Another big women’s week at French Lick — but this one is different

The players have changed, but enthusiasm for women’s golf still runs high at French Lick.

FRENCH LICK, Indiana – It’s transition time for women golfers at Indiana’s premier golf resort.

It’s hard to imagine any golf facility doing more for the women’s game in the last decade than this southern Indiana resort has been willing to step forward for two pro circuits — The Legends for players who have reached their 45th birthday and the Epson (formerly the Symetra) for future Ladies PGA Tour stars.

“We’ve been a long-term supporter of women’s golf,’’ said French Lick long-time director of golf Dave Harner.  “There’s been a lot of opportunities here for the ladies to play.’’

That’s putting it mildly.

French Lick, best known for being the boyhood home of basketball legend Larry Bird, was in a revival mode after its oldest course – the Donald Ross – underwent a renovation while construction on its newest one – the spiffy Pete Dye Course – was wrapping up.

The resort needed a big event to showcase its new course, and the LPGA’s Legends Tour needed a big tournament.  It was a good marriage.

French Lick put the focus on the Legends Tour, which was only nominally a part of the LPGA at the time. It consisted  of women touring professionals who had hit their 45th birthday.  One of them, Jane Blalock, struggled to get a circuit started for her colleagues in 2000, but it took French Lick leadership to really get it done.

The Legends Championship, a 54-hole tournament with a $500,000 purse, made its debut in 2013 on the spectacular Pete Dye Course, and that wasn’t all.  The resort also established the Legends Hall of Fame in its West Baden Springs Hotel.

Lorie Kane was the Legends first champion followed by Laurie Rinker, Juli Inkster and Trish Johnson. In 2017 the Legends Championship was transitioned into the first major championship for senior women players.  It became the inaugural Senior LPGA Championship, and Johnson won again.

French Lick not only paid a substantial price to get television coverage but 2017 also marked the arrival of the Symetra Tour in town.  The young, budding LPGA stars competed in the Donald Ross Memorial tourney, held to celebrate the centennial of the oldest of the little town’s three courses. Three LPGA tourneys had been held there, including the 1959 and 1960 LPGA Championships.

The gardens at the West Baden Springs Hotel offer a stunning  lead-in for visitors to the Pete Dye Course.

Using the golf spotlight to benefit the Riley Children’s Hospital, French Lick also hosted Senior LPGA Championships in 2018, 2019 and 2021 and the Symetra’s Donald Ross Classic in from 2017-19 and 2021. Neither tournament was held in 2020 because of pandemic issues.

That was a big load for any golf facility to take on, so something had to give. It was “So long, Legends’’ and a big welcome back to the Epson Tour, which had taken over the title of the developmental circuit.

The Legends had a great run at French Lick, with some celebrated champions before departing.  Laura Davies followed Johnson as the winner of the Senior LPGA in in 2018, Helen Alfredsson was the champion in 2019 and Johnson won again last year.

Harner, in a final farewell to the senior stars, played in the pro-am prior to this year’s Senior LPGA at Salina Country Club, in Kansas.  Their circuit is now called The Legends of the LPGA but it’s in transition, too.  Blalock took a diminished role in the circuit’s operation when Jane Geddes was named executive director.  Geddes didn’t stay in that role very long, though, and now Linda Chen is the circuit’s executive director of business development.

Over the years the Legends have raised nearly $24 million for charity, and that number will grow with three more events on this year’s schedule – The Land O’ Lakes Classic in Minnesota this month, BJ/s Charity Classic in Massachusetts in September and the Rosie Jones Invitational in South Carolina in October. Those players also have a second major championship coming up with the U.S. Senior Women’s Open Aug. 25-28 at NCR in Dayton, Ohio.

The horse statue will greet the Epson players when they approach the entry to the Pete Dye Course.

This year’s Donald Ross Charity Classic won’t have the same big names in women’s golf in its field but will have the brightest young stars, headed by the season’s leading money-winner, Lucy Ly.

Previously known as the Futures and Symetra tours, the Epson has been around for 41 years but the tourney at French Lick will be something special.

Most significant is the prize money — $335,000, with $50,250 going to the champion.  It’s also a 72-hole event, a rarity on the women’s pro circuits, and has been designated as the Epson’s flagship eent, meaning it will offer more Rolex World Golf Rankings points than any tournament this season.

Two full-field pro-ams are on tap for Wednesday on the Pete Dye Course and the LPGA is livestreaming the last two rounds of the tournament.

“It’ll be big,’’ said Harner.  “It’s the biggest purse in their history.’’ The previous biggest purse was $300,000 in 2019 when the tourney was held at a layout on Alabama’s Robert Trent Jones Golf Trail.

Casey Danielson earned $37,500 for her win in last year’s event at French Lick.  That catapulted the former Stanford University golfer to the LPGA, but she’s coming back to French Lick to defend her title this week.

