logo

Len Ziehm On Golf

It’s not too early to start planning for the 2017 U.S. Open at Erin Hills

The 117th playing of the U.S. Open is still eight months away, I realize that. Still, it’s not too early to so some planning around it. After all, U.S. Opens don’t come our way very often.

Next year’s will be June 15-18 at Erin Hills, a public-access venue located in a little town northwest of Milwaukee. I’m considering this a “Chicago’’ U.S. Open, though I admit that’s somewhat of a stretch. Erin Hills can be handled as a driving trip – without the need for overnight lodging – from most areas north and west of Chicago. For me it’s less than a two-hour drive from the northern suburbs.

This is a U.S. Open that should be embraced by Chicago golfers because – most unfortunately — there won’t be another one anywhere near our area for a long, long, long time. The next possibility is in 2027, and that’s remote one at best.

The last U.S. Open in the Chicago area was in 2003, when Jim Furyk emerged the champion at Olympia Fields. Prior to that the last Chicago U.S. Open was in 1990 at Medinah – one made historically special by Hale Irwin’s playoff victory over Mike Donald. That was the first U.S. Open title decided in sudden death. A U.S. Open playoff is traditionally over 18 holes on Monday, but the Irwin-Donald battle needed an extra hole before a champion could be crowned.

As for the future, no U.S. Opens are scheduled even remotely close to Chicago except for next year’s at Erin Hills – the first ever to be played in Wisconsin. The announced future sites after that are Shinnecock Hills in New York (2018), Pebble Beach in California (2019), Winged Foot in New York (2020), Torrey Pines in California (2021), The Country Club in Massachusetts (2022), Los Angeles Country Club (2023) and Pinehurst in North Carolina (2024).

The U.S. Golf Association hasn’t confirmed the next two years, but it’s a reasonably safe assumption that Oakmont, in Pennsylvania, will host in 2025 and the tourney will return to Shinnecock in 2026. Well-informed speculators have projected sites through 2030, and none of their possibilities are even remotely near the Midwest.

So, let’s savor what’s coming to Erin Hills. The course hasn’t hosted much in the way of big tournaments, only the 2008 U.S. Women’s Amateur Public Links and the 2011 U.S. Amateur. The course hasn’t changed much since that last one, but the USGA still held a media preview last month to show off what the next U.S. Open will be like.

The first thing you notice is the scorecard. The official yardage for Erin Hills at the 2017 U.S. Open is a whopping 7,693 yards. That may make it the longest course in tournament history, though USGA staffers on site weren’t ready to confirm that.

“But don’t be alarmed by that,’’ said USGA managing director Jeff Hall. “This will be the first time we’ve played a par-72 course in the U.S. Open since 1992. Tour players aren’t accustomed to having four par-5s at a U.S. Open but they’ll get that opportunity at Erin Hills.’’

The par-5s are No. 1, which is listed at 560 yards but could play as long as 608; No.7, listed at 607 but could play as short as 576 or as long as 619; No. 14, listed at 594 but could play as long as 650; and No. 18, listed at 637 but could play as long as 675.

Both course superintendent Zach Reineking and the architectural team of Michael Hurdzan, Dana Fry and Ron Whitten were on hand for the preview day. They joined Hall and the media contingent on the tour of the course, which opened in 2006.

Erin Hills was built by Bob Lang, the original owner from 1999 to 2009. Andy Ziegler has been the owner since then. Erin Hills is already a special place but it will be more special after becoming the 52nd course to host a U.S. Open and the sixth public access course to do it, following Pebble Beach, Pinehurst, Torrey Pines, New York’s Bethpage Black and Oregon’s Chambers Bay.

A walking-only venue, Erin Hills will be open for public play through Oct. 6, then the public won’t be able to play until after next year’s big event.

Hall said the greens would be in the 13 to 13 ½ range for the Open, slower than the surfaces this year at Oakmont. Hall lauded the “wonderful bentgrass putting surfaces’’ and said they are “much more accustomed to what the players have seen.’’

Some other tidbits on the Erin Hills Open:

Few changes have been made since Erin Hills hosted the U.S. Amateur five years ago. The only notable one is at No. 3, and that wasn’t a major thing.

Reineking said 385 trees have been taken down in recent years and only six are left. None come into play except perhaps the only one at No. 15 – and the future of that tree is in doubt.

The USGA estimates the economic impact of the 2017 U.S. Open on the Milwaukee area at between $120 and $135 million.

Community support has been outstanding. The USGA needed about 5,000 volunteers and received applications from 7,956. More than half of the volunteers were from Wisconsin and 52 were from foreign countries.

Though the planning remains a work in progress, tentative plans call for two spectator parking lots, both free to those using them. Though Erin Hills was built on 652 acres, galleries will be limited to 35,000 each day to assure a more pleasant spectator experience.

The USGA opened its merchandise online shop on Sept. 8 and ticket sales were launched in June. They’re continuing on the USGA website (usga.org). Though tickets are still available for the seven days of tournament week (gates open for practice on Monday, June 12), tickets to the four tournament rounds figure to be gone soon. Those four rounds have been sellouts for the last 29 years.

Lodging, for those who need it, should also be addressed well in advance. Erin Hills has only 37 beds on its property and they’ll be taken by tournament staffers. Hotels in an around Milwaukee may be hard-pressed to fill the needs of U.S. Open visitors.

October provided a variety of meaningful ends to Chicago golf season

I never quite understood this.

October, with its generally milder temperatures and beautiful color changes, is in many ways the best month of the year to play golf. Plus, with school back in session, the courses aren’t as busy as they are from June through August. Still, interest seems to be on the downside with the tournament schedules for both the Illinois PGA and Chicago District Golf Association rapidly winding down and the Western Golf Association’s events completely over.

Even the PGA Tour targets a September climax to its wrap-around season and the LPGA plays out of the United States from mid-September all the way through the end of October.

This year, though, that trend might be changing. Globally, the Ryder Cup carries two days into October and there’s an even more obvious reason for renewed interest in late fall golf. Tiger Woods has scheduled his latest return to tournament golf for the first event of the 2016-17 PGA Tour season – the Safeway Open (formerly Frys.com Open ) at Silverado in Napa, Calif., from Oct. 13-16. Phil Mickelson has entered, too, so that event will perk up golf’s “off-season.’’

Locally things are changing as well.

That’s mainly due to the Illinois PGA, which will conclude Carrie Williams’ first season as executive director with three significant October events. The IPGA has always played the last of its four major championships in October, and this year’s IPGA Players Championship at Eagle Ridge, in Galena, will be played Oct. 3-4.

