Len Ziehm On Golf

Koepka played like Dustin’s double in claiming U.S. Open title

ERIN, Wis. – No, Dustin Johnson didn’t defend his U.S. Open title on Sunday. In fact, the game’s No. 1-ranked player didn’t even qualify for the weekend rounds at Erin Hills.

But Brooks Koepka did win, and he might well be a reincarnation of Johnson. They are close friends. They play lots of practice rounds together, and they frequently dine together on the road.

On Saturday night Johnson called Koepka.

“It was probably not that interesting,’’ said Koepka. “For us it was a long conversation – about two minutes. We played a practice round here on Tuesday, and he basically just said `you’re good enough to win.’’

And he was.

Koepka, 27, played just like Johnson does when he’s on his game. He dominated the final round of the 117th playing of America’s national championship and tied the tournament record for lowest 72-hole score in relation to par. He posted 16-under 272 after a 67 on Sunday and won by four strokes over third-round leader Brian Harman and Japan’s Hideki Matsuyama.

Veteran tour player Bill Haas, who had his best-ever finish in the Open with a tie for fifth, was quick to compare Koepka with Johnson.

“He’s just really impressive physically,’’ said Haas. “He just pounds the ball and he hits it very straight. He’s got a lot of Dustin Johnson in him, and he’s going to overpower golf courses. He’s got a great demeanor. Just like Dustin, nothing seems to bother them.’’

Koepka started the day one stroke behind Harman and tied with Justin Thomas and Tommy Fleetwood. Thomas, paired with Harman in the last twosome, struggled after his record 63 round of Saturday and finished in a tie for ninth. Fleetwood, paired with Koepka, was solo fourth.

A birdie-birdie start put Koepka into the lead and he protected it the rest of the way. Matsuyama, playing six groups in front of Koepka, shot the day’s low round of 66 and his 12-under score was the target that Koepka needed to beat with five holes left in his round. He did it with birdies of Nos. 14, 15 and 16 and two closing pars.

The one thing that eluded him was sole possession of the tournament 72-hole scoring record in relation to par. He could only match the standard set by Rory McIlroy at Congressional in 2011. Still, Koepka had only one three-putt in the heat of Sunday’s final round and he missed only 10 greens in regulation all week.

“That’s probably one of the coolest things I’ve ever experienced and to do it on Father’s Day is pretty neat,’’ said Koepka. `I didn’t exactly get my dad a card, so I hope this works. This is probably the first major that anyone in my family missed. I don’t know if that’s saying anything.’’

Well, it does suggest that Koepka can take care of himself, as he did immediately after making an unusual decision to start his professional career. After playing collegiately at Florida State he turned pro in 2012. Rather than compete for a spot on one of the PGA tours Koepka opted to start in Europe. Few American players do that, but for Koepka it worked.

He won four times on the European Challenge Tour, then once on the European Tour and once in Japan. His U.S. Open title came after only one win on the PGA Tour.

“I have felt like I’m an under-achiever because I tried so hard to win. I felt like I should be winning more,’’ he said. “I needed to stay patient and not get ahead of myself.’’

For 72 holes at a new U.S. Open venue he was able to do that, and the emotions showed on his cart ride from the 18th green to the scoring tent.

“I played real solid from the moment I got here,’’ said Koepka, “but that was probably the most emotion I have ever showed.’’

Women’s major at Olympia Fields tries to match a successful U.S. Open

These are unprecedented times for spectator golf around the Chicago area. Last week it was the U.S. Open at Erin Hills. Next week it’s a women’s major – the KPMG Women’s PGA Championship at Olympia Fields.

The best players in women’s golf start showing their skills at the south suburban private club on Tuesday in a star-studded pro-am. After a day of practice the 72-hole battle for a $3.5 million purse – one of the biggest in women’s golf — is on the line beginning on Thursday, June 29.

Once named the LPGA Championship, the tourney became an unprecedented collaboration between the Ladies PGA Tour and the PGA of America three years ago at Westchester Country Club in New York. Last year’s event was at Sahalee, in Washington, and Chicago gets the next two—at Olympia Fields and then at Kemper Lakes, in Kildeer, in 2018.

Tuesday’s pro-am, which tees off at 7:30 a.m., features former Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice, Olympic figure skater Michelle Kwan, comedian George Lopez and Chicago sports legends Brian Urlacher, Ryne Sandberg and Greg Maddux.