Erynne Lee, in 2017; Stephanie Kono (2018) and Patty Tavatanakit (2019), were other winners of the Donald Ross tourney.  They’ll find a much different atmosphere and challenge when they take to the Pete Dye Course.

A couple young stars to watch include 17-year old rookie phenom Alex Pano and Jaravee Boonchant, who arrived last week from  her native Thailand.  Even without a practice round on the tournament course Boonchant was a seven-shot winner in the Illinois Women’s Open immediately after arriving in the United States. She went on to finish a strong tie for 13th on Sunday in the Epson Tour’s Firekeepers tournament in Michigan.

The Firekeepers had a surprise champion in Xiaowen Yin, who won in a playoff with Gina Kim.  Yin, who won $30,000, came into the tournament at No. 24 on the season money list while Kim was No. 6.

“The Pete Dye Course has a tradition of hosting major championship golf,’’ said Mike Nichols, chief business officer of LPGA Qualifying Tours.  “By elevating the tournament experience for the Epson Tour, French Lick Resort has set an example for our current and future partners of how we can ally to support these professional athletes chasing their dreams.’’

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Thailand golfer wins Illinois Women’s Open with hot back nine

Jaravee Boonchant of caddie Boone Chammony made a winning team in the Illinois Women’s Open.

The 27th version of the Phil Kosin Illinois Women’s Open turned into one of the more unusual ones on Tuesday.  It all turned on great approaches to the No. 10 green by the only two players who seriously contender for the title on the Mistwood course in Romeoville.

Amateur Addison Klonowski stuck her approach on the short par-4 to within inches of the flagstick, then playing partner Jaravee Boonchant rattled her’s off the flagstick.  After Boonchant’s  ball hit Klonowski’s ball both marked their balls and made their birdie putts.  They both felt that the weird turn of events was the key to Boonchant’s seven-stroke victory.

Boonchant made five back-nine birdies en route to a closing 67, and Klonowski – a high school senior who lives in Naples, FL. – was convinced she couldn’t keep up after that. As it turned out, she couldn’t.

“There was nothing I could do.  She was making everything,’’ said Klonowski, who used the IWO as preparation for next week’s PGA Junior Championship at Cog Hill.  “I just tried to stay in my own game and stay composed.’’

“On the back nine I got momentum,’’ said Boonchant, who turned professional last summer and won her first tournament in America at Mistwood. She’s from Thailand and didn’t get to Chicago until Sunday.

That meant she couldn’t get in a practice round at Mistwood, but she still played the course in 7-under-par 137 in the event’s new 36-hole format. She was the only player to finish under par and her margin of victory tied the second largest in IWO history.  Emily Collins won by nine in 2014.

Both Boonchant and Klonowski have only remote ties to Chicago.  Klonowski’s father is from Downers Grove, and she’s been a summer visitor to Chicago in an effort to avoid the Florida heat. This, however, was her first IWO appearance.

Boonchant, like Klonowski, also spends most of her time in America in Florida.  She stays in Orlando while she is preparing for events on the LPGA’s Epson (formerly Symetra) Tour.

“I have a host family in Chicago, and they signed me up for this tournament,’’ said Boonchant.  She used a Mistwood member, Boone Chommany, as her caddie and the victory earned her $5,000.

As has been the case in recent years, the field was dominated by amateurs.  There were 17 of them in the final nine threesomes on the final day. Nicole Jeray, an LPGA veteran who now teaches at Mistwood, tied for 25th.

Jeray had a strong showing – a tie for 15th – on Sunday in the Senior LPGA Championship in Kansas. A two-time IWO champion, she spent Monday night as a guest speaker in the Illinois Junior Golf Association’s first Hall of Fame induction ceremonies at Cantigny, in Wheaton, in between her rounds in the IWO.

Low amateur Addison Klonowski (left) and Jaravee Boonchart were the big winners at Mistwood.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Poston could be a wire-to-wire winner at the John Deere Classic

J.T. Poston (right) and Denny McCarthy matched great shots in the third round of the JDC.

SILVIS, IL. – This has been one weird John Deere Classic.

Illinois’ only annual PGA Tour stop usually has a few big names.  This one had such mainstays on the circuit as Bubba Watson, Daniel Berger, Steve Stricker and Jason Day among its entrants, but none made it to the starting line.

The local players haven’t stepped forward, either.  Highwood’s Patrick Flavin continued to be the best of that bunch, but he’s down in 30th place entering Sunday’s final round.  Flavin, at least, got to see Saturday’s round of the day up close and personal.  His playing partner, Ohio State alum Bo Hoag, shot a 63, but he’s still back in a tie for sixth after 54 holes.

What this 51st playing of the tournament might produce on Sunday is a wire-to-wire champion – the first since Michael Kim set the tournament scoring record of 27-under-par 257 in an eight-shot victory in 2018.

