Len Ziehm On Golf

No Illinois Open for Small; he’s back in the PGA Championship

Mike Small has been prominent on the Illinois golf scene for years, either as a player or as the coach of the University of Illinois’ powerhouse men’s team.

This week it’s as a player – even though he’s not making his usual run at an Illinois Open title. Small has won that event four times and needs another to tie Gary Pinns’ record of five tournament titles. This year presented a good chance to get No. 5, too. The tourney, which concludes today (WEDNESDAY) at The Glen Club in Glenview, is on the same course that Small captured his previous four titles.

Small believes it’s his first Illinois Open absence since 2000, when an elbow injury prevented his participation. He has a good reason for being a no-show, though.

On Thursday Small tees off in the year’s final major, the PGA Championship at Quail Hollow in North Carolina. He understandably opted for the three days of preparation at Quail Hollow while the Illinois Open was in progress

“My first PGA since Oak Hill (2013),’’ said Small. “I’m looking forward to playing well.’’

No reason he shouldn’t. Small, 51, has been in eight previous PGA Championships and was the low club pro in 2007 at Southern Hills, in Oklahoma, and again in 2011, at Atlanta Athletic Club. This year’s appearance, though, is something special. It’ll be Small’s first appearance in the event as a senior.

Small will be paired with PGA Tour regular Jason Kokrak and Satoshi Kodaira, a four-time winner on the Japan Golf Tour, in the first two rounds at Quail Hollow.

In his 17h season coaching the Illini, Small has the rare ability to blend playing with coaching. This year he played in three PGA Tour Champions events and tied for 43rd in the U.S. Senior Open. He got into the field at Quail Hollow by tying for third in the Professional Players National Championship in Oregon, an event he won three times between 2005 and 2010.

In a final tuneup for the PGA Small won the 36-hole Illinois PGA Senior Championship by six shots at Merit Club in Libertyville. That won’t be his last tournament locally, though. He will go after his 13th title in 17 years in the Illinois PGA Championship Aug. 21-23 on Medinah’s No. 1 course. Five days later classes begin in Champaign, and Small will focus on coaching again.

U.S. Amateur up next

Dylan Meyer and Nick Hardy, the stars of Small’s current Illini team, will be in the field at next week’s U.S. Amateur at Riviera in Los Angeles. That event tees off on Monday with a big Chicago contingent among the entries.

Like Meyer and Hardy, Arlington Heights resident and Texas standout Doug Ghim figures to be among the leading contenders for the title. All are in the top 50 in the world amateur rankings.

Six others from the Chicago area survived qualifying tournaments. Wheeling’s Brian Ohr was medalist at a session at Midlane, in Wadsworth. Northwestern’s Dylan Wu, Derek Mason of Plainfield and Tyler Isenhart of Geneva advanced through an elimination at Village Links of Glen Ellyn; and Elmhurst’s Jordan Less and Chicago’s Charles Waddell went out of the area to earn their berths.

The Glen returns as `permanent’ home of the Illinois Open

No sooner will this week’s Western Amateur at Skokie Country Club wrap up on Saturday than the 68th Illinois Open will tee off at two other north suburban locations next week.

The Illinois Open remains a 54-hole affair for 264 finalists, the survivors of eight state-wide qualifying rounds. The first two rounds of the finals, on Monday and Tuesday, will be played at both The Glen Club, in Glenview, and Briarwood Country Club, in Deerfield.

After 36 holes the low 50 and ties will go for the title at The Glen, and that was particularly significant after Illinois PGA executive director Carrie Williams announced the tournament details last week.

The Glen will be hosting for a record 10th time, and Williams declared “I hope this is the permanent home for the Illinois Open.’’

So does Steve Skinner, executive director of KemperSports – the Northbrook-based firm that has managed The Glen since its opening in 2001.

“The course was built around the Illinois Open, to host it,’’ said Skinner. “There was a lot of competition to host it. We were competing with the PGA Tour, which wanted to bring the Western Open here. We partnered with the Illinois PGA and (architect) Tom Fazio to deliver a full package – the (IPGA) section offices, the Illinois Golf Hall of Fame and the Illinois Open (to The Glen Club).’’

Michael Miller was the midst of his 23-year run as IPGA executive director when The Glen hosted for the first time in 2002. When Miller took a similar post in Arizona in 2015 Williams took over and negotiated a new lease with KemperSports. It apparently cleared up the relationship between the club and the IPGA’s biggest tournament.

Williams said “it was always the intent’’ to hold the Illinois Open at The Glen.

It frequently didn’t happen that way, though. Five times in the last 15 years – including the last two — the tournament went elsewhere.

“Sometimes the dates didn’t work out,’’ said Williams, “but I love the idea of staying with The Glen Club as the anchor. We want to keep the tournament as convenient for the players as possible.’’

