Illini men take three-tourney winning streak into NCAA regional

The University of Illinois men’s team earned its 15th straight appearance in NCAA regional play, which starts on Monday.  That was no surprise after the Illini won their seventh straight Big Ten title and 12th in the last 13 years last week, extending a run of three straight tournament titles.

Now things get more difficult.  Coach Mike Small’s team was assigned the No. 4 seed the Yale Regional in New Haven, Ct.  It begins a 54-hole run Monday and the top five teams go to the NCAA finals  at May 27-June 1 at Grayhawk, in Scottsdale, Ariz.

“As a program you always want to build momentum at the right time of the year,’’ said Small.  “We’ve gotten better every month, and we were pretty solid in the last three tournaments.’’

Regardless of how the Illini perform in NCAA play, they figure to remain a collegiate power for at least another season.  Small’s top two players, seniors Adrien DuMont de Chaussart and Tommy Kuhl,  have decided to use a fifth season of eligibility – an opportunity afforded by pandemic issues.

This year Small had an inexperienced team.  Next year that won’t be the case, and the Illini hope to build on their streaks – Big Ten championships, NCAA regionals and NCAA Championships after their run in their year’s NCAA tourney.

If the Illini survive the regional in Connecticut they’ll make their 14th straight appearance in the NCAA finals.  With their present 13 the Illini have the second longest streak in the finals, one behind Texas’ 14.

“These streaks mean a lot to everybody,’’ said Small.  “They show good longevity, but there’s a little added pressure.  Each team has to play for its own identity, not for the teams from the past.  But I know they’re excited about the NCAA.’’

U.S. WOMEN’S OPEN:  Naperville’s Lisa Copeland, who finished third in the Girls 12-13 age group at April’s Drive Chip & Putt national finals at Georgia’s Augusta National, was in the spotlight again at Monday’s 36-hole qualifying round for the U.S. Women’s Open at Stonebridge, in Aurora.

Lisa was in a 4-way tie for second after shoot 71 in the morning round of the 36-hole elimination. Only one berth in the U.S. Women’s Open was on the line, however, and  Mexico’s Lisa Gutierrez, who played collegiately at the University of New Mexico and is now on the LPGA’s Epsom (formerly Symetra) Tour, got it with  a 70-72 performance on the 6,309-yard par-72 layout that hosted last year’s Illinois Open.

Lisa was a two-time qualifier out of the Medinah Regional for the Drive Chip & Putt national finals. She plays out of Cog Hill, in Palos Park,  and is coached by that club’s Kevin Weeks.

HERE AND THERE: After not being held for two years the Chicago Baseball Cancer Charities outing will be staged for the 51st time on July 14 at Twin Orchard, in Long Grove. Twin Orchard, gearing up for its centennial celebration in 2024, will begin a renovation of its White Course in August with architect Drew Rogers supervising the project that also includes the addition of four pickleball courts.

Jason Hyatt, head coach at College of DuPage and a member of the teaching staff at Cantigny, in Winfield, has been named to the NCAA Men’s Coaching Association Hall of Fame.  In his 19th season as COD’s coach, Hyatt won the NCAA title and was part of national championship teams in 1997 and 1998 as a player there. His current team goes after its 10th regional title beginning on Sunday at Prairieview, in Dixon.

A local qualifier for the U.S Senior Open will be held today at Biltmore, in North Barrington, and a U.S. Open local elimination is on top for Monday at Lake Shore, in Glencoe.

Judson University will hold a golf outing to benefit its World Leaders Forum on June 13 at Bull Valley, in Woodstock.

 

John Deere Classic gives Flavin the royal treatment

 

The awarding of sponsor’s exemptions isn’t a big deal at a PGA Tour event.  Tournament directors usually announce the lucky four or so winners in the early days of tournament week.

That’s not the case with this year’s John Deere Classic, however.  Highwood’s Patrick Flavin received the good news nearly two months  before the JDC, which tees off on June 30 at TPC Deere Run in downstate Silvis.

Not only did JDC executive director Clair Peterson declare Flavin the first special exemption for this year’s tourney, he also invited him to the event’s May 13 media preview event where he will share the spotlight with defending champion Lucas Glover. Rarely are non-PGA Tour members accorded that honor.

“I’m pumped.  This is a dream come true,’’ said Flavin, who starred for his college team at Miami of Ohio but got his first major notoriety by winning both the Illinois State Amateur and Illinois Open in the same year (2017). Only David Ogrin, a PGA journeyman, had accomplished that feat, back in 1980.