J.D. Poston has dominated this year so far, and he takes a three-shot lead into the final round. Poston, after rounds of 62, 65 and 67, is three ahead of Scott Stallings, Emiliano Grillo and Denny McCarthy and is at 19-under-par 194 through three rounds.

Poston has had a strange season, though.  He missed the cut in his first six tournaments and 10 of his first 14. Last week, however, he tied for second in The Travelers Championship in Hartford, Ct.  Xander Schauffele beat him by two shots last Sunday, but Poston didn’t let that get him down.

“I feel great,’’ he said in the midst of his three-day hot streak at TPC Deere Run.  “My last few rounds have been great going back into last week, so I’m just trying to keep riding that momentum and not change anything.’’

Poston has but one win in six seasons on the PGA Tour, at the Wyndham Championship in his home state of North Carolina in 2019.

McCarthy was more than just his third-round playing partner this week.  They comprised two of the six players sharing a house during the JDC.

“It’s been a fun week,’’ said McCarthy. “We’ve been playing cards and go to dinner together.  There’s been no alcohol and we haven’t been throwing any parties, that’s for sure.’’

McCarthy could wind up as Poston’s top challenger on Sunday.  He hit all 18 greens in regulation on Saturday and finished birdie-birdie to cut into McCarthy’s lead that was five shots at one point.

While Poston’s game has been sharp for two weeks, McCarthy’s has been encouraging, too.  Though McCarthy is winless on the PGA Tour he did contend in two of his last three tournaments, tying for fifth in the Memorial and tying for seventh in the U.S. Open.

In Saturday’s round Stallings shot 64, Grillo 65, McCarthy 66 and Poston 67. Poston’s lead was slipping away until he made eagle at the par-5 seventeenth.

Zach Johnson, the U.S. Ryder Cup captain, is gearing up for the British Open in two weeks at St. Andrews – where he won in 2015.  He’s also on the JDC Board of Directors and the tourney’s champion in 2012. Johnson goes into Sunday’s final round in a tie for 36th.

“That’s where my mind is right now.  I’ve got 11-12 days before St. Andrews so I’ll get focused on that next week,’’ said Johnson.  “I’m not there yet.  That’s obviously a totally different animal, so my mind is still on tomorrow here.’’

While not ruling himself out, Johnson is interested in Sunday’s battle with three British Open spots on the line for other players.

“There are some guys who may not be household names on this board right now, but they will be,’’ said Johnson. “The quality of golf is going to be spectacular.’’

 

 

 

Valspar produced a great climax for the PGA’s Florida Swing

Champion Sam Burns (left) and Davis Riley settled the Valspar title in a dramatic playoff.

The first day of spring also coincided with the last day of the PGA Tour’s four-tournament Florida Swing this year, and  the final tournament of the Sunshine State’s moment  in the sun for 2022 provided the best weather,  the biggest crowds, the best scoring and the most drama of the four events.

Sam Burns repeated as the champion of the Valspar Championship, dubbed the PGA Tour’s “most colorful tournament’’ thanks to its paint company sponsor, by beating Davis Riley with a 33-foot birdie putt on the second hole of a sudden death playoff. The winning putt came at the par-4 sixteenth hole – the start of the treacherous three-hole Snake Pit that concludes the respected Copperhead course at Innisbrook Resort in Palm Harbor.

The winning putt circled the hole before dropping in, spoiling what would have been a Cinderella-type win for Riley who started the day with a two-stroke lead, then had to bounce back from a triple bogey on the par-5 fifth to force the playoff. He had a chip shot from green-side rough to continue the playoff after Burns’ bomb went in, but his desperation shot went long but didn’t leave him deflated.

“I got punched in the mouth early and had to hit the reset button,’’ said Riley.  “But he won in the moment. We’ve probably played against each other since we were 11-12 years old. He just did what he needed to do.’’

“I was really excited,’’ said Burns, who climbed into the No. 10 spot in the Official World Golf Rankings, and he also soared to second in the FedEx Cup standings. “The last couple weeks I tried to not get too high or too low.  When  the putter came through it was really cool.’’

The winning putt came on the same No. 16 green where he made a key birdie putt en route to his win in the 2021 Valspar.  The event was played in May then, and Burns gained more respect for the trio of finishing holes known as the Snake Pit.

“That’s its M.O.,’’ he said. “It comes down to some dramatic finishes, and crazy things happen on that stretch.’’

Burns took a break from the tour after three consecutive missed cuts on the West Coast and he also bypassed the Honda Classic, first of the tournaments on the Florida scene.  When he returned he was ready to play.  A tie for ninth at the Arnold Palmer Invitational and a tie for 26th at The Players Championship preceded his rousing win on the Copperhead layout.

The Valspar tournament came down to a battle of 25-year olds after Justin Thomas and Matthew NeSmith faltered on the final hole of regulation play.   Burns and Riley played their 72 holes in 17-under-par 267 and Thomas and NeSmith came up one stroke short.  Those four players comprised the final two twosomes of the day. No one else really challenged that foursome.

