Len Ziehm On Golf

Davies completes sweep of the two major titles for senior women golfers

England’s Laura Davies celebrates her wire to wire victory at French Lick.

FRENCH LICK, Indiana – There’s no doubt who the best senior woman golfer was in this first historic first year. England’s Laura Davies won both the U.S. Senior Women’s Open and the Senior LPGA Championship convincingly.

Davies was as dominant in the Senior LPGA as she was in the Open, played in July at Chicago Golf Club. Davies won that one by a whopping 10 strokes. She was a wire to wire winner in the Senior LPGA, which concluded on Wednesday on the Pete Dye Course here.

“It was a real victory for me,’’ said Davies, who won her 87th tournament world-wide with an 8-under-par 208 score for the 54 holes. “I played OK here before but never strung three rounds together.’’

Davies was third in the first major tournament for senior women professional last year when another England golfer, Trish Johnson, won the title. Davies owned the next two majors for that segment of players this year, but Wednesday’s win wasn’t as easy as her victory in Chicago.

“I had a five-shot lead (going into the last round) there,’’ said Davies. “Here I started with a three-shot lead, then it was a no-shot lead. On this course you can’t take anything for granted.’’

Davies made bogey on the first hole, then Sweden’s Helen Alfredsson posted four birdies in her first eight holes and Italy’s Silvia Cavalleri, paired with Davies, got into the mix as well. The three were tied at 5-under-par six holes into the round.

Laura Davies shows why she’s been one of the longest hitters in women’s golf for decades.

While temperatures climbed over 60 degrees for the first time this week, the winds kicked up to over 20 miles per hour. That made scoring difficult for everyone, and Davies had only two serious challengers. She passed Cavalleri before the first nine was done and was in command the rest of the way after Alfredsson made double bogey at No. 11.

“I made a mistake (hitting a ball into a bunker and leaving one recovery shot in the sand) and I couldn’t recover,’’ said Alfredsson. “You feel horrible, but it was a joy to be here.’’

No doubt Davies’ tournament schedule paid off. Alfreddson had played in only two tournaments this year, and none since the U.S. Senior Women’s Open. Davies is among the busiest players tournament-wise in the senior ranks. She plays on the LPGA, European and Legends tours.

“Not taking anything away from Laura, she’s an amazing golfer,’’ said Alfredsson, “but it’s different for players who are playing tournaments regularly. We all love to play, but you don’t know how you’ll react (if you aren’t competing regularly).’’

NOTES: Riley Children’s Hospital, the tournament’s charitable beneficiary, sends many of its young patients to the event each year but on Wednesday Genevieve Bennett Slater of Sullivan, Ind., was also on hand to introduce the players at the first tee. Now 91 years old, she was a Riley patient between the ages of 5 and 16 when she had multiple surgeries to avert a birth defect.

Sherri Turner was inducted into The Legends Hall of Fame at a pre-tournament banquet. On Wednesday she worked as a caddie for Martha Nause.

Defending champion Trish Johnson posted her third straight 73 and finished sixth. Juli Inkster, runner-up to Davies in the Senior Open, bounced back from a second-round 80 to shoot 73 and finish in a tie for12th.

Jamie Fischer, the teaching professional at Conway Farms in Lake Forest, shot 76 and was at 13-over-par 229, good for a tie for 24th in the 80-player field. Berwyn’s Nicole Jeray, who is on the teaching staff at Mistwood in Romeoville, was three shots behind Fischer overall but finishing strong. She rolled in a putt from off the green in concluding her round with back-to-back birdies.

Davies is on the brink of sweeping the two LPGA senior majors

Defending champion Trish Johnson (left) congratulates Brandi Burton on posting her stunning 66.

FRENCH LICK, Indiana – England’s Dame Laura Davies, winner of the U.S. Senior Women’s Open at the Chicago Golf Club in July, is poised to sweep the two major championships for senior women golfers on Wednesday (TODA).

Davies started Tuesday’s second round of the Senior LPGA Championship on the Pete Dye Course with a two-stroke lead, then promptly frittered it away with three-putt bogeys on the first and fourth holes. It didn’t take long for the long-hitting Davies to get back in the groove, however.

Birdies on Nos. 5 and 6 settled her down and after that it was clear sailing. She posted a 2-under-par 70 to hit the 36-hole stop in the 54-hole competition at 6-under-par 138. That left her two ahead of Brandie Burton, who shot a 66 – the low round of the tournament. Italy’s Silvia Cavalleri (69) and Australian Jane Crafter (71) are another shot back in a tie for third.