“Patrick’s performance in Monday qualifiers this season in addition to his strong college career and Midwestern roots compelled us to invite him,’’ said Peterson.

Flavin’s showing in the 18-hole Monday rounds, in which about 100 players compete for four berths in the tournament proper, particularly caught Peterson’s attention. Flavin sees them as his path to the PGA Tour, and so far so good.

Flavin survived the Monday qualifier for the Bermuda Open and tied for 17th in the tournament.  He survived the Monday qualifier for the Puerto Rico Open and tied for 22nd.

In addition to those successes he narrowly lost spots in Monday playoffs at the Waste Management Phoenix Open and Valspar Championship and was one shot out of a playoff for a berth in this week’s Wells Fargo Championship.

Though Flavin survived on Monday at last week’s Mexico Open he missed the cut and didn’t cash in for prize money or the all-important FedEx Cup points.

“I need enough points to get into the last three Korn Ferry (Tour) events of the year,’’ said Flavin.  “That’s my goal.  That’s the carrot I’m chasing.’’

If he gets into the Korn Ferry Finals and finishes in the top 25 he’ll get his PGA Tour card.  It’s not an impossible feat.  Patrick Reed tried the Monday qualifier rout in 2012 and survived six of them. In 2018 he won the Masters.

Sponsor exemptions also can lead to FedEx points, and Flavin earned some when he was invited to the Corales Puntacana tourney in the Dominican Republic and tied for 54th.  Now the only PGA Tour event in his home state has also opened a door for him.

“John Deere’s a game-changer,’’ said Flavin.  “I’ve given myself lots of opportunities. I’ve gotten so much better, but the biggest change is mentally.  It’s just feeling you belong.  I’m really in a good place.’’

Flavin has earned 75 FedEx points in the three PGA Tour events in which he made the cut and estimates he’ll need 100 to get into the Korn Ferry Finals. He could get 100 just by playing well in the JDC and hopes to compete in Illinois before that.

Last year the Western Golf Association gave him a sponsor’s exemption into its Evans Scholars Invitational, and Flavin finished fifth in that Korn Ferry stop.  He’s hoping for  a return to the tourney, renamed the NV5 Invitational, when it comes to The Glen Club May 26-29.

 

HERE AND THERE: The Illinois men’s team rallied in Sunday’s third round of the Big Ten championships at French Lick, Ind., to win the league title for the seventh straight year and 12th in the last 13. The Illini learn where they’ll be playing the regional stage of the NCAA tournament at today’s 3 p.m. Golf Channel announcement..

Kent State won the Mid American Conference title for the sixth straight time last week at White Eagle, in Naperville.  Northern Illinois finished third, but the Huskies had a notable accomplishment on the women’s side.  Jasmine Ly, who won the MAC title a week earlier, became the first NIU woman to qualify for the NCAAs.

Illinois alum Nick Hardy is dealing with a wrist injury in his rookie season on the PGA Tour.  He hopes to return to action at the Byron Nelson Classic.

The 32nd season of the Golfers on Golf Radio show begins at 10 a.m. on Saturday on WNDZ (750-AM). Rory Spears, Ed Stevenson, Bill Berger and myself will return as co-hosts of the longest-running golf radio show in the Chicago area.

 

Illini golfers are ready for another Big Ten title run at French Lick

Coach Mike Small’s University of Illinois men’s golf team hasn’t been the powerhouse this season that it had been during most of the last two decades.

Things changed for the Illini  in a big way at this crucial point of the season, however.

The Illini tied for the title in their first tournament, then went seven straight events without a victory before winning their last two in commanding fashion.  They expanded a one-stroke lead to eight in the final round of the Boilermaker Invitational on Purdue’s home course two weeks ago, then defended their title in Ohio State’s Kepler Invitational on Sunday by expanding a seven-stroke lead to 13 in a rousing final round..

Adrien Dumont de Chassart, a senior from Belgium, enjoyed a big two weeks.  He captured his third collegiate victory at Purdue, then was named to the International team for the second time in the Palmer Cup, a high profile team event that’ll be played July 1-3 in Switzerland.

De Chassart played in the event in 2021 when the Palmer Cup was held at Rich Harvest Farms, in Sugar Grove.  He’ll become the second Illini to play in two Palmer Cups, fellow Belgian Thomas Detry being the first in 2014 and 2015.

Topping off his big two-week stretch, de Chassart was named the co-Big Ten Player of the Week thanks to his victory at Purdue and joined fellow senior Tommy Kuhl in a tie for third place to spur the win at Ohio State.