In the other Florida tournaments this last month Austrian Sepp Straka won the Honda Classic with a 10-under performance.  Scottie Scheffler was 5-under to take the Arnold Palmer Invitational and Australian Cameron Smith was 13-under in capturing the weather-plagued Players Championship. Those performances paled in comparison to the shot-making on display at Copperhead.

Though NeSmith and Riley haven’t had the success that Burns and Thomas have had on the circuit,  NeSmith shot a course record-tying 61 in the second round and Riley had 62 in the third.

Burns, meanwhile, took another big step toward behind recognized as one of golf’s top stars.  He won his first PGA Tour event at last year’s Valspar Championship, then won again at the Sanderson Championship in Mississippi last fall. Now he has three wins in a year’s span.

 

It figures to be Zach Johnson vs. Luke Donald in the next Ryder Cup

Zach Johnson (left) and Luke Donald will create a good captain’s matchup in the Ryder Cup.

PALM BEACH GARDENS, FL. – Neither Zach Johnson nor Luke Donald looked threatening during Thursday’s first round of the PGA Tour’s traditional Florida Swing.

The veterans teed off within 20 minutes of each other, Donald starting his round off No. 1 and Johnson off No. 10 at the Honda Classic – the first of four straight tournaments in Florida.  Johnson finished at 4-over-par 76 and Donald at 2-over 74 and were far back of the leaders.

Their competitiveness figures to change very soon, however, though not as players.  Johnson and Donald loom to be opposing captains in the next Ryder Cup matches, to be played in 2023 at Marco Simone in Italy.

If the matchup materializes it’ll pit the most popular player over the years at Illinois’ only annual PGA Tour stop against a Northwestern alum who has remained involved in the Chicago golf scene through his philanthropic and design efforts.

Johnson’s selection as the U.S. captain will become official on Monday at a press conference at PGA of America headquarters here, the day after the Honda finishes its 72-hole run at PGA National. It won’t come as a surprise. Clair Peterson, long-time tournament director and now executive director of the John Deere Classic – Illinois’ lone annual PGA Tour event – congratulated Johnson via Facebook on Thursday and fans at the Honda Classic did the same as Johnson played his first round.

Leading the U.S. won’t be easy.  The American side will be trying to end a 30-year stretch without a win on European soil, the last one coming in 1993 at the Belfry in England. Johnson will also have a tough act to follow.  A U.S. squad captained by Steve Stricker handed Europe its worst beating with a 19-9 romp at Whistling Straights in Wisconsin in September. That was only the fourth U.S. win in the last 13 Ryder Cups.

Stricker was part of a six-man committee named to pick the next U.S. captain — three PGA Tour players and three PGA of America executives.

Currently battling health problems that have kept him out of tournament play the last three months, Stricker was a long-time U.S. vice captain before becoming the head man, and Johnson was a vice captain at the last two Ryder Cups after playing on five Ryder Cup teams.

A two-time Masters champion, Johnson has long been involved in the operation of the John Deere Classic, a fixture for 50 years in the Quad Cities area. The Iowa native has been a member of the tournament board almost as long as he’s been playing the tour, and he won the JDC in 2012.

Europe has yet to announce its next Ryder Cup captain but Donald has loomed as the likely choice since Lee Westwood, preferring to focus on his playing career, withdrew as a candidate. Padraig Harrington was the captain of the European side at Whisting Straits and is on a five-member committee to pick his successor.

Harrington gave Donald a resounding endorsement in January.  So did Graeme McDowell, who served along with Donald as Harrington’s vice captains.

While he hasn’t won a major title Donald’s playing record stands up to Johnson’s.  Donald spent 56 weeks holding the No. 1 spot on the Official World Golf Rankings and, in 2011, became the first player to win money titles on both the PGA and European PGA tours in the same year.

After Monday’s big announcement the PGA’s Florida Swing continues with the Arnold Palmer Invitational, at Bay Hill in Orlando; The Players Championship, in Ponte Vedra; and the Valspar Championship, at Innisbrook Resort in Palm Harbour.

 

 

 

 

Langer leads one-two Tour Edge finish in Chubb tourney

NAPLES, FL. — Tour Edge, based in Batavia, IL., isn’t the biggest golf club manufacturer, but it is the dominant one on PGA Tour Champions. That was particularly evident on Sunday when two Tour Edge ambassadors – Bernhard Langer and Tim Petrovic – finished one-two in the first full-field event of the season for the 50-and-over circuit.

Langer signed with Tour Edge last year, and the Chubb Classic was his most impressive performance since then. He shot his age (64) in the first round on the Black Course at Tiburon Golf Club and went on to win the 54-hole competition wire to wire.