Davies, who won at Chicago Golf Club in July by a whopping 10-shot margin, credited a new putter for her solid play over the first 36 holes here. She saw one to here liking on the putting green and Anthony Bradley, a member of French Lick’s professional staff, had a model that Davies put in her bag for the tournament. She used it to make birdie putts of 25 feet at No. 11 and 30 feet at No. 15 on Tuesday.

Laura Davies has the Senior LPGA Championship in her grasp after a 70 on Tuesday.

The pace of play was better and so was the scoring in Round 2. Monday’s breezy first round was played in frigid weather with temperatures in the 40-degree range most of the day. Temperatures didn’t climb much on Tuesday but the sun came out and the wind died down.

“It was like night and day,’’ said Davies. “Today actually was pleasurable. Yesterday was misery.’’

“I could actually feel my hands today,’’ said Burton, who hit 16 of the 18 greens in regulation in her hot round. “I couldn’t feel my hands on the putter yesterday to save my life. It’s nice to go into the last round with confidence. It’s been a long time since I shot that number.’’

Not all the players shook off the first-round gloom, however. England’s Trish Johnson, the defending champion who is bidding for her third straight victory on the Pete Dye Course, posted a second straight 73 and is eight shots back going into the final round.

Michelle Redman, last year’s runner-up, shot 75 and Juli Inkster, the champion here in 2015, started the day in second place and dropped into a tie for 19th after shooting an 80.

Today’s champion will receive $90,000 from the tourney’s $600,000 purse.

NOTES: Shelley Hamlin, who was inducted into The Legends Hall of Fame here on Friday, passed away on Monday night following a long battle with cancer. She was 69. Hamlin enjoyed a long playing career on both the LPGA and Legends circuits.

Nancy Scranton, who developed her game while growing up in Centralia, Ill., and is also a Legends Hall of Famer, withdrew from the tournament after suffering a pinched nerve in her neck. She joined The Golf Channel broadcast team for Tuesday’s round.

The two Chicago players in the 79-player field, Berwyn’s Nicole Jeray and Lake Forest’s Jamie Fischer, are tied at 9-over par 153 entering the final round. Both improved their scores from the first round, Jeray shooting 75 and Fischer 76.

Chicago products Nicole Jeray (left) and Jamie Fischer are in the top half of the Senior LPGA field.

Davies clings to one-stroke lead after Round 1 in Senior LPGA

First round leader Laura Davies putts as playing partners Hollis Stacy (left) and Trish Johnson look on.

FRENCH LICK, Indiana – Laura Davies and Juli Inkster finished one-two in the inaugural U.S. Senior Women’s Open at Chicago Golf Club in July, and the possibility loomed for a similar result after a weird finish to Monday’s first round of the Senior LPGA Championship here.

Temperatures in the 40-degree range and winds of 15 miles per hour made play difficult for the 80 starters in the second of the two major championships for senior women golfers. Davies bundled up with a blanket in her golf cart at times, but she was hot early in the round when she opened a three-stroke lead.

An eagle at the par-5 seventh hole triggered Davies’ fast start, but Inkster matched it at a most critical time – on her last hole. That brought Inkster to 3-under-par 69 for the day and in a three-way tie for second with Sweden’s Liselotte Neumann and Maria McBride. The trio is one stroke behind Davies.

Davies had a tough finish. She hit her tee shot on the par-3 17th hole over the green and made bogey, her lead slipping to two shots. Neumann and McBride birdied No. 18 and Inkster rolled in her 15-foot for eagle before Davies – playing in the last threesome – finished her round.

After the bogey at No. 17 Davies sent her tee shot far left on the par-5 finishing hole, the ball ending up in high grass.

“We could never find the ball,’’ said Davies. “Fortunately I made birdie on my second ball.’’

That “birdie’’ was actually a bogey on the scorecard so that created a three-shot swing with Inkster and two-shot swing with Neumann and McBride. Davies won at Chicago Golf Club by a whopping 10-stroke margin but this week’s 54-hole competition wouldn’t seem to be so one-sided.

“Winning two senior majors in one year would be incredible,’’ said Davies. “I’d love to have a chance, but you’ve got to be aggressive around here.’’

The Pete Dye Course was set up shorter than usual (about 6,100 yards) to help the players combat the chilly weather. Eight finished under par, but defending champion Trish Johnson (73) wasn’t among them. She is bidding for her third straight victory on the Pete Dye Course after finishing second to Inkster in 2015 Legends Championship here.

Neumann started her round with two bogeys, then charged back with birdies on five of the next nine holes. She did it without Mark Williams, her long-time caddie. Williams is on the bag for another player in the LPGA’s qualifying tournament.