The 156-player field in the tournament proper includes defending champion Brooke Henderson. World No. 1 Ariya Jutanugarn and American mainstays Stacy Lewis, Cristie Kerr and Lexi Thompson.

U.S. Open aftermath

Back in 1990, when Medinah hosted the last of its three U.S. Opens, members weren’t happy with the record low scoring. Ideal weather, much like that last week at Erin Hills, led to the low scores but Medinah members felt the course setup wasn’t challenging enough as well.

With one exception, those U.S. Open scoring records set 27 years ago are no more thanks to the shootout in Wisconsin. Medinah yielded 28 sub-par scores for the 72 holes in 1990. Thirty-one players finished under par at Erin Hills.

The total number of sub-par rounds at Erin Hills was 140, which surpassed the previous record of 122 at Medinah, and the 44 sub-par scores in the first round at Erin Hills erased the record of 39 at Medinah. The one Medinah record still on the books is for most sub-par scores in one round. Medinah yielded 47 on its most vulnerable day while the most in any one round at Erin Hills was 46.

Medinah unveils new Nos. 2 course

Medinah’s No. 2 course is back in operation after undergoing a unique $3.6 million renovation jointly created by architect Rees Jones, superintendent Curtis Tyrrell, head professional Marty DeAngelo and instruction staffers Travis Johns and Rich Dukelow.

No. 2 was basically untouched since original architect Tom Bendelow designed it in 1927. The new course will be the most versatile of the three layouts at the club. Each hole has seven tee placements and will be the base for a “Golf for Life’’ program that DeAngelo has created “to bring enjoyment for all skills without the use of handicaps.’’

“The No. 2 course was always known as the ladies course, but now it’s the most appropriate venue for higher handicappers and casual golfers,’’ said Jones. “It has the potential to become the most popular golf course in the entire city of Chicago.’’

Here and there

Three of the 12 Illinois PGA members who qualified for this week’s Professional Players National Championship in Sunriver, Ore., survived the 36-hole cut. Curtis Malm, of White Eagle in Naperville; Mike Small, the Illinois men’s coach; and Jim Billiter, of Kemper Lakes, will compete through Wednesday (TODAY) and the top 20 qualify for August’s PGA Championship at Quail Hollow in North Carolina.

More than 150 of the world’s top junior golfers are competing in the 100th Western Junior Championship this week at Park Ridge Country Club. The field will be cut to the low 44 and ties after today’s (WEDNESDAY) round and the survivors will play 36 holes on Thursday to determine the champion. Sean Maruyama, a UCLA recruit from Los Angeles, is bidding to become the tourney’s first repeat champion in 76 years.

The 98th Chicago District Amateur begins its four-day run on Tuesday (JUNE 27) at Briar Ridge in Schererville, Ind. The tournament has been played outside of Illinois only five times, the last in 1998 when The Dunes Club in Michigan hosted.

Canadian Maddie Szeryk captured last week’s 117th Women’s Western Amateur at River Forest in Elmhurst.

Medinah’s Tee-K Kelly followed up his win in the Dominican Republic with a fourth-place finish in Jamaica on Sunday on PGA Tour Latinoamerica. Elgin’s Carlos Sainz Jr., the reigning Illinois Open champion, tied fors seventh in Jamaica.

Thomas’ 63 is the best round in U.S. Open history

ERIN, Wis. – No, Justin Thomas isn’t leading the U.S. Open going into today’s final round but he’s definitely the man of the hour at Erin Hills.

The 24-year old from Louisville, Ky., shot the lowest round in the 117-year history of America’s premier golf championship on Saturday – a 9-under-par 63. He trails Brian Harman by one stroke going into the final 18 holes.

Johnny Miller posted the first 63 in U.S. Open history in the final round of the 1973 championship at Oakmont, in Pennsylvania. Oakmont was a par-71 course then, so Miller was 8-under par.

Three other players posted 63s in the Open. Jack Nicklaus and Tom Weiskopf did it in 1980 and Vijay Singh in 2003. All were on par-70 courses, so they were 7-under. Only Thomas reached 9-under, and he did it despite making two bogeys along the way.

“That means I’m a part of history. It means I have a lot better cce to win the tournament than I did when the day started,’’ said Thomas. “It’s all pretty self-explanatory in terms of what it means. But just for me, I’ve been playing pretty well all week and didn’t quite have the numbers to show for it. Obviously today I definitely had something to show for it.’’