More often than not the IPGA player of the year is decided at Eagle Ridge, and it certainly will be this time. The IPGA Players doesn’t fit into the schedule of the section’s best player, University of Illinois coach Mike Small. He’s second in the section’s Bernardi Points standings thanks to steady play in his one-tournament-a-month routine.

Small tied for first in the first stroke play event at Crestwicke, in Bloomington, in April. He won a stroke play at Onwentsia, in Lake Forest, in June; was sixth in the Illinois Open in St. Charles in July; and won the IPGA Championship for the 12th time at Olympia Fields in August.

Now he’s all about coaching again, though he did give a glimmer of things to come when he played in the Illinois Senior Open at McHenry Country Club in September. Small just turned 50 and that made him eligble for senior and Champions Tour events.

“I’ll play there a bit more in the future when time and my schedule allows me to,’’ said Small after the announcement of his new six-year contract to continue as the Illini coach was announced. “I still like to compete, and playing is a nice way to clear my head once in a while when I need it. But I’m a coach first and a player second. That’s what it’s been for 15 years and that’s what it’ll be going forward.’’

That leaves the IPGA Players Championship as the tournament where the rest of the club pros will fight it out for player of the year. Medinah teaching pro Travis Johns leads the Bernardi Points race going in – he’s even ahead of Small after finishing in a tie for second at the IPGA Championship. Right on his heels is Curtis Malm, the head professional at White Eagle, in Naperville.

Johns was player of the year in 2010 and 2014 and Malm won in 2012 and 2013. They played with Small in the final threesome at the IPGA Championship and Malm also finished as a joint runner-up at Olympia Fields.

Kyle Bauer, the head pro at Glen View Club, won the first of the year’s majors – the IPGA Match Play Championship at Kemper Lakes in May. He’s fourth in the Bernardi Points race while last year’s player of the year, Mistwood teaching pro Brian Brodell, is seventh. They’ll at least have a better chance at player of the year than the Illinois Open winner. Carlos Sainz Jr. won that title, but he’s a touring pro and thereby ineligible for the section’s top playing accolade.

All the others will be in the mix for the coveted player of the year award at the IPGA Players Championship, but even that one won’t wrap up the section’s big events for the season. The Royal Cup matches, pitting the top 10 Illinois assistant pros against their counterparts from Wisconsin, is on tap for Oct. 7 at Big Foot, in Fontana, Wis. It’s not the Ryder Cup, but still meaningful for those involved in one way or another.

Another deserving climax to Chicago area tournament play will also be provided by the Illinois PGA. Its Senior Players Championship will be played Oct. 17-18 at Old Elm in Highland Park with just the top 30 in the IPGA senior season’s point race eligible. That event will likely determine the section’s senior player of the year, though Ivanhoe’s Jim Sobb has a comfortable lead with only Mistwood’s John Platt a threat to catch him.

Sobb has been senior player of the year six times in the last nine years, winning back-to-back in 2007-08, again in 2010-11 and still again in 2014-15. He’ll be going after an unprecedented three-peat this October.

And then there’s the World SpeedGolf Championship, which will be played for the second time at The Glen, in Glenview, on Oct. 18-19. It’ll be interesting as well.

All those scenarios aside, the most impressive local tournament showing of the year won’t be matched in the October events. At least not in my book.

In fact the best tournament showing by a local player, professional or amateur, in my nearly 50 years covering golf in these parts was by Northbrook’s Nick Hardy in the Illinois State Amateur at St. Charles Country Club. Getting ready for his junior year at the University of Illinois, Hardy covered the 72 holes in 28 under par and won by 10 strokes. I don’t expect to ever see such a dominant performance at the local level ever again – but then, who knows?

Ryder Cup is the real climax to this PGA Tour season

Let the greatest show in golf begin.

With all due respect, it’s not any major championship. It’s not the FedEx Cup Playoffs. It wasn’t the return of the sport to the Olympics for the first time in 112 years.

No, the greatest show in golf isn’t even a tournament. It’s the Ryder Cup, and the 41st playing of the matches between the U.S. and Europe is coming up Sept. 27 through Oct. 2 at Hazeltine National Golf Club in the Minneapolis suburb of Chaska, Minn.

The Ryder Cup wasn’t always the greatest show in golf. It only became that after the Europeans started winning regularly. Now it’s one of the great team competitions in all of sports. Patriotism abounds, creating a memorable spectacle no matter which team wins.

I’m happy to say I’ve been involved with Ryder Cups beyond just being a reporter of what goes on in the matches every couple years. In both the Ryder Cup at Medinah in 2012 and this year’s version at Hazeltine my involvement has included participating in a book — along with Nick Novelli, the great Chicago photographer — for the host club’s membership.

For Hazeltine’s members, they learned the Ryder Cup would be coming via a PGA of America announcement in 2002 but their preparations really heated up at Medinah. They came and learned there, then refined their plans after watching the 2014 version of the Ryder Cup at Gleneagles, in Scotland. Now it’s Hazeltine’s turn to show what it can do as the host club.

Hazeltine is even better qualified historically to host this Ryder Cup than Medinah was four years ago. Given Medinah’s rich tournament history, that may be hard to believe. Consider this, however. Hazeltine didn’t even open until 1962, roughly 40 years after Medinah, but it has already hosted two U.S. Opens (1970, 1991), two U.S. Women’s Opens (1966, 1977), two PGA Championships (2002, 2009), the U.S. Senior Open (1983) and the U.S. Amateur (2006).

The Ryder Cup is all that’s missing from the club’s resume, and that will soon be corrected. Only one club has hosted all those big events plus the Ryder Cup. That would be North Carolina’s Pinehurst No. 2, which opened in 1907 – 55 years before Hazeltine. Pinehurst became the first course to host both the men’s and women’s U.S. Opens in back-to-back weeks in 2014. It also hosted the U.S. Senior Open (1994), the PGA Championship (1936), the U.S. Opens of 1999 and 2005 and the Ryder Cup (1951).

Enough about history, though that’s always important for any serious golfer’s perspective. Now it’s about choosing up sides, and that’ll take the entire month of September.

Because of the schedule changes made to accommodate the Olympics, the team selections were pushed back roughly two weeks. The first eight players on the U.S. team were finalized on Aug. 28 after The Barclays – first of the four tournaments of the FedEx Cup Playoffs – concluded in New York.

U.S. captain Davis Love III will announce three of his four captain’s picks on Sept. 11, after the BMW Championship concludes at Crooked Stick in Indianapolis. The final pick will be announced on Sept. 25, at The Tour Championship in Atlanta. This is a change from previous Ryder Cups, and there’ll be more suspense with the captain’s picks announced so close to the matches themselves.