While his star player was picking up those honors Small made a rare competitive appearance while the college season was still in progress.  He tied for 33rd in last week’ s PGA Professional Championship in Texas, an event he had won it three times. While his finish wasn’t good enough to crack the Class of 20 who qualified for next month’s PGA Championship in Oklahoma, it was good enough for the 55-year old Small to finish the highest among the 11 Illinois PGA members who qualified for the national championship.

Amidst the team’s strong play the school also announced a June 3 date for the Grand Opening of the Atkins Golf Club, the renamed and much renovated new home of Illinois’ men’s and women’s teams.

The wins at Purdue and Ohio State gave the Illini momentum going into the three-day Big Ten championships, which tee off on Friday on the Pete Dye Course at French Lick, Ind., and the NCAA tournament, which concludes the season.

The Illini have won the last six Big Ten titles and 11 of the last 12, and they’ve made 13 consecutive appearances in the NCAA tournament during Small’s 21 seasons at the helm.

 

HERE AND THERE:  Mistwood, in Romeoville, has announced that the 27th Illinois Women’s Open will be played there July 25-26 with a format change.  The event will be reduced from 54 to 36 holes.

Mistwood also announced that Angelica Carman has been hired as the sustainability specialist.  Her first project will be to establish The Farm at Mistwood.

Hickory Knoll, a nine-hole course in Lake Villa that was closed the last two years, has announced a re-opening on May 6. North Shore Capital Group has acquired the course, which originally opened in 1947.

Illinois-connected PGA Tour players Dylan Wu, Nick Hardy and Doug Ghim all made the cut in the circuit’s only in-season team event last week but they were on separate teams at the Zurich Classic of New Orleans.  Wu and Justin Lower tied for 10th, Hardy and Curtis Thompson tied for 21st and Ghim and Matthias Schwab tied for 32nd.

The Golfers on Golf Radio show will return for its 32nd season at 10 a.m. on May 7.  The show will  switch to WNDZ (750-AM) for this season.

The Chicago District Golf Assn. will conduct a qualifying round for its Senior Amateur on Thursday at Bloomingdale.

 

New Orleans’ PGA Tour stop puts the focus on team play

This week’s Zurich Classic of New Orleans isn’t a big deal compared to other events on the PGA Tour.  It could turn out big for Doug Ghim and Nick Hardy, two of the Chicago area’s young guns on the circuit, however.

The Zurich Classic is the only full-field team event of the PGA Tour season.  Lots of the top stars skip the two-man team battle to rest up for the bigger events coming up. Ghim. though, saw value in team last year, recruited non-PGA Tour member Justin Suh to be his partner and they cashed in with a tie for 11th finish.

Ghim has a different partner this year in Matthias Schwab, an Austrian in his first season on the PGA Tour.  Hardy, also in his rookie PGA Tour season, will team up with Curtis Thompson, another first-year player who – like Hardy – used the Korn Ferry Tour as a path to the premier circuit.

Now in his second PGA Tour season, Ghim could reflect on his success with Suh to  appreciate what the Zurich Classic offers.

“You just feel a little added weight because usually itj’s just me and my caddie that have high hopes for our golf ball,’’ said Ghim.  “Now there’s two extra people counting on you (his partner and that partner’s caddie).  It could be a season changer.’’

The Ghim-Schwab team is a little further along than Hardy-Thompson.  Though neither qualified for the Masters two weeks ago, both Ghim and Schwab made the cut in last week’s RBC Heritage Classic at Hilton Head, S.C.  Ghim, who grew up in Arlington Heights before starring at the University of Texas, tied for 35th after going 67-69 on the weekend.  Schwab tied for 59th but has three top-10 finishes already in this first PGA Tour season.

Hardy, from Northbrook and the University of Illinois, made 12 of 24 cuts since earning PGA Tour membership but he missed in four of his last five starts.  Not qualified for the Heritage, he returned to the Korn Ferry for competition in a Texas event and missed the cut there.

Thompson’s brother Nicholas is also a PGA Tour member and his sister Lexi is a mainstay on the LPGA circuit.  Curtis’ first PGA Tour season has been a reverse of Hardy’s so far.  Curtis started slowly and has made seven of 15 cuts, but he did play all four rounds in six of his last seven tournaments.

Ghim has improved from his first PGA season to his second.  He was even No. 6 on the U.S. Ryder Cup points list before the Masters, and the top six when the standings are over get automatic berths on the U.S. team for the next Ryder Cup in Italy.  That’s not until the fall of 2023, however,

Ghim has a formula for more immediate gratification at the Zurich Classic, which tees off on Thursday. At least his strategy worked last year, when he challenged Suh to a birdie contest.  It brought out the best in both their games.