Armed with a two-year contract that automatically renews from year to year, she plans to rotate the companion courses from among the many high-quality layouts on the North Shore – much like the Western Golf Association has done with its Western Amateur.

Briarwood was a great choice to start the arrangement. It hosted the Illinois Open in 1966, when Emil Esposito won the title for the first time. Esposito was on hand for the pre-tournament festivities, which also commemorated his 50 years as a PGA member.

Esposito won’t be playing this year, and neither will four-time champion Mike Small. The University of Illinois men’s coach, who needs one more win to match Gary Pinns’ record five Illinois Open victories, will compete in the PGA Championship in North Carolina instead. Small won all of his four titles at The Glen.

The field will, however, include defending champion Carlos Sainz Jr. as well as Tee-K Kelly and Nick Hardy, whose battles dominated the Illinois State Amateur the last four years. Kelly has since turned pro and already won on the PGA Latinoamerica circuit. Hardy is approaching his final season playing for Small at Illinois.

Hardy was low amateur at last year’s Illinois Open, finishing tied for fourth – eight strokes behind Sainz’ 17-under-par performance at Royal Fox and Royal Hawk, two St. Charles courses. Kelly tied for ninth.

Twelve former champions are in the field along with Highwood’s Patrick Flavin, the recently-crowned Illinois State Amateur champion, and Hinsdale’s Brendan O’Reilly, an Illinois recruit who won the Illinois State Junior Amateur an unprecedented three times between 2013 and 2017.

The field won’t include any women this year, though some have qualified in the past. Oldest finalist is 72-year old ex-champion Gary Groh, the former head professional at Bob O’ Link in Highland Park and a recent selection to the Illinois Golf Hall of Fame. Youngest is Dominic Scaletta, 15, of Inverness. Using a caddie who is only 11, Scaletta shot 2-over-par 73 and tied for fifth in a qualifier at Makray Memorial, in Barrington.

Romo in the Skokie spotlight

As for the Western Amateur, the first cut comes after Wednesday’s round when the 150 starters will be cut to the low 44 and ties and the contestants will be whittled to 16 after a 36-hole session on Thursday.

The talk of the early round was former NFL quarterback Tony Romo, who played after an invitation from the Western Golf Association. He survived local qualifying for the U.S. Open in May but expected a bigger challenge against the world’s top amateurs.

“I’ve played plenty of tournament golf over the years. I just haven’t played much over the last four or five years, so I’m trying to feel get back to feeling comfortable. I want to start playing good enough to start competing.’’

This could be last shot for Ghim, Hardy to win the Western Amateur

The history-rich Western Amateur isn’t always played in the Chicago area, but in recent years it has been – and that’s a good thing. It merits a prominent place on any golf calendar because it brings together the very best amateurs in the world — not just those from the United States.

Next week’s 115th playing of the tournament will have even more special meaning because of the prominence of local players. The 156 starters at Skokie Country Club, in Glencoe, include Arlington Heights’ Doug Ghim, who is coming off his victory in the Pacific Coast Amateur at 2015 U.S. Open site Chambers Bay in Oregon, and the University of Illinois’ dynamic duo of Nick Hardy and Dylan Meyer.

Ghim, Hardy and Meyer were all in the Sweet 16 qualifiers for the match play portion of last year’s Western Amateur at Knollwood Club in Lake Forest, and Meyer is the defending champion at Skokie. They’ll be taking on a field that includes 2015 Western Amateur winner Dawson Armstrong; reigning NCAA titlist Braden Thornberry; Stewart Hagestad, low amateur at the Masters in April; and a foreign contingent headed by Kyle McClatchie of South Africa and Harrison Endycott of Australia.

The local trio have been frequent Western Am competitors – Hardy, in particular, is in the field for the fourth time — but this might be their last time chasing the prestigious trophy won over the years by the likes of Jack Nicklaus, Phil Mickelson, Ben Crenshaw. Curtis Strange, Lanny Wadkins and Tiger Woods. All three are college seniors headed for the professional ranks.

“It’s definitely special growing up in this area and having the Western Golf Association running their events around here,’’ said Hardy, from Northbrook. “I played in at least two or three Western Juniors, too, I just thank the Western Golf Association for everything they’ve done for my career.’’

Prior to his win in the Pacific Coast Amateur Ghim was the Big 12 Player of the Year for Texas and joined Hardy on the U.S. team for the Palmer Cup matches vs. collegiate stars from Europe.