Darren Clarke, the European captain, got the top four players off the European Tour point list and the next five off the World point list after the Race to Dubai’s Made in Denmark tournament that concluded on Aug. 28. That leaves him just three captain’s picks, to be made in early September.

Though Europe has won the last three stagings of the competition, Clarke’s team figures to be a younger one this time and will be without Ian Poulter, always an emotional leader of his team’s Ryder Cup effort.

Poulter is in a four-month long rehab from a foot ailment which caused his to drop out of tournament play in June. Poulter, though, will be one of Clarke’s vice captains, the others being Thomas Bjorn, Padraig Harrington, Paul Lawrie and Sam Torrance.

The U.S. has a 25-13-2 edge in the series but hasn’t won the Ryder Cup since 2008 and has triumphed only three times since 1999. The last loss on home soil, at Medinah, was especially deflating. The U.S. had a huge meltdown in the concluding singles matches and went down to a 14 ½-13 ½ defeat.

Love has four vice captains – Minnesota native Tom Lehman, Jim Furyk, Steve Stricker and Tiger Woods. The staffs from both teams will make appearances at Hazeltine to arrange practice sessions for the players in early September.

As for the club, Hazeltine looks much different than Hazeltine. Medinah has the bigger clubhouse but Hazeltine has the newer one. It was built in 2010.

Medinah has three courses on its premises. It also offers a variety of other activities for its members – like tennis, swimming and skeet and trap shooting. Hazeltine is all about golf. Though it has only one, very respected, course there is plenty of open space around the club and that makes it a most desirable tournament venue.

Tom Bendelow was the original designer of Medinah’s No. 3 course, which was the site of the 2012 Ryder Cup and most of the tournaments played at the club, but other designers made updates over the years to ready the course for big events. Robert Trent Jones designed the Hazeltine course, but it won’t play as he envisioned it for the Ryder Cup.

The hole rotation has been altered since the 2009 PGA was played there to accommodate the construction of chalets for corporate hospitality. The last four holes of each nine were switched to make for a better spectator experience.

At Medinah overall course conditioning was a major problem leading right up to the start of play, but all went well in the end. At Hazeltine there wasn’t as much tension. What there was came in the installation of a new bunker system. Work on that was completed in the dead of winter, two months before the course even opened for play.

Bunkers are a key part of the Hazeltine playing experience, and the course has 108 of them. They account for the same square footage as the putting surfaces – about three acres each. That’s an eye-catching statistic, because bunkers typically are about one-third the size of the putting surfaces.

Upgrades provide big boosts at Eagle Ridge, Ruffled Feathers

Eagle Ridge, Illinois’ premier golf resort in Galena, has changed – and for the better – since its latest ownership change.

Capital Crossing acquired the facility in 2013 and brought in Texas-based Touchstone Golf to manage Eagle Ridge’s 63 holes and Mount Prospect-based Bricton Group to manage the rest of the resort. Touchstone manages courses in 10 states but Eagle Ridge is its only facility in the Midwest.

The bulk of Touchstone’s 36 properties are in California (16) and Texas (7). Steve Harker, formerly with American Golf, started the company in 2005. His team now includes Mark Luthman who — as regional director of operations for Chicago-based KemperSports — was a leader in the planning, pre-opening and operations of Oregon’s Chambers Bay, site of the 2010 U.S. Amateur and 2015 U.S. Open. Luthman is Touchstone’s executive vice president and chief operating officer.

Bricton, a major hotel management group, is headed by president Ed Doherty – a former Evans Scholar. Touchstone and Bricton combined to form Brickstone, the firm that oversees Eagle Ridge’s total operation, and its first order of business was to address the shortcomings on the golf side.

While the resort’s website alludes to “renovation’’ work done on its three 18-holers – The General and the North and the South courses – as well as the nine-hole East course, that’s a bit misleading. Renovations generally connote total revamping of a course and usually include design changes. That wasn’t needed at Eagle Ridge.

All four courses were designed by one-time Chicago-based architect Roger Packard, with two-time U.S. Open champion Andy North helping out on The General – the showcase course. All four courses – which opened between 1977 and 1997 — are blessed with the “wow factor’’ thanks largely to the elevation changes throughout the 6,800-acre property.

While Packard’s designs have remained intact, the work done since Touchstone arrived has still been extensive.

“There wasn’t any construction on the fairways,’’ said Reagan Davis, the director of golf. “Packard did a great job, but a lot of places were overgrown and a lot of the tees and landing areas were claustrophobic. The native areas were overgrown, and a lot of the trees weren’t trimmed. People would measure a round on The General by how many balls they lost.’’

That’s not the case anymore. Davis estimates that $700,000 was spent on cleaning up the courses.

“We went in and trimmed all the trees we could,’’ said Davis. “We pushed back the tee boxes and tried to make the courses like they were originally. It speeded up play on The General. We picked up 35 minutes of time (per round).’’

On a busy day a round might have gone 5 hours 25 minutes before. Now it’s more like 4 hours 30 minutes, and rounds are rarely over 5 hours.

The General also got a new restaurant. “Spikes’’ is gone and has been replaced by WoodStones, which features a $30,000 oven that can cook a wood-fire pizza in four minutes. The restaurant is even featured on the more dramatic welcoming signs at the main entrance.

“We wanted something more for the community and not so much for the resort or the golfers,’’ said Davis. “We keep it open about 10 months out of the year, and it’s done well.’’

There’s some other newcomers at Eagle Ridge as well – 30 goats. They’ve been brought in to roam the steep slopes where mowing equipment can’t be used.

ANOTHER NEW LOOK: Ruffled Feathers, in Lemont, has completed its own major renovation project. Dallas-based Arcis Golf has unveiled its $2 million renovation of the only Pete Dye-designed course in the Chicago area. Both the course and clubhouse underwent extensive upgrades, and Arcis has announced it will spend $50 million in major capital improvements at its 66 public and private facilities nation-wide.

As for the Ruffled Feathers work, general manager Victor Rodarte described it as “a true revival of the entire property.’’

Arcis also operates five other Chicago area courses – Fresh Meadow, in Hillside; Mill Creek and Eagle Brook, in Geneva; Tamarack, in Naperville; and Whitetail Ridge, in Yorkville.

LOOK OUT FOR SOBB: August won’t be as busy a tournament month as July was, but there will be two section championships conducted by the Illinois PGA and Ivanhoe’s Jim Sobb could wind up in contention for two player-of-the-year awards when they’re done.

The IPGA Senior Championship is Aug. 8-9 at Whisper Creek, in Huntley, and the IPGA Championship proper is Aug. 29-31 on Olympia Fields’ South course. Sobb, who was the overall player-of-the-year in 2000, is sixth in the standings now behind leader Travis Johns, of Medinah. Last year Sobb was eighth, so he’s remained consistently competitive after passing the age of 50.