“The best way for us to be competitive is to play against each other,’’ said Ghim. “I thought, if he was going to be competitive with me I knew I was going to bring my game, so he had better step in with his. (Suh) ended up beating me, so that’s always good.’’

BITS AND PIECES: Other Illinois players will compete at New Orleans.  D.A. Points is paired with Scott Gutschewski and Dylan Wu with Justin Lower.  The tourney will also make the return to competition of Masters champion Scottie Scheffler.  He’ll play with Ryan Palmer.

Wednesday will decide the 20 club professionals who will qualify for next month’s PGA Championship at Southern Hills in Oklahoma.  The Illinois PGA had 11 players qualify for the 72-hole event at Barton Creek, in Texas, and six survived the 36-hole cut on Monday. Mike Small, the University of Illinois men’s coach, was in a tie for 16th midway through the competition and the only local player in the top 20 at that point.  Tim Streng, Garrett Chaussard, Frank Hohenadel and Brian Carroll also survived the cut.  So did Brad Marek, a former Arlington Heights resident now living in California.  He was a qualifier for last year’s PGA Championship.

 

Berger joins Johnson as JDC ambassador

Daniel Berger has joined Zach Johnson as a JDC ambassador.

Only Zach Johnson had been sporting the logo of Illinois’ only annual PGA Tour event on his golf bag.  Now America’s next Ryder Cup captain has company.

Daniel Berger, a four-time winner on the PGA Tour and member of the victorious U.S. Ryder Cup team last fall at Wisconsin’s Whistling Straits, sported the John Deere Classic logo on his bag for the first time at last week’s Masters. You might have had a hard time seeing it, as Berger finished in a tie for 50th place and didn’t get much TV time.

Now a charitable ambassador for John Deere, Berger’s involvement is a big boost for the tournament that will be played a week earlier than usual – June 30 through July 3 – at TPC Deere Run in downstate Silvis.

Berger and John Deere, in a multiyear agreement, will commit $100,000 in donations to various organizations in lieu of a traditional win bonus. Berger has two wins at the St. Jude Classic and one at both the Pebble Beach Pro-Am and Charles Schwab Challenge in his PGA Tour career.  The Schwab win came in the first PGA Tour event conducted after the circuit took a three-month break because of pandemic issues in 2020.

“I’ll bet I’ve got the best looking bag around,’’ Berger said on Twitter.  He’ll be in the field at the RBC Heritage Classic, which tees off on Thursday in Hilton Head, S.C.  The field also includes Illinois-connected players Luke Donald, Kevin Streelman and Doug Ghim.

ILLINI BREAKTHROUGH:  Coach Mike Small’s current University of Illinois men’s team hasn’t been the dominant force it had been in collegiate golf but that could be changing with the most important tournaments of the season closing in.

The Illini tied for first with Cincinnati in their season-opening tournament in September, then went winless in seven straight until last week’s victory in Purdue’s Boilermaker Invite. Illinois senior Adrien Dumont de Chassart was the medalist and Tommy  Kuhl, Jackson Buchanan and Piercen Hunt also finished among the top 10 individuals.

“A solid team effort,’’ said Small.  “The guys weren’t fazed by the tough, cold conditions at the start, then we were going  head-to-head with a good team on their home course. To close solidly is a mindset that we have talked about embracing and becoming a habit.’’

The Illini compete in Ohio State’s Kepler Intercollegiate April 23-24 before the Big Ten championship and NCAA tournaments kick in.

BITS AND PIECE: Dubsdread, the long-time Western Open site at Cog Hill in Palos Park, opens on Saturday, as one of the last Chicago area courses to welcome players.  Cog Hill also has a new director of grounds.  He’s Reed Anderson, who previously worked at Butler National, Chicago Golf Club and New Year’s Winged Foot.

KemperSports has made some major hires at its Chicago courses.  Chris Stewart is the new general manager at Royal Melbourne, in Long Grove; Tom Grey becomes the general manager at Canal Shores, in Evanston; and T.J. Wydner is the GM at Chicago’s Harborside International.

Dave Lockhart’s Golf360 TV show now has a co-host. Katie Kearney will join ex-Bear Patrick Mannelly when the broadcasts begin in June on NBC Sports Chicago.