Thomas started the day at 2-under-par after a 73-69 start. He was in a 9-way tie for 24th place when he teed off and is tied for second with American Brooks Koepka and England’s Tommy Fleetwood heading into the tournament’s first-ever staging in Wisconsin and first in the Midwest since Olympia Fields hosted in 2003.

Thomas’ card featured 10 threes and a two. Put another way, he had 10 birdies, two bogeys, five pars and – in a finish that couldn’t have been more spectacular – an eagle. It came at the second-longest hole in Open history. Erin Hills’ finisher was set up at 637 yards on Saturday. Oakmont’s No. 12 played at 694 yards in the first round of last year’s U.S. Open.

Coming off a birdie at the 17th, Thomas hit 3-wood off the tee to stay clear of fairway bunkers and had a tough decision to make on his second shot.

“I had 310 to the hole, but it was downwind to where I knew if I hit it solid I could definitely get it there,’’ he said. “I also knew my miss, if I hit it off the bottom or got spiny, it was going to be in those front bunkers, which was fine. That was perfect. All my caddie and I were trying to do was give ourselves a chance to make four and get out of there.’’

Thomas went with the 3-wood and put it eight feet from the cup as the huge gallery around the green went crazy. Then Thomas had to wait to attempt his eagle putt because playing partner Jonathan Randolph was struggling his way to a bogey before Thomas could putt.

Once he did, though, the ball went straight into the hole and the cheers got even louder.

Thomas said Friday night rains helped on his long second shot. Without a softer-than-usual green he couldn’t have stopped a 3-wood on the putting surface. Once he did the considerations of posting a 63 came to mind.

“I knew what it was score-wise. I knew it was for 63. You’ve got leaderboards everywhere and you usually have an idea what you’re doing,’’ said Thomas. “But I had no idea in terms of 9-under being the best in the U.S. Open.’’

Thomas is no stranger to low scores. He became the youngest player to shoot a 59 on the PGA Tour when he did it en route to winning the Sony Open in Hawaii in January.

Prior to turning pro Thomas became the third youngest player to make the cut in a PGA Tour event. He did it at age 16 in the 2009 Wyndham Classic before heading to the University of Alabama. He turned pro in 2013 and – prior to Saturday – his career highlight was back-to-back wins in Hawaii to begin the 2017 part of the PGA Tour season.

Top three stars aren’t needed to make Erin Hills’ Open a special event

ERIN, Wis. – Phil Mickelson doesn’t show up and defending champion Dustin Johnson, Rory McIlroy and Jason Day – the top three players in the Official World Golf Rankings – miss the 36-hole cut. What kind of U.S. Open is this anyway?

Actually, it’s been quite a good one in terms of competitiveness and the quality of golf demonstrated over the first two days at Erin Hills, a new venue for America’s premier championship.

As far as the competition goes, there’s a four-way tie at the top of the leaderboard midway through the 117th playing of the tournament with Americans Brian Harman and Brooks Koepka and English stars Paul Casey and Tommy Fleetwood setting the pace.

Another trio of players, including first-round leader Rickie Fowler, are one stroke back and five more — among them Japan star Hideki Matsuyama who posted a sizzling 65 on Friday – trailing by two.

The four co-leaders are at 7-under-par 137. Very rarely does a U.S. Open produce scoring that good.

“The condition of the course has more to do with the low scoring than anything,’’ said Harman. “The course is absolutely immaculate and the greens are some of the best I’ve ever putted on.’’

Harman’s run at the coveted title has a special twist going into the weekend rounds. He’s a left-handed golfer, and the Open is the only one of the four major championships that hasn’t produced a left-handed champion. That’s largely because the absent Mickelson has been second a record six times while posting wins in the Masters, British Open and PGA Championship.

“I forget that I’m left-handed because all I see is right-handers every day,’’ said Harman.

Though this is the first time he ever made a cut in the U.S. Open, Harman’s swing from the “opposite’’ side has worked well in the past in U.S. Golf Association events. He was the U.S. Junior champion in 2003 and played on two U.S. Walker Cup teams.

As a PGA Tour player he had a breakthrough win at the 2014 John Deere Classic and won the Wells Fargo Championship this year. Now his sights are set on a major – this one.

“My time is not unlimited here,’’ said Harman. “I want to take advantage of every opportunity I have.’’

And this is a good one, to be sure.