He was also the senior player of the year in both 2014 and 2015 and ranked second behind Mistwood’s John Platt in the senior standings at the time of this printing.

BITS AND PIECES: The Chicago golf community lost two giants from the club professional ranks with the passing Leon McNair and Hubby Habjan in a span of a few days in July. McNair, 75, led in the development of Fox Bend, in Oswego, and Habjan, 84, was a long-time head man at Onwentsia, in Lake Forest. Both are members of the Illinois Golf Hall of Fame.

The LPGA’s UL International Crown may be over but its Legends Tour will hold its main event not far away – at Indiana’s French Lick Resort from Aug. 18-21. The Legends Championship festivities will include the inductions of Elaine Crosby and Sandra Haynie into the Legends Hall of Fame that is permanently housed at the nearby West Baden Springs Hotel. Crosby and Haynie will become the seventh and eight members of the Hall, joining Jan Stephenson and Kathy Whitworth, who went in in 2013; Nancy Lopez and Jane Blalock, who were added in 2014; and Joanne Carner and Rosie Jones, who were inducted last year.

KemperSports has taken over the management of Boughton Ridge, the nine-hole executive length course that has served Bolingbrook residents for over 35 years. KemperSports will also manage its Ashbury’s restaurant.

The Schaumburg Park District’s ninth annual Links Technology Cup has been scheduled for Aug. 10 at Schaumburg Golf Club. It includes a Taste on the Tee showcase of food and beverages on most every hole. Proceeds benefit the district’s recreation scholarship program.

Dates opposite the Olympics won’t be a big problem for the JDC

If you had asked me, I would have told you.

The PGA Tour should not have made all those changes to its mid- to late-summer schedule just to accommodate the Olympics. All that did was inconvenience tournament organizers, leave most of the players in limbo and confuse ticket-buyers who had gotten used to watching specific tournaments on specific dates year after year after year.

No PGA Tour tournament was more impacted on that front than the John Deere Classic. The lone annual PGA Tour stop in Illinois drew Aug. 11-14 dates – the same days the 72-hole Olympic men’s competition will be conducted in Brazil. The JDC had thrived with July dates the week before the British Open in recent years.

Fortunately the JDC, in its 46th year, has been a resilient event. That’s been proven over and over, when the tournament struggled for survival in one of the circuit’s smallest markets. Going way back, what’s now the well-established JDC had to deal with weak fields, sponsorship problems which resulted in a variety of title changes and moving from one course to another. But nothing, it seems, can stop the JDC now – and it certainly won’t be these Olympic Games.

The seriousness of the Zika virus notwithstanding, the continuous dropouts of top players from the Olympics – the number was at 18 at the time of this printing – suggests that tournament will be special only because it’s the Olympics and the first time golf will be contested since 1904. It certainly won’t be because of the quality of the field.

When all is said and done it wouldn’t be surprising if the JDC draws as much TV attention from golfers as the Olympics’ golf competition will. Only 60 players will be in the Olympics and at least a few of those who could have competed in Brazil may well wind up competing at TPC Deere Run.

Zach Johnson — the former Masters, JDC and British Open champion who has long been on the JDC board of directors – long predicted that the John Deere Classic would have a “late developing field.’’ Look for some big name players to enter after the last of this year’s four majors. The PGA Championship, because of all the shuffling inspired by the Olympics, was played only two weeks after Henrik Stenson’s spectacular win in the British Open at Royal Troon. The PGA – last of the majors — concluded on July 31.

Enough said about the Olympics. Suffice it to say, the JDC will do just fine even without being in the global golf spotlight. The event’s annual media day underscored that. Paul Scranton, this year’s volunteer chairman, announced that the JDC has 1,750 volunteers ready to go for a worthy cause.

Last year’s JDC raised $8.7 million that was dispersed among over 500 local charities. (In its 45-year history the tourney’s charity donations have topped $71 million).

An impact study conducted last year by sponsor John Deere and Western Illinois University determined that the tournament added over $54 million to the Quad Cities economy and this will be another big year, Olympics or not.

As for the golf, the JDC field won’t have Jordan Spieth – and his absence won’t go unnoticed. It won’t go unnoticed at Brazil, either. On JDC media day, just as tournament director Clair Peterson was about to address the assembled writers and broadcasters, The Golf Channel announced that Spieth had decided against going to Brazil. The gathering immediately grew silent, wondering if the JDC’s two-time champion might defend his title after all.

Spieth quickly put an end to that line of thought, saying he didn’t think his playing in a tournament opposite the Olympics would be “appropriate.’’ For Spieth that was the right decision.

For many others bypassing the Olympics, though, such a stance might not work. Brendon de Jonge, for instance, could have played for his native Zimbabwe in Brazil. Instead he withdrew himself from Olympic consideration citing “job security.’’ The Zika virus wasn’t the overriding factor for him. He wants to play in the FedEx Cup Playoffs and a player must be in the top 125 on the point list to make it.

The JDC will have two of its longstanding stars in Johnson and three-time winner Steve Stricker, who is coming off a surprising fourth place finish in the British Open. Other early commitments came from former major championship winners Angel Cabrera, Trevor Immelman, Lucas Glover, Stewart Cink and David Toms.

Other commits among players who have won events on the PGA Tour in the last two years came from Ben Crane, Chesson Hadley, J.J. Henry, Billy Hurley III, Pater Malnati, Troy Merritt, Seung-Yul Noh, John Senden, Scott Stallings, Robert Streb, Brian Stuard, Vaughn Taylor, Nick Taylor and Brendon Todd.

With a purse of $4.8 million, a first-place prize of $864,000 and 500 FedEx Cup points on the line, the tourney is well worth playing with the lucractive Playoffs closing in.

“We’re pleased and excited about the players who have committed to play in this year’s tournament,’’ said Peterson. “Because of the compressed nature of this year’s PGA Tour schedule we know many other players will make their decisions closer to the tournament.’’

For starters, though, the JDC was given five sponsor exemptions for the seeming inconvenience of being scheduled opposite the Olympics. Two of the first five – NCAA champion Aaron Wise of Oregon and Charlie Danielson, the Big Ten player of the year from Illinois – attended media day.

The other three had good reasons for not being there. Jordan Niebrugge was competing at the British Open, having secured a spot off his sixth-place finish there the previous year, and Lee McCoy and Jon Rahm were taking advantage of sponsor’s exemptions to the Barbasol Championship, the PGA Tour stop played opposite the British. The JDC invite will give them another early start on golf’s premier circuit.