Taylor Lambertsen, who grew up in Palos Park and held assistant professional jobs at Kemper Lakes and Exmoor, is the new director of instruction for the First Tee of Greater Chicago.

The Illinois PGA has announced the site for its fourth and final major event of the season.  Lake Shore, in Glencoe, will host the IPGA Players Championship Sept. 26-17.

 

 

Scheffler is the obvious choice to win this year’s Masters

Scottie Scheffler may have been the only player still smiling after the Arnold Palmer Invitational in March.

Picking the winner of any PGA Tour event is an exercise in futility. Still, come Masters time, forecasting the champion seems almost an obligation. I’ve been making the effort since attending my first Masters in 1986, and I’ve picked the winner only once – Fred Couples in 1992.

With the 86th Masters teeing off on Thursday, I’ll first tell you who won’t win this week.  Then I’ll explain why Scottie Scheffler will.

The usual contenders don’t seem ready.  Tiger Woods, assuming his “game time decision’’ is to play, hasn’t been in serious competition since being involved in a serious auto accident in 13 months ago. The fact that he even considered teeing it up so soon was surprising.  Winning? Well, even he’s not ITAL that END ITAL good.

Phil Mickelson won’t play, either because he’s suspended or contemplating his future in the game – take your pick.

Defending champion Hideki Matsuyama has a sore neck that was painful enough to force his withdrawal from last week’s Valero Texas Open and Rory McIlroy and Bryson DeChambeau couldn’t even come close to making the cut in that last tournament leading into the year men’s first major championship of 2022.

Dustin Johnson and Justin Thomas, surprisingly, haven’t won yet 15 tournaments into the  2022 portion of the PGA Tour schedule.  Thomas has played in seven events, Johnson in five.  Patrick Cantlay, the FedEx Cup champion and PGA Tour Player of the Year in 2021, hasn’t won either and his form has been way off since a runner-up finish at Phoenix in February.

And now for Scheffler.  The 25-year old Texan is on a role.  He’s won three of his last five starts that began with a win over Cantlay in a playoff at Phoenix and included a head-to-head win over Johnson in the semifinals of his last start – a victory in the World Golf Championship’s Match Play Championship two weeks ago.

I was up close and personal for Scheffler’s other victory, at the Arnold Palmer Invitational last month.

Already the first player to win three times before the Masters since Thomas and Johnson did it in 2016, Scheffler wisely skipped the Valero Texas Open in his home state to get ready for this week’s shootout at Augusta National.

Despite his youth, Scheffler knows all about Augusta National.  He played in the last two Masters and finished top-20 in both. This is a young player coming on fast, and a tournament in the Chicago area played a big role in that.

In 2019, when the pandemic was keeping fans and media away from tournaments, the Western Golf Association created the Evans Scholars Invitational in an effort that kept the Korn Ferry Tour in Chicago.  Scheffler won it at The Glen Club in Glenview, beating Marcelo Rozo in a playoff. That was Scheffler’s first win as a touring pro and triggered his ascension to the PGA Tour.

Last year he was a captain’s pick for the U.S. Ryder Cup team — a surprise to many, myself included.  Still, he was unbeaten in his matches at Whistling Straits, going 2-0-1 in the Americans’ one-sided victory over the Europeans.

Now, after his continued success over the last three months, he’s been elevated to the No. 1 player in the world, according to the Official World Golf Rankings.  Can that first major championship be that far off?

BITS AND PIECE: Chicago had a champion in Sunday’s Drive, Chip & Putt national finals at Augusta National.  Michael Jorski, of Clarendon Hills, won in the Boys 12-13 division. It was his second appearance in the finals.  He made it in the 7-9 age group when his family lived in Kansas.

No Chicago-connected players qualified for this year’s Masters.  Needing to win last week, all five entered the Valero Texas Open.  Wheaton’s Kevin Streelman did the best, tying for 18th.

Deerfield’s Vince India, a former Illinois Open champion and  now a regular on the Korn Ferry Tour, helped his father Dan get a tee time for his foursome on a recent guys’ trip to the TPC Stadium Course in Florida. It produced a shot for the record books.  Playing from the White tees, Dan holed his tee shot from the White tees at No. 12 – a 296-yard par-4 – for an albatross.

 

 

 

 

 

Masters preliminary events give young stars a chance to shine

Unless Kevin Streelman, Luke Donald, Doug Ghim, Nick Hardy or Dylan Wu win this week’s Valero Texas Open there won’t a Chicago-connected player in next week’s Masters tournament.