“He left me for a younger woman,’’ said Neumann, who drew laughs with that comment after a day in which the golf wasn’t much fun.

“Our round took 5 hours 40 minutes. It was a long day out there,’’ said Inkster.

“Keeping yourself warm, that was the hardest part,’’ said McBride. “There was a lot of stopping and waiting.’’

McBride had reason to celebrate. Monday marked her 45th birthday. If it had come a day later she wouldn’t have been eligible to play in the Senior LPGA Championship. Only players who have reached their 45th birthday are eligible.

The forecast is for better weather in the next two rounds before the champion gets $90,000 from the tourney’s $600,000 purse on Wednesday. .

Will the Trish Johnson Era continue at French Lick?

Cold, rainy weather ruled the day when the Honors Division was scheduled to compete at French Lick.

FRENCH LICK, Indiana – As far as tournament play on the Pete Dye Course here is concerned, this is definitely the Trish Johnson Era.

“And I hope it continues,’’ said Johnson on Sunday – the last practice day before Monday’s start of the second Senior LPGA Championship. This is the last major championship of 2018 on any of the American pro golf tours.

Johnson made her debut on the Pete Dye Course in The Legends Championship of 2016, finishing second to Juli Inkster. Inkster was making her Legends debut in that tournament. She returned to defend her title in 2017, but Johnson dethroned her in a six-hole playoff.

Trish Johnson was in a good mood for her .pre-tourney press conference

Last year, when the tournament was transformed into the Senior LPGA — and the first-ever major for the older women players – Johnson was a wire-to-wire winner. Inkster, who had a broadcasting assignment at the U.S. Women’s Open, didn’t play at French Lick last year but she’s back for this week’s tournament. That doesn’t rule out Johnson as the tournament favorite.

“Second-first-first. I love it here,’’ said Johnson. “This course suits my eye.’’

But it looks a little different going into the 54-hole tournament that tees off on Monday. The previous tournaments on the Pete Dye Course were played in July. This one is in October, and the weather hasn’t been pleasant. Temperatures were in the 40-degree range with intermittent rain for the three pre-tournament days and Monday’s forecast is for similar weather.

“Monday will be survival day,’’ said Johnson. “A round of level par would do very nicely. After that it looks like it’ll be a bit nicer.’’

Johnson has played in only nine tournaments this year and describes her play as “very intermittent.’’ She was third behind Dame Laura Davies in the inaugural U.S. Senior Women’s Open at Chicago Golf Club and had one Legends win, in the Suquamish Clearwater Cup.

Caddies had it as tough as the golfers did in trying to cope with Sunday’s cold weather.

This week’s 81-player field includes four World Golf Hall of Fame members – Inkster Davies, Hollis Stacy and Jan Stephenson, whose selection was announced last week – and eight countries are represented among the starters.

The field also includes the winners of four LPGA major championships and there are four Illinois players in the field headed by Berwyn’s Nicole Jeray, who was seventh in the tournament last year and accepted a teaching position at Mistwood in Romeoville earlier this week.

Jaime Fischer, a teaching pro at Conway Farms in Lake Forest, made the starting field at this week’s qualifying round. Fischer also was a qualifier for the U.S. Senior Women’s Open and survived the 36-hole cut at Chicago Golf Club. There won’t be a cut at French Lick. Other players with Illinois backgrounds in the field are Audra Burks, of Springfield, and Nancy Scranton, who grew up in Centralia.

A bundled up Martha Nause lines up a putt in the Honors Division scramble.

French Lick’s second Senior LPGA tourney will be bigger than the first

Defending champion Trish Johnson gets pro-am play started at French Lick.

FRENCH LICK, Indiana – Last year the long overdue first major championship for senior women golfers was staged on the Pete Dye Course at French Lick Resort. The second playing of the event, 15 months later, will clearly be bigger and better than the original.

The inaugural staging was paired with the Donald Ross Centennial Classic, a Symetra Tour event, to create a big two weeks of tournament golf on both of the resort’s courses. This year the events were split up, with the Symetra stop remaining in July and the Senior LPGA taking fall dates that figure to made it more special.

The PGA Tour has already conducted its four major championships and PGA Tour Champions has staged its five. The LPGA has completed its five majors for the regular tour, and the senior women’s played their first U.S. Senior Women’s Open at Chicago Golf Club in July.

That means the second Senior LPGA Championship, with its $600,000 purse, will be the last professional major championship on any tour in 2018. It’ll also be the only one played entirely on weekdays. That encouraged television coverage, and The Golf Channel will carry the action live from 4-6 p.m. for the three tournament rounds beginning on Monday.