“We have a long history of introducing our golf fans to that next great class,’’ said Peterson, citing Johnson, Spieth, Justin Thomas, Camilo Villegas, Tiger Woods, Matt Kuchar, Bryson DeChambeau, Lucas Glover, Webb Simpson and Bill Haas as those “young players coming out of college that we were able to help kick-start their careers.’’

That’s an impressive list, and Wise and Danielson were most appreciative.

“The John Deere is going to be an incredible opportunity,’’ said Wise. “For us to get an exemption into a PGA Tour event is awesome. It’s what we need; it’s what we work towards.’’

“I’m just trying to play as much good golf as I can before Q-school,’’ said Danielson. “It’s just about staying fresh, staying competitive and getting ready to go get my card.’’

He expects to start his first pro season on the Web.com Tour “unless something spectacular happens.’’ Danielson shouldn’t be ruling that out. After all, the slogan for the John Deere is “Magic Starts Here.’’ It has for many players in the past and certainly could for him, Wise and the other young stars who will gather with an array of seasoned professionals at TPC Deere Run for pre-tournament activities starting on Aug. 8.

Any U.S. Open at Oakmont has a special meaning to me

It’s that time of year again. The U.S. Opens – for both the men and women – always dominate the golf world during the month of June and 2016 is no exception.

Both tournaments are huge in terms of participants and historical significance. They are also organizational monsters for the U.S. Golf Association, which conducts both championships.

The men’s 116th U.S. Open this year has a sentimental side for me. The site for the finals from June 16-19 is Oakmont Country Club in Pennsylvania. That was the site of the first of the 27 U.S. Opens that I covered back in 1973, and it remains one of the most historically significant. Champion Johnny Miller’s 63 in the final round that year matches the lowest round posted at any major championship. I was also on hand for a U.S. Women’s Open at Oakmont – Patty Sheehan’s playoff win over Juli Inkster in 1992.

Oakmont has long been a fixture in the U.S. Open’s informal rotation. It’ll host the finals for a record ninth time this year, the previous ones coming in 1927, 1935, 1953, 1962, 1973, 1983, 1994 and 2007.

This year’s entry numbers are impressive, but not of record proportions. The men’s field numbered 9,877, and the registrants came from all 50 states and 72 foreign countries, but the total didn’t approach the record 10,127 that signed up in 2014 when both the men’s and women’s finals were played at Pinehurst No. 2 in North Carolina.

This year’s 71st annual U.S. Women’s Open drew 1,855 entrants, 18 shy of the record set in 2015 when the finals were also in Pennsylvania – at Lancaster Country Club.

Just to enter a player has to be a designated professional or have a handicap index of 1.4 for men or 2.4 for women. The women registrants this year came from 48 states – only Alaska and Wyoming are not represented – and 52 countries. Interestingly, the first and last women to enter were foreigners. Sweden professional Johanna Gustavsson was the first to sign up, on March 9, and Canadian pro Maude-Aimee LeBlanc was the last. She beat the May 4 deadline by 20 minutes.

On the men’s side, the first entrant was a Florida amateur, 33-year old Anthony Monica, and the last a 48-year old Pittsburgh pro, Gordon Vietmeier. He got in 33 seconds before the entry deadline.

Unfortunately Chicago hasn’t been a site for the finals since 2003, when Olympia Fields hosted Jim Furyk’s win on the men’s side. The women last came in 2000, when Karrie Wood was the champion at the Merit Club. No future Opens are scheduled in these parts either, though the 2017 men’s version is at not-so-far-away Erin Hills in Wisconsin.

The Chicago area is not without a presence in golf’s biggest tournaments, however. Though the USGA again bypassed Chicago for a men’s sectional qualifier there were three local qualifiers in Illinois – at Village Links of Glen Ellyn and Illini Country Club in Springfield on May 9 and Exmoor Country Club in Highland Park on May 16.

Local qualifiers aren’t needed on the women’s side, but one of the 21 U.S. sectional sites was Oak Park Country Club on May 23.

The fact that both the U.S. Open and U.S. Women’s Open can’t be confined to June anymore reflects just how big both events have become. First of the 111 men’s local qualifiers was back on May 2 and the finals of the Women’s Open had to be pushed back into July. They’ll be held July 7-10 at CordeValle in California.

Another indication of the huge scope of the U.S. Opens in the age span of the entrants, particularly on the women’s side. The youngest was 11-year old Xiaowen Ying of China and the oldest was 73-year old Jerilyn Britz, the tourney’s 1979 champion. Britz, though, may not tee it up. She hasn’t played in the tournament since 1991 when she missed the cut at Colonial, in Texas.

Still another indication of the broad scope of these championships is the broadcast schedule. Fox will provide over 40 hours of live coverage of the U.S. Open and the tourney will be shown in more than 170 countries through international broadcast partners.

The first U.S. Open in 1895 was played over just 36 holes on a nine-hole course in Rhode Island. It drew only 11 entrants. The first U.S. Women’s Open in 1946 was a match play event — the only time that format was used in either U.S. Open — but it required a 36-hole qualifying session to whittle the entries from 39 to 32.

Golf has come a long, long way since those humble beginnings for its biggest men’s and women’s championships. There was no PGA or LPGA tours when the first Opens were played. Keep all that in mind while you enjoy these always specials events over the next few weeks.

Could Mistwood’s playing staff be the best in the U.S.?

Mistwood director of golf Andy Mickelson said it, almost without any hesitation.

“I’d be bold enough to say that we could put our playing staff against any in the country,’’ Mickelson told me.

And I couldn’t argue with him.

Mistwood owner Jim McWethy has a big staff of teaching pros in Romeoville and their playing resumes are impressive entering the first big month of the competitive season in the Chicago area.

Start with Mickelson. He won the PGA Assistants national championship in November on the Wanamaker Course at PGA Golf Club in Port St. Lucie, FL., and then proved that was no fluke by winning the TaylorMade national championship at Pebble Beach in March.

Brian Brodell, the director of junior development, is the reigning Illinois PGA Player of the Year and he’ll be out to repeat beginning this month at the 65th IPGA Match Play Championship at Kemper Lakes. That’s the biggest of the May tournaments and the event where Brodell got his big season in 2015 off to a great start. He finished as the runner-up to Merit Club’s Jim Billiter in that one.

But the Mistwood staff is deeper than those two. Chris Ioriatti, performance specialist, shot a record 63 over his home course last year, then teamed up with Mickelson to win the IPGA’s Fall Pro-Assistants title in 2015 and its Spring Pro-Assistants title this year.