Meyer, ranked No. 3 in the world amateur rankings, can join a very select group if he repeats as Western Amateur champion. Only six have done it, the last being Justin Leonard in 1992-93. The first was Chandler Egan, in 1904-05, and the others ranged from Chick Evans in the 1920s, to Bud Ward in the 1940s, to Frank Stranahan in the 1950s to Hal Sutton in 1979-80. Evans and Stranahan, both lifetime amateurs, won the title more than twice in the tournament’s early years.

Hardy and Meyer helped Illinois reach the semifinals of the NCAA tournament at Rich Harvest Farms, in Sugar Grove, in May and then took to the national scene. Both competed against professionals in this month’s John Deere Classic but the Western Am presents a much different challenge. It’s basically two tournaments wrapped up in one.

Players gather for practice on Monday (JULY 31) with the full field playing 18-hole rounds on Tuesday and Wednesday. Then the field is cut to the low 44 and ties for two more rounds on Thursday, Aug. 3. Those 72 holes over three days will decide the 16 qualifiers for the two-day match play portion of the tournament. The champion will be crowned on Saturday, Aug. 5.

Skokie hosted the tournament in 2010 when David Chung won the title, beating a field that included PGA Tour stars Jordan Spieth and Patrick Reed.

Like the tournament itself, the host club has a rich history for hosting big events. Originally a Donald Ross design, Skokie has also hosted the 1909 Western Open, the 1922 U.S. Open and 1998 U.S. Senior Amateur. Skokie was one of 11 charter clubs that established the WGA in 1899 to spread the game of golf across the Midwest. Only seven still exist.

Oak Meadows timetable

The long-awaited opening of The Preserve at Oak Meadows, the Forest Preserve District of DuPage County’s renovated facility in Addison, is closing in.

The range and practice area opens on Monday (JULY 31) and that also coincides with what Ed Stevenson, executive director of the District, dubs Test Drive Week. Season tee time members and various golf industry personnel will get a sneak preview opportunity from July 31 to Aug. 6 and the course will open to all golfers on Aug. 7.

The formal grand opening will be held next April and the potential ground-breaking on a new clubhouse is expected in the summer or fall of 2018.

IWO, State Am titles will be decided in a two-day stretch

The biggest glut of tournament golf in the Chicago area in many years reached the overload stage this week with two of the most important championships sharing almost identical dates.

The 23rd Illinois Women’s Open concludes its three-day run on Wednesday at Mistwood, in Romeoville, and the 87th Illinois State Amateur wraps up its three days of competition on Thursday at Calumet Country Club, in Homewood.

Mistwood has hosted the last 19 IWOs, and director of golf Andy Mickelson said this year’s field was “the strongest and deepest we’ve had in years.’’ Seventy-eight players – the largest entry since 2014 – teed off in Monday’s opening round. It included 41 Illinois residents, 48 amateurs, an unusually large contingent of 27 professionals and three undeclared players.

Stephanie Miller is out to defend her title, won last year while she was still a University of Illinois golfer. Her collegiate eligibility gone, she entered this week’s tourney as a professional in search of the $5,000 check available to the champion from a $25,000 prize fund.

Among the other pros in the field was Mary Swanson, coach of the women’s team at Bradley University who was playing in her first professional event in almost 10 years.

While the women begin teeing off in their final round at 7 a.m. on Wednesday the 138 men in the Illinois State Amateur will be facing a cut to the low 35 and ties for Thursday’s 36-hole wrapup at Calumet.

Of the 138 who teed off in Tuesday’s first round 25 were exempt off previous performances and the other 113 qualified at one of nine sites across the state in June. The tourney is open to residents with handicaps not exceeding 7.4.

While the starters included seven of last year’s top 10 and 16 of the top 20, the field lacked the two biggest stars of recent years. Medinah’s Tee-K Kelly — who had finishes of first, eleventh, first and second over the last four years — turned pro and already has a victory on the PGA Latinoamerica Tour on his resume. Northbrook’s Nick Hardy, soon to begin his senior years at Illinois, did not enter. His record in the tournament is almost as good as Kelly’s.

Hardy lost the State Am title to Naperville’s Ray Knoll in a four-hole playoff in 2014, finished third in 2015 and posted the most spectacular victory in event history last year at St. Charles Country Club. Hardy was a recond 28-under-par for the 72 holes and won by 10 strokes over runner-up Kelly.

That shootout in perfect scoring conditions at St. Charles, brought out the best in everybody. The course yielded 984 birdies and 41 eagles to the field over the 72 holes.

With Kelly and Mitchell gone the battle should be wide-open at Calumet, and another birdie-fest is unlikely. Calumet is hosting the State Am for the first time but is no stranger to big local events. The Donald Ross-designed layout hosted the Chicago District Amateur four times, the latest in 2016 when Andrew Price was the champion. Price, a member at Conway Farms in Lake Forest, did not enter this year’s State Am. Neither did frequent contender Dave Ryan, who won last year’s U.S. Senior Amateur.