Barely a year ago there was one glaring void in the golf tournament calendar, with no major tournament for the senior women professionals who contributed so much to the growth on the LPGA.

French Lick was instrumental in correcting the problem, helping The Legends Tour put on its biggest tournament of the year for four years on the Pete Dye Course. The Legends Championship grew into the Senior LPGA Championship last year and it found a home on the Pete Dye Course as well.

First of the pre-tournament festivities for the tourney’s second playing were held on Thursday, with a gala and auction benefitting the Riley Children’s Hospital. First of two Faegre Baker Daniels Pro-Ams was held on Friday and the latest induction class into The Legends Hall of Fame – which is housed at French Lick Springs Resort –s was completed at the post-round dinner. Shelley Hamlin’s selection was announced on Thursday night.

On Sunday eight players will decide the Legends Honors Division title, with Jan Stephenson defending her crown in the immediate aftermath of her selection to the World Golf Hall of Fame.

Once the tournament proper begins, however, the focus will be clearly on England’s Trish Johnson. She won the last of the four Legends Championships in 2016 by beating Juli Inkster in a six-hole playoff and led wire to wire last year in claiming the first Senior LPGA title.

Johnson was a three-stroke winner over Michele Redman in the first Senior LPGA, and they were the only players under par for the 54 holes. Inkster, who won The Legends Championship at French Lick in 2015, didn’t play in the first Senior LPGA because she was part of the broadcasting team for the U.S. Women’s Open.. Now she’s back as is England’s Laura Davies, who won the first U.S. Senior Women’s Open by a whopping 10 shots in Chicago.

The 81 starters include five members of the LPGA Hall of Fame and 19 in the field have won LPGA major titles.

Illinois Open win puts Vince India in select state golf company

Unless your name is Vince India the 69th playing of the Illinois Open will likely be an easily forgettable experience.

Annually the biggest tournament for Illinois residents, this year’s version was a weather nightmare. Heavy rains delayed the first and second rounds. The weather cleared for the third round, but it couldn’t start until second-round play at both The Glen Club, in Glenview, and Ravinia Green, in Riverwoods, was completed and the 264-player field cut to the low 50 and ties.

Only India went him satisfied. Patrick Flavin, the defending champion, was only so-so in his much anticipated professional debut, finishing in a tie for 30th place. Garrett Chaussard, winner of the Illinois PGA Match Play title – the section’s first of four major events for the season – missed the cut.

Brandon Holtz, the former Illinois State basketball player, who was a joint runner-up to Flavin last year, wound up solo second this time after making a costly bogey at No. 17 – a par-3 stretched to a maximum 220 yards. That meant Holtz had to make eagle at No. 18, a par-5 that – with the tees moved up – was a very reachable 460 yards. Holtz’ second shot stopped 18 feet away but the eagle putt he needed to force a playoff went left.

India became only the ninth player to notch victories in the state’s two major men’s events – the Illinois State Amateur and Illinois Open. In addition to Flavin the other seven were David Ogrin, Bill Hoffer, Gary Hallberg, Gary Pinns, Mark Hensby, Roy Biancalana and Brad Hopfinger. Ogrin, Hallberg, Pinns, Hensby and Biancalana went on to play on the PGA Tour.

Hopfinger, now a regular on the PGA’s Web.com circuit, was India’s collegiate teammate at Iowa. India will be in the field for this week’s Web.com stop, the EllieMae Classic in Hayward, Calif. He caught an evening flight to make a 9:06 tee time today.

With only limited Web.com status, India has played in just seven tournaments this year, made two cuts and earned $2,964. He picked up $19,004 for his Illinois Open win.

Winner of the Illinois State Amateur in 2010, India was the runner-up in the Illinois Open in 2015 and hadn’t played in this tournament since, until this week. His play on the Web.com Tour has been hampered by back problems.

“I have a disc herniation in my lower back,’’ he said, “and I’ve been working on a lot of things so that I can play pain free. My health is better now, and I’m swinging the club better. My swing is coming back, which is great.’’

The alternate course for this year’s Illinois Open was Ravinia Green, where India was a long-time caddie growing up, and The Glen Club – the site of his second round as well as Wednesday’s final round – is near his home in Deerfield as well.

India finished his rain-delayed second round with an 8-uner-par 64 – the low round of the tournament — on Wednesday morning to get within one stroke of the lead entering the final 18. Making birdies on the first two holes, India established himself as a contender immediately and made a clutch two-putt birdie at No. 18 — the margin of victory over Holtz.

With rounds of 72, 64 and 66 India was at 14-uner-par 202 for the 54 holes. Holtz also posted a 68 in the final round to finish one swing back.