And John Platt’s no slouch, either. Mistwood’s director of instruction and long-time coach at the high school and college level, frequently contends in the IPGA Senior tournaments. Brodell, Platt and Ioriatti are well-decorated as teachers and/or coaches but they can play, too.

“We have such a great staff,’’ said Mickelson. “We all motivate each other. That creates a culture people are attracted to; they’re attracted to good golf.’’

Mickelson is the best of the lot at the moment, but is no threat to Brodell’s bid to repeat as IPGA Player of the Year. Mickelson’s status with the PGA of America doesn’t qualify him for either the IPGA Match Play or IPGA Championship – two of the section’s four major tournaments.

While that precludes him from becoming Player of the Year, it doesn’t keep him out of big national events. Last year he won $24,000 with his victories in the PGA Assistants and TaylorMade Championships.

“Of all the club pros, that was probably the hottest six months any of them had,’’ said Mickelson, who could cash in again this November. He will be the only club pro in the Pebble Beach Invitational for TaylorMade’s players on the PGA, LPGA, European and Champions Tours.

Mickelson had a slow start as a professional player. He had no notable amateur wins before turning pro after college, and started as an assistant to then head man Visanu Tongwarin at Mistwood. When he was offered a promising job outside of golf at a Lisle packaging company Mickelson took it and regained his amateur status.

He was runner-up to Bloomington’s Kyle English in the 2011 Chicago District Amateur at Medinah before being lured back into golf via an offer from Mistwood general manager Dan Bradley. Mickelson returned to the club’s staff but it wasn’t until last year that his game exploded. Still, Mickelson — now 34 — has no intention of becoming a touring player.

“With my confidence level and where my game’s at I think I would make money at the professional level,’’ he said, “but not at this place in my life. I have a 4-year old and a 6-year old and I’m married, plus this (Mistwood) is a great place.’’

Brodell’s story is quite different. The son of a club professional in Appleton, Wis., he played college golf at Wisconsin and was the assistant coach for the Badgers for four seasons. Then he moved on to Purdue as an assistant coach for three more campaigns. He came to Mistwood two years ago in part to deal with some personal issues and has thrived on both the teaching and playing front.

“ There’s a difference between being a teacher and a coach,’’ he said. “I love to compete, and I’m confident in my ability. I’ve been through the demons of missing four-footers.’’

Playing-wise, though, he’ll compete just as he did last year – strictly in the IPGA events. Teaching will come first, and his pupils range in age from seven to 69, but Brodell will join Mickelson and Ioriatti in weekly playing sessions with members. The staff hotshots rarely play together, and Brodell won’t go far to play in tournaments, either.

“I won’t travel, but I might caddie a bit,’’ he said. One place he might do that is in the Rust-Oleum Championship, the Web.com Tour stop coming to Ivanhoe Club from June 6-12. Brodell isn’t looking at himself as a player in that event.

“If the Illinois PGA got an exemption for its Player of the Year and I could give it to anyone, I’d give it to Andy,’’ said Brodell. “He’s playing that well right now. I think I could make the cut, but Andy could win.’’

For now, at least, Brodell’s tournament aspirations are geared toward the IPGA Match Play Championship. That event helped his Player of the Year bid last year, but the loss to Billiter in the final remains a bad memory.

“I had won a lot of close matches, then (Billiter) hit one of his worst shots on the 21st hole. It went in the water, and that left the tournament for me to win,’’ said Brodell.

He couldn’t take advantage of the opportunity, though. Brodell had his own problems at Kemper Lakes’ 171-yard par-3 third hole, struggling in with a double bogey. That allowed Billiter to win the match and title with just a bogey.

Player of the Year wasn’t decided until six months later, however, and Billiter contributed to Brodell’s victory, citing club commitments for not playing in either the Illinois Open or IPGA Players Championship. Billiter also won the IPGA Championship, and those are the four events offering the most Player of the Year points.

Brodell didn’t win any of the four IPGA majors but picked up points in all of them. He tied for 12th in the Illinois Open, tied for 28th in the IPGA Championship and tied for third in the IPGA Players Championship. His Player of the Year award was just another reason for the Mistwood crew to celebrate.

Mickelson’s two big wins and the completion of McWethy’s nine-year facility-wide renovation plans also made for happy times at the club, and the celebrating doesn’t figure to end there just yet.

Olympics’ influence will make for a different season in 2016

OK, so the 2014-15 PGA Tour season is over. You want more? No problem. You don’t have to wait long, thanks to the circuit’s decision to go with a split season just like the National Hockey League and National Basketball Assn. have done for years and years.

Last season ended with the FedEx Cup Playoffs, which finished up when the last putt dropped at The Tour Championship in Atlanta.

This season starts with the Frys.com Open on Oct. 15 at Silverado’s North Course in Napa, Calif., with Sangmoon Bae the defending champion. It won’t have a weak field, either, if for no other reason than Rory McIlroy has entered. McIlroy will be making his first appearance in the $6 million event, and Tiger Woods would have been there, too, had he not opted for more back surgery. He had to withdraw after announcing that he would compete in the event.

What used to be the PGA’s Fall Series doesn’t end there, either. The Shriners Hospital for Children’s Open in Las Vegas and the CIMB Classic in Malaysia also have October dates and the OHL Classic at Mayakoba in Mexico and the McGladrey Classic in Georgia will be played in November.

And in December there’s those unofficial events – Tiger Woods’ Hero World Challenge in Florida and the Franklin Templeton Shootout in Florida – along with some of the overseas exhibitions. They traditionally draw the top players who are ready to get their games in shape for the flood of weekly events that begin in January. Jordan Spieth, for instance, believes his “offseason’’ wins in the Australian Open and Hero World Challenge started him on his way to his banner season that included wins in the Masters and U.S. Open. He plans to be back at those two unofficial events this year.

As you can see, tournament golf doesn’t stop these days – not even in the dead of winter. To me, that’s a good thing.

What isn’t so good is what happens to the schedule after the new year – July in particular. The Masters is still in early April (7-10 in 2016), The Players Championship is sill in mid-May (12-15) and the U.S. Open is still in mid-June (16-19 at frequent site Oakmont in Pennyslvania).

July, though, is the heart of the golf season in Chicago, and in 2016 it will also be the heart of the golf season world-wide. A good thing? I don’t think so.

The British Open will be played at Royal Troon from July 14-17, the Canadian Open at Glen Abbey is the next week and the PGA Championship at Baltusrol, in New Jersey, is the week after that. Bunching up the big ones like that only takes some of the luster away from each of them.

That change in scheduling, of course, was due to the Summer Olympics. It’s great that golf is back as an Olympic sport for the first time since 1904, but I’m not so sure that epic development should have come at the expense of the tournaments that have been in the forefront for decades.