Calumet, normally a par-71 layout, is playing at 6,619-yards and a par-70 this week. The private club hosted the Western Open in 1924 and maintains a bigger place in golf history after being the site of the eighth of Byron Nelson’s record 11 straight PGA Tour victories in 1945. His win in the Chicago Victory Open was one of Nelson’s record 18 wins that season.

Michael Grandinetti the CDGA president, is adding to Calumet’s history this week. For the first time in the long history of the State Am the host club will also be the home course of the organization’s incumbent president.

Calumet has become a hot spot for tournament play in recent years. Eight of its members, headed by club champion Lloyd Roth, qualified for the State Am and Calumet will also host the inaugural American Junior Golf Association All-Star event from July 31 to Aug. 3. It’ll feature 95 boys and girls between the ages of 12 and 15 competing for a national title.

Moore returns to PGA Tour in hopes of defending JDC title

The John Deere Classic, Illinois’ only annual PGA Tour event, tees off for the 47th time on Thursday at TPC Deere Run in Silvis, on the outskirts of the Quad Cities. For defending champion Ryan Moore that means a return to the PGA Tour at the course that took his career to a new level last year.

Moore has been sidelined the last six weeks with a shoulder injury but he’s informed the JDC staff that he’s ready to play again. That means he’ll be in Wednesday’s final pro-am at TPC Deere Run before the 72-hole $5.6 million championship begins its four-day run.

The JDC, named the Tournament of the Year by the PGA Tour for its 2016 staging, has usually been friendly to Moore. He has 23 straight rounds under par and three top-10s in the last five years at TPC Deere Run. Last year, though, was something special for the golfer who had one of the most storied amateur careers before turning pro.

In 2004 Moore won the U.S. Amateur, U.S. Public Links (for the second time), the Western Amateur and the NCAA individual title while wrapping up his collegiate career at Nevada-Las Vegas.

He had a respectable pro career prior to 2016, winning four times, but his victory at TPC Deere Run triggered much bigger things. Moore was the last man selected to the U.S. Ryder Cup team shortly after that, then scored the decisive point in the victory over Europe at Hazeltine, in Minnesota.

“This tournament meant so much to me last year, and it really is the reason I ended up on the Ryder Cup team,’’ said Moore. “To finish my year off the way I did, it was this event that started that. I will be forever thankful. That was one of the greatest experiences of my life.’’

Moore has always played well at the JDC. Since 2012 he was tied eighth, tied 22nd, tied seventh and tied 24th prior to his win last year. This year he also played well in the first of the four major championships, finishing in a tie for ninth at the Masters before the shoulder injury sidelined him.

This year Moore will bring his family – wife Nicole and two sons – to the Quad Cities in hopes of extending his run of success at Deere Run. He shot 22-under last year with rounds of 65, 65, 65 and 67 and was bogey-free on the weekend.

“I want to go back and try to do the same thing this year,’’ he said. “(The tournament staff) has done a phenomenal job of making it a fun week, a family week, and really just a great event.’’

Since the JDC moved to TPC Deere Run in 2000 only one player has defended his title. Steve Stricker did it twice, winning three straight times from 2009 to 2011, and he’ll be in the field again.

The most notable newcomer among the touring pros is Bubba Watson, who hasn’t played in the Quad Cities since his early years as a touring pro. Zach Johnson, the JDC winner in 2012 and a long-time member of the tournament’s board of directors, will also bring along a special guest this year – the Ryder Cup trophy that will be available for photos today through Saturday.

Tournament director Clair Peterson has again been creative with his sponsor exemptions. He invited Dylan Meyer and Nick Hardy, the stars of the University of Illinois team; Stanford’s Maverick McNealy, winner of the 2017 Ben Hogan Award as the best collegiate player; and last year’s U.S. Amateur champion – Australian Curtis Luck.

Romo in Western Amateur

Tony Romo, the former Dallas Cowboys’ quarterback, will compete against the world’s best amateurs when the 115th Western Amateur tees off on July 29 at Skokie Country Club in Glencoe.

The Western Golf Association has announced that all of the world’s top 10 amateurs will compete in the tournament. In addition to Illinois’ Meyer and Hardy the field includes Braden Thornberry, who won the NCAA individual at Rich Harvest Farms in Sugar Grove in May; Arlington Heights native Doug Ghim, the Big 12 Player of the Year for Texas; and Ghim’s Longhorns’ teammate Scottie Scheffler, the low amateur at June’s U.S. Open.

Up and coming

Two of the biggest annual state championships will be contested on almost identical dates next week. The Illinois Women’s Open is Monday through Wednesday at Mistwood, in Romeoville, and the Illinois State Amateur is Tuesday through Thursday at Calumet Country Club in Homewood.