“It’s great to get off to a good start in the new year and be near the top of the Schwab Cup again,’’ said Langer, who won the German championship when he was 17 and has now been a professional golfer for 50 years.  “I know that (Miguel Angel) Jimenez is ahead of me, but just to have a good performance like this is confidence building.’’

Shooting 68 in the second and third rounds Langer finished at 16-under-par 200 and was three strokes ahead of Petrovic, who carded a 69 in the final round at the only facility to host tournaments on the Champions, PGA and LPGA tours in the same calendar year. The PGA and LPGA play their events on Tiburon’s Gold Course.

Though both are Greg Norman designs, the Black is much tighter than the Gold layout. The Black routing is more difficult for spectators, but they turned out in bigger-than-expected numbers to watch Langer win the event for the fourth time.

Tour Edge boss David Glod opted to focus his player ambassador budget on Champions tour players and the staffers include much more than Langer and Petrovic. Scott McCarron, Tom Lehman, Ken Duke, Alex Cejka and Mike Weir are also officially carrying the Tour Edge banner and many more – most notably John Daly – have at least some Tour Edge clubs in their bags.

Petrovic was getting used to some new ones at the Chubb, but he knew how difficult it is to compete against Langer.

“Obviously he’s comfortable winning,’’ said Petrovic.  “We already knew that.  But he’s just efficient in everything he does.  I want to know what his heartbeat is coming down the stretch.  It’s probably half of what the rest of us have.’’

Langer, though, was a success story long before he hooked up with Tour Edge. Sunday’s win was his 43rd on PGA Tour Champions, two short of the record 45 wins by Hale Irwin. Langer also won the Champions’ season-long Schwab Cup competition six times after winning 42 times on the European PGA Tour and three times – including two Masters – on the PGA Tour. His Chubb win extended Langer’s streak of at least one victory to 16 years on PGA Tour Champions.

This season is different from the previous ones, though, as it’s Langer’s first without his 48-year swing coach Willy Hoffman.  He passed away a month ago.

McCarron was Tour Edge’s big gun before Langer signed up.  McCarron has 11 Champions’ wins and was the Schwab Cup champion in 2019-20. He had a tough final round at Tiburon on Sunday, however.  His 82 in the final round included a quadruple bogey nine on the par-5 fifteenth and dropped him to a tie for 71st finish. Oddly enough, McCarron had birdies before and after the disaster at No. 15.

Florida was the 2022 starting point for the LPGA, which played its first three events in the Sunshine State but won’t play again until the HSBC Women’s World Championship tees off on March 3 in Singapore..  The PGA’s Korn Ferry circuit had three events out of the U.S. before playing its first American event – the Suncoast Classic – at Lakewood National at the same time the Chubb was in progress. Lakewood is a two-hour drive from Tiburon.

Now the PGA Tour is coming to Florida, starting with the Honda Classic at PGA National in Palm Beach Gardens on Thursday.  The Arnold Palmer Invitational at Bay Hill, in Orlando; The Players Championship, at Ponte Vedra; and the Valspar Championship, at Innisbrook in Palm Harbour, follow over the next four weeks on Florida courses.

 

 

Another year hasn’t slowed down Langer on the Champions tour

A big day for Tour Edge with Bernhard Langer and Tim Petrovic both in contention at the Chubb Classic.

NAPLES, Florida – Another year of dominance for Bernard Langer on PGA Tour Champions seems a given with the first full-field tournament of 2022 still having one round to go.

Langer, 64, opened the Chubb Classic by shooting his age on Friday.  He wasn’t impressed.

“It was the second time for shooting my age and I did one better once,’’ said Langer.  “I should remember that stuff, but I get too caught up in the moment.’’

The first time Langer shot his age was his most memorable.

“It was fun doing it the first time on my actual birthday,’’ he said, “but it’s still special because it’s not easy to do.  Hopefully it gets easier as we get older.’’

He couldn’t do it in Saturday’s second round on Tiburon’s Black Course, shooting a 68,  but he was still in command throughout in a tournament he’s won three times – but not since 2016. Langer stands at 12-under-par 132 and is two strokes ahead of Scott Parel, Retief Goosen and Tim Petrovic entering Sunday’s final round.

“Yesterday I had a clean card — no bogeys,” said Langer. “Today I had seven birdies, but also three bogeys.  It was a little tougher today — a different wind direction and stronger wind as well.  But I’m still happy where I am.”

Former Masters champion Mike Weir, another Tour Edge player, pulled off a stunning recovery shot on Saturday, threading the needle from a difficult lie on the 17th hole. Zoom in above the last dot and you’ll see how close the ball came to clipping a tree on its way to the fairway.

The opening 64 propelled Langer to a two-stroke lead and Sweden’s Robert Karlsson, one of his playing partners, birdied the first three holes on Saturday to move into a tie for the lead.

The tie didn’t last long, as Karlsson endured a strange front nine.  He didn’t make a par on that side, following the three birdies with three bogeys.  Then, after making two more birdies, he took a double bogey at No. 9.  The only par score for him at that point was his front nine total.