Why couldn’t the Olympic organizers have chosen their dates, the countries participating in golf determine their players and the competition go on from there? The PGA Tour could have continued with business as usual and, if some of the other tournaments lose a top player or two to the Olympics, so be it. The PGA Tour schedule didn’t need to be revamped just because of one new tournament, even one that admittedly will have global interest.

The major affected the most, of course, is the PGA Championship. It is traditionally played in mid-August, and the Olympics golf competition is Aug. 11-14. It wouldn’t have made much sense to play the PGA opposite the Olympics, since too many top players would likely prefer to play in Brazil.

Instead the John Deere Classic was put opposite the Olympics. JDC director Clair Peterson, citing his desire to be a “good partner’’ with the PGA Tour, took the decision gracefully. The JDC has thrived in its July dates, especially after Peterson made the brainchild move to hire a jet that would take JDC players directly to the following week’s British Open.

Now there won’t be any jet, and the JDC will likely be without its defending champion. Spieth is a shoo-in to be on the U.S. team in Brazil.

Given the local support the JDC traditionally enjoys, I suspect TPC Deere Run will still be a crowded, exciting place even with the Olympics being shown on television at the same time. One aspect of the JDC scheduling even intrigues me.

As part of pitting the JDC opposite the Olympics the PGA Tour granted Peterson some extra sponsor’s exemptions. Who will he invite? Who knows, but Peterson has consistently used them wisely. Spieth was just one of the many young stars who received an invite to the JDC as a young player and later demonstrated loyalty to the event. Perhaps the difficult scheduling in 2016 will turn out a blessing in disguise for Illinois’ only annual PGA Tour stop down the road. At least I hope so.

The impact of scheduling around the Olympics doesn’t end there, however. The FedEx Cup Playoffs will lose some of their edge as well.

Only two tournaments – the JDC and Wyndham Classic – will be played between the Olympics and The Barclays, first event of the Playoffs. Players in the Olympics – the top stars in the game – have to rest some time. They could well skip those two regular season stops and might even choose to skip a playoff event as well. Players like Phil Mickelson and Sergio Garcia have done that, even with the huge prize money offered in the playoff events.

Things will be back to normal come September, when the BMW Championship returns from Sept. 8-11 at Crooked Stick in Indiana. That’s the site in between two stagings at Conway Farms in Lake Forest.

Again big events are bunched up at least in part because of the addition of the Olympics. The season-ending Tour Championship in Atlanta follows the BMW Championship and before September is out the Ryder Cup begins, on Sept. 30 at Hazeltine in Minnesota. That’s a lot of big-time golf in a condensed period of time. Will it be too much to sustain golf’s mass appeal? We’ll soon find out.

BMW’s return to Conway Farms will be even better this time

The first BMW Championship played at Conway Farms in Lake Forest was voted Tournament of the Year on the PGA Tour. That was in 2013.

When the FedEx Cup Playoff event returns this month it will be even better. Work done by both the Western Golf Assn. and the Conway membership ensures that.

Conway was tournament-tested before the 2013 BMW Championship. All of the tournaments that had been played there, though, were amateur events. There’s a big difference between a club hosting a top-level amateur event and a PGA Tour stop.

While the move from Cog Hill, in Lemont – the WGA’s 20-year site for its premier championship – to Conway Farms was a success, there was inevitable room for improvement in some areas. Those areas were addressed over the past two years as the 2014 BMW Championship was played at Cherry Hills in Denver. The many fans that go back to Conway Farms from Sept. 14-20 will notice the difference and appreciate the improvements.

Conway itself will look different. The club underwent a major renovation, the result making the facility much more spectator-friendly. Seating around the 18th green has been doubled and there’s expanded viewing at Nos. 1, 2, 7, 9, 11 and 17. The Beer Garden has also been doubled in size and cart paths have been widened to improve spectator traffic around the course.

Players fortunate enough to qualify will find the practice facility enhanced. Billy Horschel won at Cherry Hills, so he’ll be the tournament’s defending champion at Conway Farms – assuming, of course, he qualifies for the tournament.

Horschel also went on to claim the $10 million bonus awarded the winner of the FedEx Playoffs last year. The WGA, however, is using Johnson for promotional appearances in its return to Conway Farms and it never hurts to have the reigning British Open champion on hand for those duties. The first of those was throwing out the first pitch at a Cubs’ game at Wrigley Field two days after the 97th PGA Championship concluded at Whistling Straits in Wisconsin last month.

The move from Cog Hill to Conway Farms two years ago was a challenge for the WGA. Chicago’s golfing public had to be educated about where the tourney was going, and the event itself couldn’t have been more memorable. Vince Pellegrino, the WGA’s senior vice president, tournaments, can attest to that. The 2013 BMW Championship had a bit of everything.

“Record heat, frost, every weather pattern that week,’’ recalled Pellegrino. “Jim Furyk shooting a 59 when the average score for that day was par, oscillating balls on the first green, Hunter Mahan getting a hole-in-one, weather delays leading to a Monday finish, then Zach Johnson shooting 65 to win by two strokes.’’

The return to Conway may find that hard to match in terms of memorability.

In looking back, Johnson was no slouch leading into the 2013 BMW Championship; he had won the 2007 Masters and eight other PGA Tour events. But that year he was worried about surviving the third stage of the playoffs. He had put himself in jeopardy by skipping the first playoff event in New York to attend his brother’s wedding.

That family-based decision was understandable, but didn’t help his status in the FedEx point race. Johnson hadn’t won a tournament in 2013 until he got to Conway Farms. His rousing final round produced the victory that sent him to Atlanta, where he tied for seventh.

Since then he added a victory in the 2014 Hyundai Tournament of Champions in addition to his playoff win at the dramatic Open Championship at St. Andrews in Scotland in July. All eyes were on Jordan Spieth and his bid for a third straight major championship at St. Andrews, but Johnson nixed that. He won the title in a three-man playoff with Spieth one shot back.

Johnson and Spieth were also paired in the first two rounds of last month’s PGA Championship, with then world No. 1 Rory McIlroy making it a spectacular threesome. Johnson was odd man out in that group. He missed the 36-hole cut, while Spieth outdueled McIlroy head-to-head and went on to wrest the No. 1 spot in the Official World Golf Rankings from him with a second place finish in the last of the year’s four major championships.

Spieth, beaten by Australian Jason Day at Whistling Straits, and most of the other top stars figure to battle again at Conway Farms – third stop of the FedEx Playoffs. It’ll have the top 70 players in the FedEx standings after the first two events are completed.