“It was a grind, but I did a good job for not being in this position for a long time,’’ said India. “I was playing here because I wasn’t expecting to play (the Web.com event) this week. I didn’t expect the sponsor’s exemption to the EllaMae, but that was really nice.’’

So was a most fortunate bounce on his last tee shot. India knew the ball hit a cart path running through the No. 18 fairway but didn’t think the carom would carry it as far as it did. He couldn’t immediately find the ball in the right rough, and when he did he had just 170 yards to the pin for his second shot.

“In the end the drive went about 400 yards, cartpath-aided,’’ he said. He put his second shot on the green, two-putted from 30 feet for birdie and then waited for Holtz to finish.

The last threesome lagged two holes behind India’s group most of the day but Holtz was in place for another shot at the title when he put his approach from 205 yards to 18 feet for eagle.

“I knew my putt had a chance, and I wasn’t going to leave it short,’’ said Holtz, who sells football helmets for a living. He was playing in only his third tournament of the year after finishing sixth in the St. Louis Metro Open and missing the cut in the Waterloo Open.

The final day had one other most notable incident. Jeff Kellen, a club pro in the Rockford area, resumed his second round at The Glen’s 17th hole. On the first swing of the day Kellen holed out for an ace. He wound up in fifth place.

No reason to think Small won’t make it win No. 13 in IPGA Championship

The Illinois PGA Championship has been Mike Small’s personal playground for nearly two decades and there’s no reason to think that the 96th playing of the tournament this month at Stonewall Orchard in Grayslake should be any different.

The University of Illinois men’s coach has won the IPGA title a record 12 times, his first coming in 2001 and his last in 2016. The tournament has had 19 other multiple winners, but none have come close to Small’s dozen.

Johnny Revolta, the long-time Evanston Golf Club head pro and winner of the 1935 PGA Championship, took six titles from 1936-47. Bill Ogden, the section’s dominant player when he ran the shop at North Shore Country Club, was a five-time winner from 1953-72. Recently retired Gary Groh, who did his time at Bob O’Link in Highland Park and was inducted into the Illinois Golf Hall of Fame last year, captured four titles between 1983-2002.

Jim Foulis, part of the Foulis clan that played big roles at Chicago Golf Club, Olympia Fields and Hinsdale in the earlier years of Chicago golf, also had four wins in the IPGA Championship but Groh was the only one of those four to go head-to-head with Small.

Small won his first IPGA title in 2001 at Kemper Lakes, Groh beat him in a playoff the next year on the same course and Small then ran off eight championships in a row. He also won four more times in the last seven years, and he’ll be coming off one of his best summers of tournament play when the 54-hole shootout returns from Aug. 27-29.

Thanks to sponsor exemptions, Small had no trouble getting into PGA Tour Champions tournaments and took advantage of his invitations. Thanks to two top-10 finishes he squeezed into the top 70 on PGA Tour Champions’ Charles Schwab Cup money list and that got him into one of the 50-and-over circuit’s major events – the Constellation Senor Players Championship at Exmoor Country Club in Highland Park.

Small needed to hole a chip shot on his last hole of a tournament in Madison, Wis., to crack the Senior Players field. Once in, he earned a share of the first round lead and stayed in contention most of the way before finishing in a tie for 10th place. That earned him his biggest paycheck as a tournament player — $67,200. (His previous best was $57,200 for a tie for ninth in the PGA Tour’s RBC Canadian Open in 1998).

The Senior Players concluded on July 15, and Small has a big August as well. He has a spot in one more PGA Tour Champions event – the 3M tournament in Minnesota Aug. 3-5. Then he’ll bid for a record-tying fifth win in the Illinois Open Aug. 6-8 at The Glen Club and Ravinia Green and wrap up his tournament season in the IPGA Championship. It ends on the day classes resume at the University of Illinois.

When the last putt drops at The Glen Small will go back to his day job, as coach of the powerhouse Illini men’s team that will be reloading following the graduations of stars Dylan Meyer and Nick Hardy.

Despite his summer successes Small has no goals as far as tournament play goes.

“If I still have fun doing it, if I still get nervous and still get a little anxiety, that’s good,’’ he said. “I’ve had a heckuva run. Golf has been very good to me. If I can do this for three or four more years and still be competitive I’ll do it. If I’m not competitive I won’t.’’

Small was certainly competitive over the last four months. He posted two 66s at Exmoor in his run at the Senior Players title and wasn’t surprised by his lofty status there. He fell t that it all boiled down to getting more chances to compete.

“The last few years I haven’t done that much,’’ said Small. “I’d play one week, then have two or three off, then play another one. This year I’m playing three, four weeks in a row. I don’t usually do that. Ever, really.’’