Parel, who teed off seven groups in front of Langer, shot his own 64 on Saturday and got within a shot of Langer late in the day and Goosen and Petrovic also matched his 134 total for the first 36 holes. There’ll be suspense – and probably another bigger-than-expected gallery – on Sunday when Langer tries to close in on Hale Irwin’s record 45 tournament wins on the Champions circuit.  Langer has 42.

“He’s unbelievable,” said Parel. “I told him yesterday I’m glad you’re shooting your age and not my age, because then we’d have no chance. Obviously he’s a special golfer, and a better person than he is a golfer.”

Last year Langer won the PGA Tour Champions’ season-long Schwab Cup competition for the sixth time. He’s one of seven members of the World Golf Hall of Fame and one of 19 winners of PGA Tour major titles competing here.

A winner of two Masters titles and 11 of the majors on the 50-and-over circuit, Langer’s string of accomplishments has been a long one. He was golf’s first designed No. 1 player in 1986 when the Official World Golf Rankings were announced.

Illinois-based Tour Edge added Langer to its staff of ambassadors last year and that proved a wise move in the company’s battle for attention with the bigger club manufacturers.

His success so far this week comes at the only golf facility to host all three major professional tours.  The LPGA and PGA circuits have events on Tiburon’s Gold Course.  Only the Champions compete on the tighter Black layout.  Both layouts are Greg Norman designs.

Fans packed Tiburon for the first full-field event of the PGA Tour Champions season.

Two ex-Illinois Open champs are in the hunt at Korn Ferry stop

Deerfield’s Vince India was ready to go in Round 2 of the Suncoast Classic.

LAKEWOOD RANCH, Florida – The Korn Ferry Tour is only a pathway to the PGA Tour, but it can offer some things that the premier circuit. That clicked in during Friday’s second round of the circuit’s first tournament of 2022 in the United States.

For one thing the LECOM Suncoast Classic included three Illinois Open champions in its field.  You don’t see that very often.

You don’t usually get a friendly greeting from a player on his way to the first tee, either, but Vince India felt relaxed enough to exchange pleasantries and it didn’t hurt him when the competition kicked in.  He matched his first-round 66 with another in Round 2.

Two of the Illinois Open winners – former University of Iowa teammates India and Brad Hopfinger – showed they can hold their own with a strong group of players who are just a cut below those on the PGA Tour.  India, at 10-under-par 132 is four strokes behind leader Zecheng Dou and tied for 13th place. Hopfinger is two swings behind India but in a tie for 30th.

Darkness suspended play before the field could complete the second round, but the cut figured to come at 6-under par.  That meant India and Hopfinger will get a check after the tourney ends on Sunday but a third Illinois Open titlist, Wheaton’s Tee-K Kelly, won’t. The Medinah member and Ohio State alum improved to a 67 after his opening round 72 but was a not-good-enough 3-under after 36 holes.

Kelly won the Illinois Open last year while Hopfinger triumphed in 2014 and India in 2018. Hopfinger and India are among only 10 players who own titles in both the Illinois State Amateur and Illinois Open. The Korn Ferry has a stop at the Glen Club in May.

India beat both his playing partners, Tommy “Two Gloves’’ Gainey and Fabian Gomez, on Friday. Both of them have won tournaments on the PGA Tour. The Korn Ferry stop had more Illinois flavor, too. India is tied with Dawson Armstrong, who scored a dramatic victory in the 2015 Western Amateur at Rich Harvest Farms, in Sugar Grove. He’ll be playing on the weekend, too, but two Michaels won’t.

Michael Feagles came right from college to the Korn Ferry Tour but hasn’t forgotten his Illini roots.

Michael Kim has been an enigma. In 2018 he dominated Illinois’ only annual PGA Tour stop.  He was 27-under-par and won the John Deere Classic by eight strokes.  Both the score and victory margin remain tournament records, but Kim’s hot streak was short-lived.  The next year he missed 19 of 20 cuts on the PGA Tour and is still hoping to regain his magic from that great four days in the Quad Cities four years ago.

Michael  Feagles, meanwhile, is just getting his pro career started after being a mainstay for coach Mike Small’s University of Illinois teams. Kim was 3-under and Feagles 2-under in the first two rounds here.  Scoring was low, as expected.  Of the 143 starters 116 bettered par and one was particularly sharp on Friday.  Callum Tarren set the course record with a 10-under 61 while climbing into a tie for third place.

Still, Kim was loose enough to offer to shoot a selfie with Joy before he teed off and Feagles still showed his collegiately loyalty is still strong.  His golf bag was emblazoned with an orange Illini logo.

Michael Kim, once the star of the John Deere Classic, showed he can take a good selfie, too.