Six straight days of LPGA tournaments are on tap at French Lick

The KPMG Women’s PGA Championship, which ended Sunday at Olympia Fields Country Club, was a success by most every account. This week women’s golf moves in a new direction at a long-time destination.

Indiana’s French Lick Resort offers both the historic Donald Ross Course and the Pete Dye Course that was named the 2017 Course of the Year by the National Golf Course Owners Association. Both will be used in back-to-back tournaments by the other circuits encompassed by the Ladies PGA Tour, meaning there’ll be six straight days of tournament golf in the little southern Indiana town that is rich in golf history.

The developmental Symetra Tour will compete in the $200,000 Donald Ross Centennial Classic, the focal event of that layout’s 100-year anniversary, from Friday through Sunday. Then 81 stars from the LPGA’s past will do battle on the Pete Dye Course in the first Ladies Senior LPGA Championship from July 10-12. The $600,000 Monday-through-Wednesday event will lead directly into the U.S. Women’s Open, which will begin on Thursday, July 13, at Trump National in Bedminster, N.J.

When the Open is over there will have been an unprecedented 10 consecutive days of women’s professional competition encompassing three tours.

French Lick’s Ross Course hosted the 1924 PGA Championship, the first of four straight Walter Hagen victories in that major championship, and was also home to the LPGA Championships of 1959 and 1960, won by Betsy Rawls and Mickey Wright. The KPMG Women’s PGA Championship was a renamed version of those tournaments from the past.

The LPGA Senior Championship grew out of The Legends Championship, an event jointly created by the resort and the Legends Tour, a circuit of players 45 and older who starred on the LPGA Tour. The Legends have played their major event on the Pete Dye Course since 2013 and the circuit’s Hall of Fame is located in the nearby West Baden Springs Hotel. Nancy Scranton and Sandra Palmer will be inducted during the upcoming festivities.

In launching the Senior Championship the LPGA will beat out the U.S. Golf Association in creating the first senior major for women. The USGA’s first U.S. Women’s Senior Open will be played at Chicago Golf Club in 2018.

JDC won’t get Spieth

Two-time winner Jordan Spieth considered returning to the John Deere Classic, which tees off in Silvis, IL., on July 13 but decided to rest up for the following week’s British Open instead. Spieth didn’t defend his last JDC win last year because the tournament was played opposite the Olympics’ golf competition in Brazil, and Spieth later decided to just not play in either event.

“I love the (JDC) tournament, I love the golf course and – more important – I love the people,’’ said Spieth, who has already won twice this year. “While my schedule doesn’t permit me returning to the Quad Cities this year, I plan to be back in the future.’’

The JDC field will be strong even without him, as Bubba Watson and Davis Love III have committed after skipping the event for several years and Ryan Moore is expected to defend his title, though he’s currently recovering from a back injury.

Wheaton’s Kevin Streelman will also be in the field. His play has been solid since a two-week break during the U.S. Open. Streelman tied for eighth at the Travelers Championship and tied for 17th at the Quicken Loans National since returning to action.

Here and there

Drake Bushong, a Bradley University golfer playing out of Lick Creek in Pekin, won the 98th Chicago District Amateur. He beat DesPlaines’ Michael Fastert in the title match at Briar Ridge in Schererville, Ind.

The Illinois PGA will conduct its Senior Masters Championship on Monday (JULY 10) at Onwentsia in Lake Forest. On that same day the Chicago Baseball Cancer Charities Outing, which features celebrities playing with each foursome, is on tap at Twin Orchard in Long Grove.

The Palatine Hills Golf Association will conduct the Discover/Salute Charity Outing at Rolling Green Country Club in Arlington Heights on July 17. It’ll benefit the financial, physical and emotional needs of military service members, veterans and their families.

Cog Hill, in Lemont, will hold its first Junior Amateur Monday and Tuesday (JULY 10-11) on the facilities Nos. 2 and 4 courses.

Kang made her first LPGA win a tribute to her late father

Danielle Kang had been 0-for-144 in LPGA tournaments before she won her first tournament – and she picked a great event for her breakthrough.

The 63rd KPMG Women’s PGA Championship – formerly called the LPGA Championship – is rich in tradition, being second in longevity and prize money to only the U.S. Women’s Open.

On Sunday Kang became the eighth player to make this major championship her first professional victory. She did it by stringing four birdies in a row on the back nine of the North Course at Olympia Fields Country Club and then hanging on to win by a stroke thanks to a two-putt birdie on the last hole.

