourth were two young Americans, Jessica Korda, 25, and Angel Yin, 19. They were three strokes behind the lead trio in the first-ever three-way playoff in the tournament’s 64-year history.

All of it provided a great showcase for The Gauntlet, the name the Kildeer club’s membership gave to their last three holes last fall without knowing that TPC Sawgrass, the Florida course that hosts one of the biggest tournaments on the PGA Tour, already used the same name for its trio of finishing holes.

Kemper’s is the toughest finishing stretch in Chicago golf, and it stands up quite well with Sawgrass on the national level. On Sunday it created loads of drama.

Ryu started the day with a three-stroke lead but took an emotional jolt when her putts for both par and bogey at No. 2 lipped out.

“I had to let it go,’’ she said. “If I keep looking back that’s really a bad thing to do, especially when you are in contention.’’

Park eventually pulled even with birdies at Nos. 3 and 4 but Ryu went back in front by two with birds at Nos. 6 and 7. Hataoka, meanwhile, was tearing up the course playing well in front of the leaders. She had two eagles in her round, and heated up on the back nine by going 5-under in a six-hole stretch. She finished at 10-under-par 278 when Ryu was 12-under after 11.

“When I finished I didn’t think I’d be in the playoff, but before the tournament I thought that double digits (under par) was a good score to reach for – so I am pleased about that,’’ said Hataoka. “I did feel nerves going into the playoff, but I haven’t won a major yet so I felt like I had nothing to lose.’’

Park, playing with Ryu, stayed alive with a miracle chip shot from a water hazard fronting the No. 16 green – the start of The Gauntlet – that resulted in her saving par. Ryu answered her chip with a 30-foot downhill birdie putt that gave her a two-stroke lead, but it didn’t last long.

One the par-3 seventeenth she pulled her tee shot, missing the green to the left with the ball going into the water. She took a double bogey on the hole, and her lead was gone.

Hataoka watched all that drama from the clubhouse and then headed for the practice range to prepare for a playoff. It was a certainty when Ryu and Park two-putted for pars at No. 18. All three players went back to that tee for the first extra hole, and Ryu made a statement immediately by holing a birdie putt from the fringe of the green.

After Hataoka missed her birdie attempt Park rolled in hers to send the playoff to a second playoff hole, this one at the No. 16 tee. Both Ryu and Park put their approaches on the green of that par-4 when play was suspended because of lightning in the area. The playoff resumed after a 20-minute suspension in play and Park connected from 10 feet after Ryu had missed from 16.

Park, stoic throughout the round, broke down in tears after her putt dropped.

“This has been a tough year for me,’’ said Park. “Five times I’ve missed cuts, but all the work I’ve done paid off. That ‘s what really made me cry. It was my first time feeling that kind of emotion. I was really happy. I couldn’t help that.’’