The champion of the PGA Tour event on Sunday in Texas gets the final spot in the year’s first major championship at Georgia’s Augusta National, and all five of Chicago’s PGA Tour members – none of them Masters qualifiers yet — are in the field when play begins on Thursday in San Antonio.

Regardless of how they fare, however, there will be a significant Illinois presence in Masters-related competition.

Two collegiate stars, Northwestern junior Irene Kim and Illinois senior Crystal Wang, received invitations to the Augusta National Women’s Amateur, which tees off on Wednesday (TODAY), and five Chicago area youngsters are among the 80 qualifiers nation-wide for the Drive, Chip and Putt finals staged on Sunday.

Members of Augusta National established a 54-hole women’s tournament in 2019.  This year’s 72 invitees will play the first two rounds at the nearby Champions Retreat course on Wednesday and Thursday.  Friday will be a practice day at Augusta National and the top 30 who survived the 36-hole cut will decide the title Saturday on the Masters’ course.

Jennifer Kupcho, the world’s top-ranked amateur at the time and now an LPGA member, emerged the first champion after she played her final six holes at Augusta National in 5-under-par.  The tournament wasn’t held in 2020 because of pandemic concerns and 17-year old Tsubasa Kajitani of Japan won last year in a playoff with Wake Forest student Emilia Migliaccio.

Kim and Wang will be part of a strong international field in this year’s ANWA.  Migliaccio returns for her third appearance in the tournament and Rose Zhang, now the top-ranked women’s amateur, heads the field.  Kim was the Big Ten’s Golfer of the Year in 2021 and Wang had four top-15 finishes in five starts for the Illini in the fall season.  She was also third in last year’s Illinois Women’s Open.

The Masters competitors will start arriving on Saturday and many will be on hand for the final round of the ANWA and Sunday’s Drive, Chip and Putt finals.  Both will be televised on NBC.

All five Chicago qualifiers earned their spots in a regional final at Medinah Country Club last fall. Two of them – Naperville’s Lisa Copeland, in the Girls 12-13 age division, and Clarendon Hills’ Michael Jorski, in the Boys 12-13 division, will be making their second appearances at Augusta National.  Lisa qualified in 2017 and Michael in 2018, when he was living in Kansas.

Medinah hosted the qualifiers earlier this month but Copeland couldn’t make it.  She has spent the winter sharpening her game in Florida.

Jorski felt that being at Augusta National before will be a big help the second time around.

“It definitely will,’’ he said.  “I was just really nervous (the first time).  It’s harder to see the actual beauty and actual fun of being there.  Now that doesn’t matter.  You’ll have fun.  Of all the people who tried to qualify you’re one of just 10 (in your age group) who made it.’’

He was in the 7-9 age group in his first appearance. Since moving to Chicago he has played on the Cog Hill team that qualified for the national finals in the PGA Junior League in Arizona last year.

The other Chicago qualifiers for this year’s Drive, Chip and Putt are Ledius Felipe, of Poplar Grove, in the Boys 10-11; Eloise Fetzer, of LaGrange, in the Girls 7-9; and Martha Kuwahara, of Northbrook, in the Girls 14-15.

 

 

Here’s why Rich Harvest will host an event on controversial new golf tour

Jerry Rich, owner of Rich Harvest Farms in Sugar Grove, has done wonders for amateur golf by making his ultra-private course available for big tournaments like the Western Amateur, NCAA Championship and Palmer Cup. His biggest venture into the professional ranks came in 2009, when Rich Harvest hosted a very well-received Solheim Cup, a team event between the top women from the U.S. and Europe.

That’s why Wednesday’s announcement that Rich Harvest would be a host site in the first season of a controversial golf tour organized by Greg Norman and backed by the Saudi Arabia sovereign wealth fund came as a surprise.  The eight-eight-tournament team competition is called the LIV Golf Invitational Series and Norman, one of the greatest players in golf history, is chief executive officer of LIV Golf Investments.

Mention of the Saudi Arabia connection wasn’t included in the group’s schedule announcement, in which Rich Harvest was assigned Sept. 16-18 dates.  It was the fifth event of the series and last of four planned in the United States. Total prize money for the eight events is $255 million, with all the events played at 54 holes.

Perceived competition from the Saudi circuit has led to PGA Tour commissioner Jay Monahan to ban any players from his circuit if they join the newly-announced tour. The popular Phil Mickelson, an outspoken critic of PGA Tour policies, played an active role in getting the Saudi circuit started.

Criticized by many of the PGA’s top stars Mickelson has taken a leave of absence from tournament play, and Monahan — while refusing to say Mickelson has been suspended — said they’ll have to meet before Mickelson can play in another PGA tournament.