Kang became the first American to win the event with a birdie on the 18th hole since Meg Mallon did it in 1991 and she’s just the fourth American champion in the last 20 years. Going into the tournament Kang was only No. 43 in the Rolex Rankings

Her win was built on the back nine birdie blitz, but even that wasn’t quite enough. She had a three-stroke lead after the last of those string of birdie putts dropped at No. 14 but the lead was down to one after she made bogey at the par-3 17th.

“Without drama it’s not a major,’’ said Kang when she could laugh about her near collapse afterwards. Canadian Brooke Henderson, trying to make a successful title defense, actually pulled even with Kang at 12-under-par for a few minutes.

Henderson, playing in the group in front of Kang, rolled a 30-foot eagle putt to within an inch of the cup at No. 18, a par-5 easily reachable in two shots. The tap-in birdie pulled Henderson even with Kang, who was on the tee when Henderson’s putt came so close. Both were at 12-under-par then.

Kang heard the noise from the near-miss, stepped back to regroup and then played the way champions are supposed to play the rest of the way. She blasted her drive down the left side of the fairway, put her second shot from 236 yards to 30 feet below the hole and then lagged to two feet short of the cup.

The tap-in birdie brought an end to her winless record as a professional. Now only Kang and Juli Inkster own wins in both the U.S. Amateur – Kang won it in both 2010 and 2011 – and the KPMG Women’s PGA Championship.

“Pretty awesome,’’ said Kang. “I feel fantastic, absolutely fantastic.’’

But she still teared up when asked about her late father K.S. Kang, who passed away four years ago after battling cancer. Kang, 24, still writes to him in a journal.

“If I could wish anything I would wish that my Dad saw me win,’’ she said. “It’s been a really difficult road for me for the past four or five years. That’s life, though. You have to pick yourself up, keep working hard and believe in what you’re doing.’’

Kang’s father was of Korean descent and he took the family from California to live there briefly when Danielle and her brother, Web.com Tour player Alex Kang, were growing up. Kang developed her skills at Sherwood Country Club in Los Angeles, a hot spot for celebrities, and she received congratulatory messages on Sunday from Dustin Johnson, Wayne Gretzky, Caitlyn Jenner and Marcus Allen, among many others. She now lives in Las Vegas.

A 68 in the final round gave Kang a 13-under-par 271 total for the 72 holes. Henderson was one shot back after posting a 66 – the low round of the day. Korean Chella Choi, who started the final round tied for the lead with Kang, was another shot back in third.

Kang and Choi started the final round in the last twosome and only Henderson made a serious challenge from the other groups.

“It was a great day for me,’’ said Henderson. “I got off to a pretty fast start – three birdies on the front nine – and I wasn’t really making any mistakes.’’

In her victory last year at Sahalee, in Washington, Henderson closed with a 65 and then beat New Zealand’s Lydia Ko in a playoff. Kang wouldn’t let Sunday’s battle go to extra holes.

“Danielle played great,’’ said Henderson. “When she got to 13-under pretty early in the back nine I knew I had a lot of work to do coming down the stretch. A few days ago I would have been really happy with a second-place finish and, to have the chances and the opportunities that I did the last few holes, I’m happy.’’

Defending champ Henderson is lurking going into KPMG finale

There’s no reason Canadian teen-age phenom Brooke Henderson can’t repeat as the champion of the KPMG Women’s PGA Championship today. She’s again among those within striking distance of the lead with 18 holes to go.

Last year Henderson, then 18, was two strokes off the lead after 54 holes, caught New Zealand’s Lydia Ko by shooting a final round 65 and then beat Ko by sinking a three-foot birdie putt on the first hole of a sudden death playoff.

This time Henderson’s deficit is bigger. Chella Choi, of South Korea, shot 67 in Saturday’s third round to hit the 54-hole stop at 10-under-par 203 on Olympia Field’s North Course. Moments later 36-hole co-leader Danielle Kang posted a 68 to match Choi’s score. They’re the players to beat.

Henderson, at 206, is in fourth place and has another Korean, Jiyai Shin, ahead of her as well. Shin made a rapid climb up the leaderboard by shooting a 7-under-par 64 – the best score of the day. She was in the clubhouse before the leaders even hit the back nine.

Saturday was Happy Canada Day, and that added to Henderson’s support on the course.

“Canadians are very proud to be Canadian, and this is a very special day back home,’’ said Henderson. But Sunday will have to be even more special for her to repeat as the champion of the LPGA’s second major of 2017.

“With a major championship, it really comes down to the back nine on Sunday,’’ said Henderson. “If I can play solid and get myself into a good position coming down those final holes it will be a really interesting finish, and I’m just hoping I’m a part of it.’’

Choi is in the hunt because of a caddie change. Her father is back on the bag this week, and Choi has taken the approach the “Father knows best.’’