Of the other front-runners Casey had the most interesting day in the second round.

“Not every day you enjoy a round of golf with an eight on the card, but I’m a pretty happy man,’’ he said. The eight came as a triple bogey on No. 14, one of two holes set up at over 600 yards on the back nine. Casey recovered to shoot 71, bouncing back with five birdies in a row at one stretch after his mishap.

Fleetwood, who plays basically on the European PGA Tour, feels like he’s entering a new world.

“I’ve never done this before. I’ve never played a U.S. Open, so it’s going to be great, a very cool experience,’’ he said.

Koepka felt his superior length was what put his at the top of the leaderboard.

“It’s not easy, by any means. It’s the U.S. Open,’’ he said. “But I played pretty well. I had a few errant shots, but I’ve only hit 7-iron – that’s the longest I’ve hit into any par-4.’’

Fowler shot 65 on Thursday, matching the record for the lowest score in relation to par in the history of the tournament. On Friday he watched playing partner Matsuyama post the same score while Fowler dropped out of the lead after making three straight bogeys on the back nine.

While Fowler tied for second in the U.S. Open in 2014 – a year in which he cracked the top five in all four major championships – he missed the cut four times in his eight appearances in the tournament including the last two years.

“I haven’t had the best showing the last couple years and it’s nice to get back up there,’’ he said. “This is definitely one of the harder tests we get on a yearly basis. This year, with the softer conditions the first two days, you would probably say the scores were lower than what you’re used to seeing – but it’s been fun.’’

Dustin Johnson’s the man to beat at Erin Hills

ERIN, Wis. — No matter how you slice it, Dustin Johnson is at the top of the golf world. The FedEx Cup standings say so. So do the Official World Golf Rankings. And, starting today, Johnson will defend the most prestigious title he’s ever won at the U.S. Open.

So, what could possibly go wrong for him at Erin Hills?

Well, the other 155 players in the field could take heart from the fact that Johnson hasn’t won since before the last major championship – April’s Masters – and Johnson didn’t even play in that one. He took a fall down some stairs on the eve of that tournament, injured his back and his game hasn’t been as good since.

“It was a freak accident, and obviously disappointing,’’ said Johnson while heavy afternoon rains wiped out his rivals’ final practice time for the Open. “I watched most of the Masters lying on a couch. Leading in I was playing the best golf I’ve played. I’ve still got work to do to get back to playing that good.’’

And doing the “work’’ hasn’t been easy because Johnson has had other things on his mind lately. Fiance Paulina Gretzky gave birth to their second child on Monday – a son named River Jones Johnson.

Insisting the name came from “Mama,’’ Johnson was pleased to report that “everybody’s healthy’’ and it’s full steam ahead for him to become the Open’s first repeat champion since Curtis Strange in 1988-89.

“It helps that Paulina and my son are home now, and I don’t have to worry about them,’’ said Johnson. “Now I’ve got to play golf.’’

He said his participation in the Open was in jeopardy for a while “depending on what happened with the baby…..But I’m here, and I’m playing.’’

Actually, Johnson could have been going for an Open three-peat had he not three-putted the final green at Chambers Bay in 2015, handing the title to Jordan Spieth.

Like Chambers Bay, Erin Hills is hosting the U.S. Open for the first time.

“I really like it,’’ said Johnson. “Like all U.S. Open courses there’s a big premium on driving in the fairways. Given the conditions the last few days the course is soft and will be playing long. That sets up very well for me.’’

Another storm pelted the Erin Hills Media Center as Johnson declared his readiness. The fact that he didn’t show up at Erin Hills until Tuesday was insignificant. So was the fact that he shot 78-74 to miss the cut in his last tournament, the Memorial.

“I didn’t want to do that, but it worked out because I got to practice two days here,’’ said Johnson. “I may have come in late this week, but I don’t feel behind the 8-ball at all. I’m happy to defend. I feel my game’s in good shape. I’m prepared.’’

Since his freak fall before the Masters Johnson had a tie for second in a weak field at the Wells Fargo Championship, a tie for 12th in a strong field at The Players Championship and a tie for 13th at the Byron Nelson Classic before his collapse at the Memorial.

Those showings created some shuffling in the two most significant ranking systems, but didn’t unseat Johnson as No. 1 in both. In the PGA Tour’s FedEx Cup standings he’s trailed by Justin Thomas, Hidecki Matsuyama, Jon Rahm and Jordan Spieth.