 

Now the men’s pro tours take the golf spotlight in Florida

ON TO TIBURON: The clubhouse at Tiburon, in Naples, FL, is a welcome site for three pro golf tour events each year. This week the stars on PGA Tour Champions will be there.

Golf-wise it’s Florida where the action is for at least the next month.

First it was the LPGA tour staging its first three tournaments of 2022 in the Sunshine state.  They were captivating events, too, with Danielle Kang, Lydia Ko and Leona Maguire winning the titles and Annika Sorenstam drawing bigger galleries than all of them playing against top male athletes from other sports in a celebrity competition.

Now – with the women headed to their next tournament March 3-6 in Singapore– all three men’s tours are either in Florida or headed that way.  The PGA’s Korn Ferry Tour kicked off its first tournament of the year in the United States on Thursday with the LECOM Suncoast Classic at Lakewood National, on the outskirts of Sarasota.

On Friday PGA Tour Champions holds its first full-field event of the year, the 35th annual Chubb Classic at Tiburon in Naples.  Then there’ll be four straight weeks of PGA Tour events – the Honda Classic in Palm Beach Gardens, the Arnold Palmer  Invitational in Orlando,  the Players Championship in Ponte Vedra and the Valspar Championship in Palm Harbor.

The Korn Ferry Tour is holding its fourth tournament of the year, with the first three being in the Bahamas, Panama and Colombia. The field includes three Illinois Open champions – Brad Hopfinger, Vince India and Tee-K Kelly.

India, who shot 66 in the first round at Lakewood National, had top-15 finishes in both the Bahamas and Panama before missing the cut in Colombia.  Kelly had his best Korn Ferry performance in a tie for seventh last week and Hopfinger tied for 13th in Colombia. Rookie pro Michael Feagles, a mainstay for Illinois’ collegiate powerhouses the last four years, is also in the field.

Lakewood Ranch has two 18-holers, and the Korn Ferry players are using the Commander Course.  It opened in 2017 and the winners have gone extremely low — 26-under-par in 2019, 23-under in 2020 and 13-under last year – in previous Korn Ferry stops.

More familiar names will be teeing off on Tiburon’s Black Course on Friday in the 54-hole Chubb Classic. Bernhard Langer heads a field that also includes Jim Furyk, Ernie Els, Retief Goosen, Sandy Lyle, Colin Montgomerie, Jose Maria Olazabal, Padraig Harrington nd Ian Woosnam.  All of them won major titles.

Miguel Angel Jimenez, who won the circuit’s season-opening Mitsubishi Electric Championship last month in Hawaii, is also competing and former world No. 1 David Duval and Y.E. Kang, winner of a PGA Championship, will be making their debuts in full-field PGA Tour Champions competition.

Tiburon is a special venue, as it’s the only facility to host a PGA Tour, PGA Tour Champions and LPGA Tour event in the same calendar year.  Tiburon has two courses, both designed by Greg Norman, and the Black Course will be used this week.  The other two circuit’s played their events on the Gold Course.

The Chubb Classic is being held for the 35th time and is the longest-standing PGA Tour Champions event held in the same marketplace.  The Black Course hosted the event for the first time in 2021 with Steve Stricker winning the title.  Stricker, sidelined by a heart ailment in November, won’t defend his title.

Chubb tourney’s 35th anniversary is at a special place

The clubhouse at Tiburon is a welcome site for three pro golf tour events.

NAPLES, FL. – The traditional warmup in Hawaii is over.  Now PGA Tour Champions is ready to get down to business. With the tournament rounds scheduled for Feb. 18-20, the Chubb Classic Presented by SERVOPRO is the first full-field event of the season for the 50-and-over circuit.

“A great place for it,’’ said Peter Jacobsen, who played in the tournament last year and will be on Golf Channel’s broadcasting crew for this one.

Oh yes, he’s also a member at Tiberon, the host club that first welcomed the Chubb in 2021.

PGA Tour Champions made its traditional season debut at the Mitsubishi Championship, but only winners of tournaments from the previous year can play in that one.

“It’s the crown jewel because everyone wants to play there,’’ said Jacobsen, “but all the players are excited to get out and get their year started. Last year was a weird one with Covid.’’

Indeed it was. Last year’s Chubb was moved to April and was one of the many events on all the golf tours that was played without fans in attendance. The fans will be very evident at Tiberon this year, and not just because the tournament won’t be dealing as much with pandemic issues.

The Chubb is always a special event.  It’s become a Florida tradition and this year’s playing marks the tournament’s 35th anniversary. It’s the longest-running Champions Tour event in the same marketplace. The Champions circuit started in 1980, and the Chubb made its debut just eight years later.  It’s  produced plenty of golf excitement ever since.

So, let’s get down to business. Here’s what golf fans need to know in the waning  days before the first tee shot is struck on Tiburon’s Black Course.

Executive director Sandy Diamond (left) and media director Jeremy Friedman give the Chubb a new look.