The Playoff started with The Barclays event, which was held Aug. 27-30 in New Jersey. The second event is the Deutsche Bank Championship from Sept. 4-7 at TPC Boston in Massachusetts, where the playoff survivors will be cut to 70 for the Conway Farms test. The 70 playing at Conway will be reduced to 30 players for The Tour Championship Sept. 24-27 at East Lake, in Atlanta.

All four of the no-cut playoff events have prize funds of $8.25 million so — while the field at Conway won’t be set until after the event in Boston is over — the incentive for the top players to compete in Lake Forest again is extremely high.

“We certainly expect this year’s to be as highly successful and well-attended as that (last) one was,’’ said Pellegrino. That means another big payoff for a most worthwhile cause.

Since the BMW replaced the Western Open as the WGA’s tour stop in 2007 the tournament has raised more than $19.6 million for the Evans Scholars Foundation, which is financing the college education of 870 caddies this year.

A new event, the Evans Scholars Cup involving teams from 28 Chicago area clubs, will be played on Monday of tournament week at Conway. Tuesday is reserved for practice rounds and Wednesday for the Gardner Heidrick Pro-Am. Tournament rounds are Thursday through Sunday, with 11:30 a.m. starts planned for the first two days and 7:30 a.m. teeoffs for the weekend rounds.

Unlike 2013, the WGA has set an attendance limit for this year’s BMW. Crowds will be limited to 27,000 to help create a better spectator experience. The third-round crowd hit 35,000 at Conway two years ago.

Golf Channel will televise the first two rounds and will share broadcast duties with NBC on the weekend rounds. The 70 players will play for a purse of $8.25 million with the champion receiving $1,485,000.

Illinois amateur golf is at its best since the 1980s

The Illinois State Amateur was played for the 85th time in July, and this time it was more than a golf tournament. It was a showcase.

If nothing else, we should take away one thing from this State Am: the state of amateur golf in Illinois is at its highest level in many, many years. Frankly, I don’t think the caliber of play is quite at the level it was in the 1980s when the stars of the show were Gary Hallberg, Lance Ten Broeck, Gary Pinns, David Ogrin, Roy Biancalana and Jerry Haas – but it’s getting there.

Those guys went on to do a lot of good things at the next level (Hallberg, Ten Broeck and Ogrin even won on the PGA Tour) and I suspect members of the current cast of characters will do so as well.

Tee-K Kelly, for instance, has already done something that Ten Broeck, Pinns and Biancalana couldn’t do. He won the Illinois State Amateur a second time at Panther Creek in Springfield, his first win coming in 2013 at Aldeen in Rockford. Only 15 players have won the State Am multiple times, the most prominent being D.A. Points. Now a solid PGA Tour regular, Points ruled the state’s amateurs in 1995, 1998 and 1999.

Kelly was the first since Todd Mitchell’s completion of a back-to-back in 2003 to win a second title. It’ll be interesting to see where Kelly’s golf career goes from here. He played well in another big event this summer, finishing second to Bloomington’s Alex Burge in the Chicago District Amateur. Kelly has only the Western Amateur at Rich Harvest Farms left on his summer schedule, but a senior season at Ohio State awaits for the Medinah member.

I’m intrigued by more than Kelly, however. At the top of my list is Ray Knoll, soon to be a junior at Iowa. What’s with those Hawkeyes anyway? Knoll won the State Am last year, succeeding Iowa players Vince India and Brad Hopfinger as former champions. And Brian Bullington of Frankfort was the first-round leader this year after shooting a 66.

Knoll couldn’t defend his title, but showed his abounding promise in the final round when he let it all hang out and shot a course record 8-under-par 63. That is generally believed to be the lowest round shot in the State Am, records being sketchy from some past years.

Not only did he shoot that one low round, he also posted what’s believed to be the first albatross in the history of the tournament. The ability to pull off big shots is there, no doubt about it.

Knoll saw his title defense evaporate after shooting a 75 in the morning 18 holes of the 36-hole final day at Panther Creek. Making six birdies in the first 11 holes in the afternoon, all from the four to 10-foot range, Knoll climbed the leaderboard but saved his best for No. 15, a 576-yard par-5.

“Going to the last round I knew I didn’t have a chance to win, but I was playing good and just tried to be aggressive,’’ he said. So, at No. 15 he blasted a “perfect’’ drive, then studied the possibility of going for the green with his second.

“I didn’t know what my yardage was because my rangefinder died when I was on the 10th hole,’’ he said. “I stepped it off from the 200-yard marker and found the yardage was 267 yards plus three more to the pin. I hit a high draw with my 3-wood and swung a little harder because that distance was a little out of my range.’’

Well, actually it wasn’t. His ball landed on the front of the green, bounced once and rolled into the hole. It was his second albatross, the first coming on a 6-iron shot from 191 yards while playing an informal round with his father at Hickory Ridge in Carbondale. This one elevated Knoll to under-par status for the tournament and into a tie for sixth place. That’s got to get your attention.

Knoll’s hot round took the spotlight away from Northbrook’s Nick Hardy, who is coming off a terrific freshman year at Illinois and matched the Panther Creek record of 65 before Knoll topped him. Hardy also made the cut in the U.S. Open at Chambers Bay, so he’s going places, for sure. Watch for him in both the Western and U.S. Amateurs this month, to say nothing of future years.

And Hardy isn’t the only young phenom in the state ranks. The State Am was a coming out part of sorts for 18-year old Conor Dore. Rarely do Chicago city residents surface in big state-wide tournaments, but Dore did. He led the State Am by four strokes entering the final round and had a putt to win at Panther Creek on the last hole of regulation but left a 30-foot birdie try short. Then he lost the title in a playoff with Kelly.

The near-miss by Dore, just out of Whitney Young High School, was reminiscent of Quinlan Prchal’s showing just out of high school in the 2012 State Am. Prchal, from Glenview, won the title at Kokopelli, in Carbondale, before heading to his freshman year at Princeton. He tied for 16th at Panther Creek, by the way, so he’s still very much in the mix for future stardom.

Dore’s tournament schedule has been almost entirely in the junior ranks so far. That’s what college coaches had advised him to do. But he did step out once last year at age 17 and led a qualifying session for the Illinois Open. He missed the cut in the tournament proper, but his strong showing in the State Amateur – he led for most of the final round — was eye-opening.

I’d class Hardy and Dore, who is headed to Southern Illinois-Edwardsville, as the very young in this era of players with so much promise. A couple with a little more seasoning who are worth noting are Alex Burge, a redshirt senior in coach Mike Small’s powerhouse program at Illinois, and Bullington, a recent Iowa grad.

Hardy wound up third at Panther Creek while Burge was fourth and Bullington tied for sixth.