“My Dad was going to retire to spend more time with my mother,’’ said Choi. “When he started as my caddie it was to save money, and I always had dreamed of having my Dad on the bag when I was an amateur.’’

His retirement as a caddie lasted seven weeks.. Then Chella was struggling with her game and called for help.

“I lost my confidence and asked him to come back,’’ she said. “I’m feeling very good now. He gives me confidence.’’

Choi played only 18 holes on the North Course in pre-tournament preparations. She has taken her father’s advice on every shot of every hole. That’s familiarized her with the course and clearly improved her status on the leaderboard.

Kang, who grew up in California, attended Pepperdine University and now resides in Las Vegas, is downplaying her position at the top of the leaderboard.

“I’ve been working every day to get better, and I have to trust my game,’’ she said. “It would be incredible to be called a major champion, but I’m just trying to perform the best I can perform. I love the vibes of a major championship, but I’ve got to stick to my routine.’’

She said a change in attitude has help her improve, that change being “that winning isn’t everything.’’ Kang, though, has had calls of encouragement from three famous big-time winners – Wayne Gretzky, Caitlyn Jenner and Hollis Stac;y.

Kang, 24, won back-to-back U.S. Amateurs in 2010 and 2011 but has yet to win on the LPGA Tour and her best finish in a major was a tie for 14th in the 2012 U.S. Women’s Open. Choi, 26, has one LPGA win, at the 2015 Marathon Classic. Her best finish in a major was a tie for fifth in the KPMG event in 2013, back when the tournament was called the LPGA Championship.

Further down the list but not quite out of it yet are Michelle Wie, Lexi Thompson and newly-minted No. 1 So Yeon Ryu. They’re all five shots off the lead at 208 and in a tie for seventh.

Wie birdied three of the first four holes. “Then I hit a wall. I got real tired all of a sudden,’’ she said.

“You never know what’s going to happen on this golf course’’ said Wie. “Tomorrow it’s a whole new day, and I’ll try my best and see where that takes me.’’

Mom’s fighting spirit inspires Lexi Thompson

These are not easy times for Lexi Thompson, the best American player in women’s golf.

Frequently the face of the LPGA Tour – at least at U.S. tournaments – Thompson uncharacteristically took a break from pre-tournament interviews at the KPMG Women’s PGA Championship at Olympia Fields this week. She didn’t want to field questions about either her mother’s health or the controversial four-stroke penalty that she was assessed in the LPGA’s first major tournament of the season, the ANA Inspiration.

The penalty handed that title to Korean So Yeon Ryu, who is now the top-ranked woman in the game. Thompson is No. 4, with Thailand’s Ariya Jutanugarn and New Zealand’s Lydia Ko standing second and third, respectively.

Ranking points aren’t very important right now, not with her mother Judy battling uterine cancer. Thompson unexpectedly ended her silence on that topic late Thursday night after shooting a 1-under-par 70 in the first round at Olympia Fields. She had barely reached the clubhouse when dangerous weather suspended play for the day, and she got in just ahead of another suspension of play in Friday’s second round after posting a 69.

Reports of her mother’s health problems surfaced as players started arriving at Olympia Fields on Monday. They were confirmed by Thompson’s agent on Wednesday but Thompson has been struggling with her mother’s health diagnosis since winning a tournament in Kingsmill, Va., in May.

“It’s been rough,’’ admitted Thompson. “She’s my best friend. So hearing that, then just dealing with a lot of things this year, it was a breakdown moment for me. She’s doing better now, and hopefully she’ll be at the U.S. Women’s Open and support me there.’’

The U.S. Women’s Open is July 13-16 at Trump National in Bedminster, N.J.

Judy Thompson and husband Scott live in Florida and are the parents of three professional golfers. Lexi’s brothers, Nicholas and Curtis, are also competitive players but don’t have the high profile that Lexi has. She stormed onto the national stage when she qualified for the U.S. Women’s Open as a 12-year old and was only 15 when she turned pro in 2012.

While Lexi, now 22, was just starting to make her mark as a golfer her mother was diagnosed with breast cancer.

“Luckily they caught it pretty early, when it was a small size,’’ said Thompson. “That was a challenging time for me when I was younger. She’s about an eight- or 10-year survivor, but hearing this news was just not good. Seeing how much she’s fighting is inspirational.’’

Judy Thompson, 60, had the third of her four radiation treatments just 23 days after undergoing surgery for uterine cancer with Lexi holding her hand during the procedure in Coral Springs, FL. The quick treatment came with the help of fellow competitor Morgan Pressel, who has a breast cancer foundation in nearby Boca Raton.

“I can’t give big enough thanks to Morgan,’’ said Thompson. “My mom wasn’t going to be able to get in the hospital for a few weeks once she heard the news. Obviously with a few weeks, it can spread and Morgan helped out. Morgan knows a lot of people and got her into the hospital two days later.’’