WHAT’S NEW:  The tourney has a new executive director, but this won’t be Sandy Diamond’s first rodeo. He worked at the tournament 20 years ago, then spent a long career with the PGA Tour before hooking on with the First Tee of Metropolitan New York as its chief development officer.

When the Chubb position opened up Diamond was excited to take it and promptly moved to Naples to oversee management of the tournament.

“My background has been more on the development side – sponsorship, marketing – and not on the operational side,’’ said Diamond, but he’s off to a flying start.  He’s lined up full fields for morning and afternoon pro-ams on both Wednesday and Thursday of tournament week.  There’s a $14,000 fee to get a foursome into the field in those, and Diamond had 56 teams lined up two weeks before the tournament.

“And there’s no freebies,’’ said Diamond.

There may also be another pro-am on Tiberon’s sister Gold Course on Tuesday of tournament week, based on demand.

The Gold Course at Tiburon hosts the LPGA and PGA tours, but not the Champions.

WHAT ABOUT TIBURON? It’s the only facility to host events on the PGA and LPGA tours as well as PGA Tour Champions in a one-year period. The club has taken on that demanding task in a four-month period. The LPGA’s CME Championship, which included the 2021 season, was held in November and was the biggest money event in women’s golf. The QBE Shootout, held in December, brought in an array of PGA Tour stars and now it’s PGA Tour Champions’ turn.

The Chubb is the only event of the big three held on Tiburon’s Black Course.  The other two were held on the Gold.  Both courses were designed by Greg Norman.

WHO’S DEFENDING?  Unfortunately, probably nobody.  Steve Stricker was a one-stroke winner over Robert Karlsson and Alex Cejka last year.  It was the 54-year old’s sixth victory on the Champions circuit, and he followed up with an even more high-profile accomplishment when he captained the U.S. Ryder Cup team to a record 19-9 whomping of Europe at Wisconsin’s Whistling Straits course in September.

Unfortunately Stricker was hit with a severe illness – described as an inflammation around his heart — in late November and his participation in the Chubb is doubtful, though reports suggest he has been making big strides in his recovery.

“I don’t think he’ll be here, and that stinks,’’ said Diamond.  “It’d take a minor mira

While Greg Norman designed both Tiburon courses, the Gold and Black have their own distinct qualities.

WHO WILL BE HERE?  Diamond had only a handful of early commitments, but they were some good ones – Jim Furyk, Colin Montgomerie, Ernie Els, Retief Goosen and Bernhard Langer. David Duval, a former major champion, is also coming.  He made his Champions debut in the Mitsubishi event, finishing in a tie for 34th, and the Chubb will be Duval’s first in a full-field competition. He was the 2001 British Open champion and a former world No. 1.

Later player commitments included Fred Couples, Davis Love III, Sandy Lyle, Jose Maria Olazabal, Ian Woosnam, Billy Andrade, Brad Faxon and Dudley Hart. Sponsor exemptions were awarded to Michael Balliet, head pro at nearby Calusa Pines, and amateur Michael Muehr.

There’ll be 78 players in the field, and Diamond promised “The field will be extremely strong.’’

HISTORICALLY SPEAKING:  The first Chubb first champion was Gary Player at The Club at Pelican Bay, the site for the first three years of the tournament.  Other Naples area courses took their shot at hosting – Vineyards, Lely, Bay Colony, Pelican Marsh, TwinEagles, Quail Creek, TP Treviso Bay and The Quarry – before Tiburon joined the mix.

When Player won the purse was only $300,000.  Now it’s $1.6 million. Lee Trevino was the first back-to-back winner (1990-91) and Mike Hill also accomplished the feat in 1993-94.

Langer is the only three-time winner (2011, 2013 and 2016).

BEST STORY LINES: Langer, who lives just a couple hours away, in Boca Raton, is always a good one. Now 64, this guy can still play and will continue to chase Hale Irwin’s record 45 Champions wins at least for another year. Langer has won 41 Champions titles and captured the Charles Schwab Cup  six times, the last win coming last year.

Miguel Angel Jimenez got off to a great start in Hawaii when he won the Mitsubishi event for the third time, this time in a playoff with Steven Alker. Alker was the surprise of last season and will be well-watched if he keeps his success run going.

And who know what to expect from David Duval?

BEST VIEWING HOLES: Jacobsen, who has lived in Naples and been a Tiburon member for 18 years, believes the key holes will be Nos. 2 and 18.

“The second is tight and long, a difficult par,’’ said Jacobsen.  “It’s extremely difficult and tests your driving right off the bat.  The last hole is a reachable par-5.  A player will have the opportunity to make eagle and win the tournament there.’’

“Overall, the Black Course is a good design,’’ said Jacobsen.  “It’s not overly difficult or very long (6,949 yards from the tips).  Greg Norman did a good job.  He designed a course that is good for tour players and resort guests as well.’’