So, why did Rich Harvest get involved in the controversy?

Rich didn’t comment when the circuit was initially announced, but his staff put out a statement on behalf of Rich Harvest Farms. It citied “benefits’’ the tournament would have on the Kids Golf Foundation of Illinois, the caddies at Rich Harvest, Ukrainian refugees, educational institutions (most notably Rich’s alma mater Northern Illinois and Aurora University, both of whom play and practice at the Sugar Grove club), businesses in the greater Chicago area and “the Illinois golf community.’’

Rich, as well as Sugar Grove village president Jennifer Konen, made it clear they’re all in for tournament in the aftermath of Norman’s announcement..

“I’m thrilled to announce (his support of Norman’s release),’’ Rich said in his regular “Jerry’s Drive’’ message to friends of Rich Harvest on Thursday.  “I hope to see a big turnout from all you golf fans!  This will be huge for Illinois and the Chicago area.’’

“The Village is thrilled to welcome the LIV Golf Invitational Series to Sugar Grove,’’ echoed Konen.  “Rich Harvest Farms is a valued member of our community and it is exciting that it will be showcased in this new tournament.  Sugar Grove looks forward to hosting golf fans from around the world.’’

Players who will compete in the Saudi events haven’t been announced, but the schedule shows there will be some conflicts.   The first event, June 9-11 in London, is opposite the Canadian. Open and just a week before the U.S. Open in Massachusetts.  The second, at Pumpkin Ridge in Oregon July 1-3, is opposite the John Deere Classic – Illinois’ only annual PGA Tour stop. The other Saudi events all come after the PGA Tour’s FedEx Cup Playoffs.

Trump National, in New Jersey (July 29-31)    and The International in Boston (Sept. 2-4) are the other U.S. events on the Saudi circuit. The season wraps up with events in Bangkok, Thailand; Jeddah, Saudi Arabia;  and the season-ending team championship Oct. 28-30 at a site to determined.

This is a long way from being over.  Norman is considering legal action against the PGA Tour if it bans players from playing on his tour, and the PGA is considering the creation of a rival Premier Golf League that would offer massive paydays and ownership stakes for tour members. It’d probably play in the fall, after the FedEx Cup events.

As far as Chicago golf is concerned, the event at Rich Harvest fills a growing void of big tournaments coming to the area.  The PGA Tour won’t be here for the second straight year and the U.S. Golf Association, Ladies PGA Tour and PGA Tour Champions haven’t had an event at a Chicago area course since the KPMG Women’s PGA Championship was played at Kemper Lakes in 2018.  None of those organizations have one scheduled in the future, either.

 

 

Big-money Players tourney is proving a good fit for Ghim

Doug Ghim is learning about the PGA Tour. The second-year PGA Tour player who grew up in Arlington Heights is improving, too.

Ghim played in the last group in the final round of The Players Championship both as a rookie in 2021 and in the weather-battered staging of this season, which wrapped up on Monday.

In 2021 Ghim played was paired with eventual champion Justin Thomas. He couldn’t keep pace, shooting a 78 to drop down to a tie for 29th place.  On Monday Ghim made a costly double bogey on the par-5 second hole and – while he didn’t contend for the title after that — he finished in a tie for sixth.

With the tournament purse increased from $15 to $20 million, Ghim earned $675,000 on Monday when he finished five strokes behind champion Cameron Smith at TPC Sawgrass in Ponte Vedra, FL. That was the biggest payday yet for the 25-year graduate of Buffalo Grove High School and the University of Texas, but it could have been quite a bit more.

Ghim, the last player to putt out in the tournament, missed a short birdie putt on the final green.  Had he made it he would have finished in a tie for fifth with Keegan Bradley instead of a three-way tie for sixth with Harold Varner III AND Russell Knox.  The difference was about $200,000 in his paycheck.

Still, Ghim’s game returned in the biggest money event of the season after he had endured three straight missed cuts. Watching Thomas pull away from him a year earlier paid dividends in his return to The Players.

“I learned how badly I wanted to win,’’ said Ghim.  “I got to watch someone win at the pro level, let alone being at The Player Championship.  It was a valuable experience.  It was a painful one.  I took pain away from it, and that’s a good thing because it tells me that I want to win.’’

Ghim didn’t play with Smith in Monday’s final round.  Smith was in the group in front but Ghim still drew from the round with Thomas.