He went into the last round at Exmoor with the attitude that “I’ve got nothing to lose.’’

“My golf swing has got to get better and more consistent. It leaves me sometimes, so I’ve got to work on that,’’ said Small, and that mindset will be the same whether he’s playing against the best on the PGA Tour Champions or the best in the Illinois PGA.

Small has won five of his IPGA titles at Stonewall – in 2005, 2006, 2007, 2009 and 2014.

Though it might not seem like it, Small doesn’t win the Illinois PGA Championship every time. His run of eight titles in a row was snapped by Frank Hohenadel, now the head professional at Mistwood in Romeoville, in 2011 on Medinah’s No. 1 course. Steve Orrick, of Country Club of Decatur, was the winner at Stonewall the following year before Small bounced back to win three of the next four years.

Jim Billiter, now the head pro at Kemper Lakes, beat him in a return to Medinah in 2015 and Indian Hill assistant Adam Schumacher was the winner when the tourney returned to Medinah last year. Small tied for sixth in that one.

Over the years there have been six players who finished second to Small in the IPGA Championship on more than one occasion. Fresh Meadows’ Roy Biancalana, back in the section this year after taking a break from golf altogether, was a runner-up in 2003, 2004 and 2007. Cantigny’s Connie DeMattia was second in 2004 and 2005. Orrick, in addition to his victory, was a runner-up in 2008 and 2014 and Medinah’s Travis Johns was a runner-up in 2010, 2013 and 2016. They’ll all be ready to do battle with Small again.

August will also go a long way in determine the IPGA Player of the Year. Only one of the four major titles have been conducted so far, Skokie’s Garrett Chaussard winning the Match Play title at Kemper Lakes in May. Two more, the Illinois Open and IPGA Championship, will be held in August.

Hammer’s Western Amateur win was one for the ages

This week’s Illinois Open will be hard-pressed to duplicate the drama provided in the Western Amateur, which concluded on Saturday with one of the most dramatic championship matches in the event’s 116-year history.

Cole Hammer, an incoming freshman at the University of Texas, was 4-up on Alabama senior-to-be Davis Riley with eight holes to play at Sunset Ridge Country Club, in Northfield. One of the most prestigious titles in amateur golf wasn’t assured for Hammer, however, until Riley’s final putt from the fringe of the 18th green slipped past the cup.

The win enabled Hammer to join the ranks of golfing greats Chick Evans, Jack Nicklaus, Ben Crenshaw, Curtis Strange, Phil Mickelson and Tiger Woods as Western Amateur winners. Woods and Hammer are among the five players to win the tournament as 18-year olds.

Though the final was filled with drama, the star of the show all week was Hammer. He set the Sunset Ridge course record with a 10-under-par 61 and was co-medalist with a tournament record 23-under-par 261 in the 72-hole stroke play-qualifying portion of the most grueling competition in golf.

All the stroke play heroics did was get Hammer in the Sweet 16 for the two-day match play portion that decided the overall champion. Two of Hammer’s four matches went to extra holes and all reached the 18th green. He got through them with the help of his mother Allison, who made a rare tournament appearance as his caddy.

By comparison Riley played 11 less holes in his first three matches than Hammer did, but the champion showed no ill effects from the very physical ordeal that included his last two matches being played in 90-degree plus heat.

“I was fine, and to win with my mom on the bag meant the world to me,’’ said Hammer. “I had adrenalin going just because it was the finals of the Western Am, and there’s no bigger championship in amateur golf.’’

He may change his tune in tune weeks. Both Hammer and Riley are qualifiers for the U.S. Amateur at California’s famed Pebble Beach before they join their college teams.

Hammer, who was the third-youngest qualifier for the U.S. Open when he made it in 2016, had an especially long day on Saturday. His morning semifinal match with Californian Brandon Wu went 20 holes before Wu cracked, conceding a five-foot putt and the match to Hammer on the second extra hole after his own play deteriorated.

Riley, meanwhile, led all the way in his 4 and 2 semifinal win over Tyler Strafaci, of Davie, FL. Riley was cooling off in the clubhouse for 40 minutes before Hammer finished off Wu.

A 60-foot eagle putt at No. 7 was the highlight of Hammer’s fast start in the championship match. He got to 4-up before Ralston won Nos. 11, 12 and 16 to get to 1-down with two holes left. They both failed to connect on good birdie opportunities at the par-3 17th and both missed birdie chances from almost the identical spot at the 18th while the walking gallery of several hundred fans roared with every shot.