The entire LPGA community has supported the Thompsons since Judy’s diagnosis, and that’s been a big help.

“She’s always been the biggest fighter, no matter what she’s going through,’’ said Lexi. “She’s always been a role model of mine. I always aspire to be the woman – even half the woman – that she is. She just says `No matter what, I love you. Just go out, do your best. That’s all you can do.’ That’s her message every week, and that’s why I absolutely love her.’’

Thompson started her play at Olympia Fields with bogeys on the first two holes on Thursday, but she battled back and is now 3-under-par through 36 holes. That put her within striking distance of the leaders going into the weekend rounds.

Olympia satisfies LPGA’s desire to play courses that have hosted men’s events

The tournament now known as the KPMG Women’s PGA Championship is the second oldest event on the LPGA Tour, right behind the U.S. Women’s Open, but this week’s staging at Olympia Fields will mark the first time the tournament has been played in the Chicago area.

Olympia Fields will host the second of the five annual majors on the women’s tour. It was first played in 1955 as the LPGA Championship and took on its present name three years ago after an unprecedented collaboration with the PGA of America.

The site is critical in this arrangement, as the LPGA wanted more events on famous courses used for men’s tournaments. The first KPMG Women’s PGA Championship was played at Westchester, in New York, in 2015. Westchester was a frequent PGA Tour site from 1963-2007, then hosted the Senior Players Championship in 2011.

Sahalee, in Washington, hosted last year. It was the PGA Championship venue in 1998 and welcomed the U.S. Senior Open in 2010. Olympia Fields has a more impressive resume than both Westchester and Sahalee, having hosted U.S. Opens in 1928 and 2003 PGA Championships in 1925 and 1961, the 1997 U.S. Senior Open and five Western Opens.

“It’s a big deal for us to be here, and that was one of the stipulations we gave KPMG,’’ said LPGA star Stacy Lewis. “The history of the men playing here and, more specifically, the fact that the women have never played here. We need to be on golf courses we have historically not played in the past. That’s what the PGA has helped us to do.’’

The tournament will be played next year at Kemper Lakes in Kildeer, which hosted the 1989 PGA Championship, and the 2019 version is scheduled for Hazeltine, the Minnesota course that has hosted multiple big events, most recently last year’s Ryder Cup.

All of the top 100 on the LPGA Tour money list are among the 156 players who will tee off at Olympia Fields on Thursday. That group includes 26 winners of major championships and those 26 have combined to win 53 majors.

The first major for the women this year was the ANA Inspiration, formerly the Dinah Shore tourney, played in March in California. It was won by South Korean So Yeon Ryu, who claimed the No. 1 spot in the women’s Rolex Rankings this week after her victory in the LPGA’s Northwest Arkansas Classic on Sunday.

After the tourney at Olympia is over the LPGA stars have three other majors – the U.S.Women’s Open, Ricoh British Open and Evian Championship.

Six locals in U.S. Senior Open

Chicago-based Champions Tour veteran Jeff Sluman isn’t the only local player in this week’s U.S. Senior Open – and not by a long shot. Six qualified for the 72-hole test that tees off on Thursday at Salem Country Club in Massachusetts. That’s the tourney biggest local contingent of qualifiers in years.

Mike Small, the Illinois men’s coach, comes in on a roll. He tied for third in the Professional Players National Championship in Oregon and followed with a tie for 20th in the Champions’ American Family Insurance Championship in Wisconsin on Sunday. By virtue of his top-20 finish in the PPNC Small will again play in August’s PGA Championship at Quail Hollow in North Carolina.

Also in the Senior Open field are club professionals Danny Mulhearn of Glen Oak and Doug Bauman of Biltmore and teaching pro Jim Buenzli.

Here and there

Nancy Scranton, who came out of downstate Centralia to become one of the few Illinois players to make it to the LPGA Tour, and Sandra Palmer, a former U.S. Women’s Open champion, were selected for induction into The LPGA Legends Hall of Fame. The ceremony will be July 8 at French Lick, Ind.

It was an all-Kelly final in last week’s Illinois Women’s State Amateur at Pine Meadow in Mundelein. Kelly Sterling of Mokena defeated Kelly Anderson of Wheaton in the championship flight’s title match.

Next month’s John Deere Classic, the PGA Tour stop in the Quad Cities, landed two big names this week. Bubba Watson and Davis Love III will compete at TPC Deere Run.

William Mouw, a 16-year old Californian, was a wire-to-wire winner of the 100th Western Junior Championship last week at Park Ridge Country Club. His 14-under-par score for 72 holes enabled Mouw to win by eight strokes and match Hunter Mahan’s tournament record score, posted in 1999.