“The thing that struck me was the way he played.  He made mistakes, played basically how I had played the first three days (last year), and basically how I played the first three days this week,’’ said Ghim.  “I just realized I don’t really have to do anything different.’’

TPC Sawgrass seems an unusual place for a young player to find his game, but Ghim sees logic in it.

“I love the place,’’ he said.  “I love playing against the best players.  It makes me more patient, so I was more patient this week. I had had a rough couple of weeks, but the game felt good.  It was a bit frustrating to not see any results, but I couldn’t find a better place to find them.’’

Ghim had company to help him through the numerous weather delays at TPC Sawgrass.

“I had some family and friends with me,’’ he said.  “My sister’s here.  My girlfriend’s here.  I have a team here, so we kept it light hearted, played some video games,  did whatever.’’

He’s skipping this week’s Valspar Championship, played about three hours away at Innisbrook Resort in Palm Harbour.  That tourney will conclude the PGA Tour’s four-event Florida Swing.

The Valspar will have a strong Illinois contingent headed by Wheaton’s Kevin Streelman, who tied for 22nd in  The Players and won $201,000. Both Streelman and Northwestern alum Luke Donald are past champions on Innisbrook’s Copperhead course, Donald in 2011 and Streelman in 2012.  Mark Hensby, a veteran who won both the Illinois Open and Illinois State Amateur , is also competing as is Illinois alum Luke Guthrie, who earned a spot in the field in Monday’s qualifying round,  and PGA Tour rookie Dylan Wu (Northwestern). Wu moved in on Tuesday after being the first alternate.  Nick Hardy (Illinois), now the No. 1 alternate, might get into the field, too.

 

 

 

Zero Friction’s new golf cart is a big hit at the PGA Show

Zero Friction president John Iacono introduced a three-in-one golf bag at the PGA Merchandise Show.

ORLANDO, FL. – The biggest show in golf wrapped up on Friday at the Orange County Convention Center, and the 69th PGA Merchandise Show was a bit different than the previous 68 stagings. The pandemic forced cancelation of the show in 2021 and the two-year hiatus took its toll

Normally the show has about 1,000 brands showing their products for three days at the OCCC. This year there were only about 600. The event’s Demo Day — an outdoor attraction at Orange County National the day before the OCCC opens its doors — had only a sparse crowd this time, in part because of cold, rainy weather.

While most all of the major equipment manufacturers were absent, the show was by no means a downer.  Zero Friction, the Oak Brook Terrace-based company that was a big hit at the show two years ago, didn’t miss a beat with the big companies gone.

“I was extremely disappointed to not see the large brands, the ones who consider themselves to be the leaders of the industry, to take this opportunity to back out,’’ said John Iacono, the Zero Friction president.  “I don’t think you’re a leader of much of anything if you’re not on the front lines. Here it’s the rest of the industry – the small brands like ours. Everybody had difficulties keeping their businesses going during the pandemic. The bigger brands, who profited heavily in this industry, didn’t take time to have a smaller presence here, and I feel that’s sad. It’s a sore eye for the golf industry when the leaders aren’t leading at all.’’

How the show, which has been closed to the public but still drew 40,000 industry members annually, will change in 2023 remains to be seen but Iacono is optimistic about his own company’s growth.

Zero Friction started as a manufacturer of wooden tees in 2006 and expanded to other golf products in 2012.  Both its line of tees and gloves were recipients of Industry Honors by the International Network of Golf at the 2020 show, and since then the company opened sales offices in Charlotte, N.C.; Kansas City and London added its own distribution center in Melrose Park.

With many of its products produced overseas, a quality control director based in Indonesia was added to the staff. The gloves are now sold in 26 countries, and Iacono believes that the newest model of tees will be a big hit.  This model has a divot repair tool built in.

“A tee product that can be used to repair a green that can be put in every player’s hand – that’s a must have,’’ said Iacono.

The company’s newest product, the Wheel Pro golf bag, was one of the biggest hits of this year’s show.  It’s a three-in-one bag.  It starts as a push bag.  If you want to walk and carry, you pop the wheels off. If you want to ride you stick it in your cart.  That’s one versatile golf bag, and it carries a retail price of $349.

In May Iacono plans to introduce a completely recycled golf ball called the Eagle Z. The covers of old golf balls will be scraped off, recycled and put on the cores of the old balls. Ball prices figure to be soaring because of problems obtaining surlyn, a key ingredient.

“The pandemic gave us an opportunity to structure differently for long-term growth,’’ said Iacono.  “We’ll grow as long as we produce interesting new products that show technological advancement and are priced fairly.’’