All of Hammer’s matches were tough ones. He advanced to the final day of the Western with a 2-up win over Georgian Spencer Ralston in Friday’s quarterfinals. Ralston had come from 2-down after nine holes to eliminate the only local player to reach the Sweet 16, Highwood’s Patrick Flavin, 3 and 2.

Flavin makes his professional debut on Monday when he begins defense of his Illinois Open title. He has a 9:20 tee time at Ravinia Green in Riverwoods and is paired with Brandon Holtz, the former Illinois State basketball player who was last year’s runner-up, and 2016 Illinois Open champion Carlos Sainz Jr.

“The Illinois Open is a little different than the Western Amateur,’’ said Flavin. “The Western has the best field in amateur golf but you have to play well on two courses in the Illinois Open. I’m really looking forward to that. It was such a big game-changer for me last year, winning my first pro event as an amateur.’’

Flavin and his partners have a 2:10 p.m. tee time at The Glen Club in Glenview on Tuesday before the 156 starters are whittled to the low 50 and ties for Wednesday’s final round at The Glen.

Sunset Ridge is back in the tournament spotlight for first time since 1972

It’s been quite a while since Sunset Ridge had had a moment in the sun tournament-wise.

The private club in Northfield hosted the Western Open in 1972. While Sunset Ridge hosted Illinois PGA stroke play events, U.S. Golf Association qualifiers and high school tournaments in subsequent years, it has been without such a high-profile event for 46 years. The dry spell ends when the 116th Western Amateur takes over the course from July 30 to August 4.

This is an interesting time for both Sunset Ridge and the prestigious tournament it will be hosting.

When Sunset Ridge hosted its Western Open the club had just finished a massive expansion and renovation project. With the club’s 50th anniversary approaching, it was awarded the tournament as a gift from both the Western Golf Association and PGA Tour. Long one of the circuit’s most popular stops, the Western had not been played on Chicago’s North Shore for 44 years until Sunset Ridge landed it.

After that tournament it’d be another 41 years before another North Shore club would host a Western Open. (Actually, the return came when the WGA brought its BMW Championship – the successor to the Western – to Conway Farms in Lake Forest in 2013).

As far as the Western Amateur goes, the Sunset Ridge visit will bring a brief halt to the tournament’s stagings in Chicago. The WGA held the event at Point O’Woods, in Benton Harbor, Mich., for 28 years until deciding on a rotation of Chicago clubs beginning in 2009.

With one exception (2013, when the Alotian Club in Louisiana hosted) the tournament has bounced around some of the best Chicago private venues for eight of the last nine years. Skokie hosted twice with North Shore, Exmoor, Beverly, Rich Harvest Farms and Knollwood all getting a shot before Sunset Ridge gets its turn.

The tourney will take a two-year hiatus from Chicago after Sunset Ridge plays host. The Western Am returns to Point O’Woods in 2019 and then goes to Crooked Stick, in Indianapolis, in 2020. A return to the North Shore is assured, though, with Glen View the site in 2021 and Exmoor in 2022. Glen View was the site of the very first Western Amateur in 1899.

Sunset Ridge will be hosting for the first time and – based on what happened in its lone Western Open – the world’s best amateurs will be facing a tough challenge. In the 1972 Western Open only 14 players finished under par and just one clearly mastered the course. Jim Jamieson led wire to wire, posting rounds of 67, 69, 68 and 67 to win by six strokes over Labron Harris.

Jamieson’s 13-under-par 271 total triggered his only win on the PGA Tour but it was part of a brief hot streak for the golfer from downstate Moline, Ill. He had tied for sixth in the 1971 Masters, tied for second in that tournament a few months before his Western win and then tied for third in the 1973 PGA Championship.

Western Amateur contestants will find Sunset Ridge on the short side; it’s only 6,752 yards from the back tees. Bill Diddel, a prolific Indiana architect, designed the original course. He has 160 courses on his resume, and Sunset Ridge was one of his first. In addition to the ’72 Western the Women’s Western Open was played there in 1936 and the Western Junior the following year.

The layout used for this year’s Western Am was created during a renovation by Libertyville architect Rick Jacobson in 2004-05. The course record of 62 was posted by Eric Meierdierks, the 2010 Illinois Open champion who played briefly on the PGA Tour.

As usual, the Western Am will offer one of the most physically challenging events in golf. It starts with 72 holes of stroke play to determine 16 qualifiers for the match play climax to the event. Those who go at it at Sunset Ridge will be hard-pressed to match the drama created last year at Skokie when Norman Xiong, a sophomore at Oregon, needed 22 holes to overcome Doc Redman, then a freshman at Clemson, in the title match.

They played the longest final in tournament history, and it was only the 13th time that the championship match went extra holes. Xiong was also the medalist, and he was the 25th player to lead the stroke play and go on to win the title.