In the Official World Golf Rankings his closest pursuers are Rory McIlroy, Jason Day, Matsuyama and Spieth. They’re all here to give chase to Johnson on a course that plays into Johnson’s strength. Erin Hills is the longest course to host a major championship.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Here and there

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A third straight Final Four finish for Illini golfers

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Stem-cell therapy gives golfer India a career boost

Deerfield’s Vince India has won the Illinois State Amateur and been runner-up in the Illinois Open. Now he’s poised to go on to bigger and better things thanks to his willingness to try stem-cell therapy to cure his ailing back.

“Stem-cell therapy is in more of a clinical stage now,’’ said India, who has playing privileges on the PGA’s Web.com Tour. “But it’s becoming more widespread since there’s been some tremendous results with initial patients.’’

India was one of those. He, along with two other Web.com players, underwent treatment together. Since then India has made the cut in three of his last five Web.com starts and had his best finish – a tie for 19th in Mexico. Last week he played in a U.S. Open local qualifier in Wisconsin and tied for third, which advanced him to sectional play.

All that’s encouraging but, more important, his back feels better.

“It’s way better than what it was, and I think that down the road my back will be better than it ever was,’’ said India, who will be in the field when the Web.com Tour visits Ivanhoe Club for the $600,000 Rust-Oleum Championship from June 8-11.

While admitting that an MRI in three months will give him a better feel for the effectiveness of his stem-cell treatment, India believes that another, much more celebrated a player, should have given it a try long ago.

“Tiger (Woods) should have had this done three-four years ago,’’ said India. Woods tried various surgical procedures instead, and he’s still unable to resume full-time tournament play.

India opted to start his U.S. Open bid at The Bull at Pinehurst Farms, a Jack Nicklaus design in Sheboygan Falls, Wis., because it better fit his Web.com Tour schedule. That’s why he didn’t play in the last of three Illinois local qualifiers on Monday at Cantigny, in Wheaton.

Cantigny had one of the bigger locals, 90 players going for five sectional berths. Rockford’s Jeffrey Kellen was low man, shooting a 5-under-par 67 on Cantigny’s Woodside and Hillside nines. He was one better than Brian Bullington of Frankfort.
Also advancing to sectional play at Cantigny were Justin Choi of Northfield, Kyle Kochevar of Glen Ellyn and Garrett Chaussard, the pro at Skokie Country Club who was a semifinalist in Monday’s Illinois PGA Match Play Championship at Kemper Lakes..

Legends at Geneva National

The LPGA Legends Tour holds its first tournament close to the Chicago area this weekend when the 36-hole Red Nose Day Walgreens Charity Championship tees off on the Gary Player Course at Geneva National in Lake Geneva. Wis.

Tournament rounds will start at 8:30 a.m. on Saturday and Sunday with the 54-player field featuring Juli Inkster, Pat Bradley, Laura Davies and Betsy King. Allison Finney and Nicole Jeray, the only players on the 45 and over circuit with Chicago backgrounds, are also in the field.

The $300,000 event will be preceded by a noon shotgun pro-am on Thursday on both the Arnold Palmer and Player courses and a 10 a.m. qualifying tournament plus and clinics and exhibitions starting at 4 p.m. on Friday.

WGA, WWGA form new partnership

The Western Golf Association and Women’s Western Golf Association have jointly announced a change in their partnership effective on Aug. 1. A five-year agreement will go into effect on that date that calls for the WGA to help stage and promote the Women’s Western Amateur and Women’s Western Junior tournaments and also secure sites for those events.

The new agreement won’t affect with 117th Women’s Western Amateur, scheduled for June 12-17 at River Forest Country Club in Elmhurst, or the 91st Women’s Western Junior, slated for July 10-14 at Dubuque Golf & Country Club in Iowa.

NCAA finals are closing in

The men’s field for the NCAA finals at Rich Harvest in Sugar Grove will be finalized on Wednesday (TODAY) with the completion of six regional events across the country. Illinois is battling for a finals berth in West Lafayette, Ind., and Northwestern is seeking to advance at Baton Rouge, La.

Meanwhile the finalists in the women’s tournament will begin play at Rich Harvest at 7:30 a.m. on Friday. Four rounds of competition will conclude on Monday before the top eight teams determine the team champion in two days of match play. The men’s finals at Rich Harvest will run from May 26-31.