Redman bounced back from the loss to win the U.S. Amateur later in the summer, beating Arlington Heights resident Doug Ghim in the final. Xiong, Redman and Ghim all wound up as members of last year’s winning U.S. team in the Walker Cup matches.

McCarron makes his first major title defense at Exmoor

Scott McCarron may be a battled-hardened mainstay on PGA Tour Champions, but he anticipates a unique feeling when he opens play in the Constellation Senior Players Championship at Exmoor Country Club in Highland Park.

“It’ll be the first time I’ve defended a title in a major,’’ said McCarron, looking ahead to the July 12-15 tournament – the first senior major played in the Chicago area since Olympia Fields hosted the U.S. Senior Open in 1997. “I’m sure there’ll be a few more butterflies on the first tee. This will be our best field of the year.’’

McCarron, 52, was no slouch on the PGA Tour. He won three times, two coming in the BellSouth Classic in Atlanta in 1997 and 2001. He lost three other titles in playoffs, had top-10 finishes in the Masters (1996), U.S. Open (1997) and PGA Championship (1997) and compiled $12.6 million in winnings.

Like so many players, however, he found his comfort zone on the circuit for players after they turned 50.

“I was competitive for a long time on the PGA Tour, but I was playing in the Tiger Woods era, and Phil Mickelson was winning a lot, too,’’ said McCarron. “Here (on PGA Tour Champions) it fits my game better. I come out to make birdies starting on the very first hole. I wish I had that attitude when I was on the PGA Tour.’’

Another factor is what McCarron calls “the numbers deal….on the PGA Tour there were 156-player fields. It’s 81 now.’’

That made a big difference once McCarron turned 50 in 2015. He won his first two titles on PGA Tour Champions the following year.

That was a good season, but nothing like the one he experienced in 2017. He started that year by winning the Allianz Championship in Boca Raton, Fla., in spectacular fashion. Needing a birdie to force a playoff on the par-5 finishing hole at the Broken Sound North course, McCarron went for the green with a 7-iron second shot from 186 yards.

“Normally my 7-iron is for 170, but I was pumped,’’ he said. The approach stopped six feet from the cup, and McCarron rolled in the eagle putt to claim the first of his four wins of that season. He went on to lead PGA Tour Champions in both birdies and eagles for the season.

“I was having such a blast,’’ he said. “I never realized how good golf could be until I got here. It’s been so much fun. Jack Nicklaus told me he made a mistake by not playing more on our tour.’’

While McCarron also would win the Dick’s Sports Goods Open and Shaw Charity Classic last year, his crowning moment came in the Constellation Senior Players at Caves Valley in Maryland when he overcame a six-stroke deficit in the final 18 holes to edge Brandt Jobe and Bernhard Langer by one shot. Posting an 18-under-par 270 total for the 72 holes, McCarron claimed his first win in a major on any tour.

“I tried a lot on the regular tour,’’ he said, “but this one feels the same, even if the accolades aren’t the same. To us it’s a big deal because it gets you into The Players Championship.’’

McCarron was looking forward to his appearance at the PGA Tour stop at Florida’s TPC Sawgrass last month (MAY), calling it “a special perk,’’ but he didn’t plan on testing himself against the game’s top young stars any other time.

“I don’t want to play on the regular tour if it conflicts with our (Champions) tour. I want to support PGA Tour Champions,’’ he said.

That sentiment is understandable, especially given McCarron’s background. He didn’t jump into right into professional golf after attending college at UCLA. He worked with his father in a family clothing business for four years first. Then he attended an event for the 50-and-older tour, the Raley’s Senior Gold Rush in his native California, in 1991.

That triggered his return to golf. McCarron decided to build a long putter in his garage and he was a serious contender in the U.S. Mid Amateur that year using the putter that he built. He went on to win his three PGA Tour titles with a more sophisticated version of the same club, and his career grew from there.

Last year was his best yet. He compiled 14 top-10 finishes, finished second in the Charles Schwab Cup standings and earned $2,674,195.

Though McCarron was without a win through April in 2018 he did come close. His best was a tie for second in the Toshiba Classic, which was one of his four top-10 finishes in the first eight tournaments. After the runner-up showing in the Toshiba Classic McCarron signed on with Tour Edge, the Batavia-based club manufacturer, as one of its hybrid staff players.

As good as McCarron has been in recent years on PGA Tour Champions, his most noteworthy round was one that came 24 years ago and can’t go unmentioned. Then 28, t McCarron made two holes-in-one in a seven-hole stretch at Alameda Country Club in California. They were also his first two career aces.