Len Ziehm On Golf

Ex-NU star Hannah Kim makes IWO her first professional victory

Hannah Kim (right) won her first pro title and Tristyn Nowlin was runner-up and low amateur.

Two years ago Hannah Kim tied for third in the Phil Kosin Illinois Women’s Open. Last year she was the runner-up. So, guess what the former Northwestern standout did to climax the 24th playing of the IWO on Wednesday at Mistwood, in Romeoville?

Kim, the stalwart of coach Emily Fletcher’s powerhouse Wildcat teams of the past four years, did some major re-writing of the tournament record books while notching her first professional victory.

“Mistwood suits me well,’’ said Kim, “but I go into all my tournaments without any expectations.’’

That formula worked to perfection this week. Kim posted rounds of 68, 65 and 67 for a 16-under-par 200 total for the 54 holes. She tied the tournament record for low 18-hole score with her second-round birdie blitz. That gave her a six-stroke lead entering Wednesday’s final round as well as the tournament record for low score through 36 holes (133).

Her final score was a whopping seven strokes better than the previous mark held by a pair of amateur winners, Annika Welander in 2005 and Stephanie Miller in 2016.

Hannah Kim was a winner in only her third pro tournament.

Kim’s previous two appearances in the IWO were as an amateur, since she still had collegiate eligibility at Northwestern. She admitted to missing her college team.

“It’s hard with nothing getting paid for now,’’ she said, but that won’t be much of a problem if Kim keeps on winning pro tournaments. She is 26-under-par on her nine IWO tournament rounds over the last three years with this year’s showing the most impressive.

“My target score was double digits under par, and I did it,’’ said Kim, who earned $5,000 for the victory in her third professional tournament. A resident of Santa Ana, Calif., she had previously competed in the Ohio Open and California State Open. Next up is the Tennessee Open.

“I’m just trying to play a bunch of tournaments to keep myself sharp. I want to make it through (LPGA) Tour School and get my card,’’ said Kim. That competition starts in the fall.

Kim’s most serious challenger for the title on Wednesday was amateur Tristyn Nowlin. A University of Illinois junior from Richmond, Ky., Nowlin got within five strokes of Kim when she rolled in a birdie putt from the fringe of the No. 10 green. She gave the shot back on the next hole when she hit her second shot into a hazard left of the green, struggled to make bogey and never threatened again.

Like Kim, Nowlin is a big fan of Mistwood’s course. Last month she went all the way to the final of the Women’s Western Amateur on the same layout and that showing, in one of the nation’s most prestigious tournaments, led to her return this week.

“I wasn’t going to play but my coach (Illinois women’s coach Renee Slone) suggested I play since I had done so well in the Western Am,’’ said Nowlin, “so I thought `Why not?’ That tournament gave me a lot of confidence.’’

That wasn’t enough playing head-to-head with Kim in the final round. Kim maintained her six-shot lead through the first nine holes and kept her concentration through the back nine, especially on its two par-3 holes. She made a nine-footer to save par at No. 14 and made birdie at the 133-yard 17th.

Nowlin had a four-shot cushion on third place Sarah Burnham, a former Michigan State player, and Burnham was two ahead of two-time IWO winner Nicole Jeray, a veteran of the pro tours from Berwyn. Jeray, for the third time, was thwarted in her attempt to get an IWO title in three decades. She lost twice in playoffs since 2010.

Jeray has played on all three women’s tours – the Symetra, LPGA and Legends – the last few years and will again this year, though she is changing her golfing focus. She is now teaching and coaching at both Flagg Creek, in Countryside, and Cog Hill, in Lemont.

Singh gets his first Champions major title in a playoff

PGA Tour Champions had become a showcase for Bernhard Langer the last few years, especially at its Constellation Senior Players Championship. That’s no longer the case.

At 60 Langer isn’t the dominant player he once was, and Sunday he wasn’t up to the task with another chance to win one of the circuit’s most prestigious major events at Exmoor Country Club in Highland Park. Starting the day in a tie for fifth place, Langer faded to a 74 and a tie for 17th place.

Langer had won the Senior Players – the circuit’s major with the strongest field each year – three times in a row from 2015-17 and was runner-up to Scott McCarron last year. This time the title went to Vijay Singh in a two-hole playoff with Jeff Maggert.

While the day started with a crowded leaderboard at the top, it turned into a two-man duel between Singh and Maggert. Playing partners in the next-to-the-last group to tee off, they finished at 20-under-par 268. Then Singh made a par and decisive birdie in the playoff, and that was good enough for his first major title on the 50-and-over circuit. The World Golf Hall of Famer won both the Masters and PGA Championship in his younger days.

“This is a little different,’’ said Singh, now 55. “It’s a senior major, but any time you win a tournament, no matter what it is, it’s an accomplishment. I feel like I played well, and it’s a win. A win is a win.’’

Yes it is, and this one – in addition to the $420,000 paycheck — carries an added perk for Singh, who won 34 times on the PGA Tour and 22 more times in international events.

The winner of the Senior Players gets a spot in The Players Championship – one of the premier events on the regular PGA Tour. It’ll be played at Florida’s TPC Sawgrass in March, and that’s Singh’s home course.

Maggert had plenty of chances to win. As was the case in Saturday’s third round, he led most of the final 18 but dropped back into a tie with Singh when he tee shot at No. 16 hit a tree in front of the green.

“Of all the bounces you could have gotten, that was probably the worst one you can possible imagine,’’ said Maggert, whose ball bounced 40 yards back in the fairway. He chipped on and missed an 18-foot par putt, setting up a duel with Singh for the next four holes.

Maggert had birdie putts inside 15 feet twice, but missed them both, and Singh salvaged par after his drive sailed in the trees and thick rough at No. 17. He got the birdie he needed on their third trek down No. 18 in the second hole of the playoff. Singh put his approach to within 18 inches, Maggert missed his birdie chance and the tournament was over.

“Not making the 15- to 18-footers was the difference,’’ said Maggert. “Vijay’s round was kind of the same. We both birdied all four of the par-5s. The only difference is he didn’t make a bogey. I made one, with five birdies.’’

Singh made just one bogey the whole tournament, at No. 8 on Saturday. Maggert hit 17 of 18 greens in regulation on Sunday and finished the week hitting 66 of 72 – the best in the field by four. The only green he missed on Sunday was at the critical 16th.

“Fortunately for me Jeff missed a couple of makeable putts on the last hole, so it gave me a chance to win,’’ said Singh.

Singh became the seventh different player to win in the Champions’ last seven major tournaments. Still splitting time on the PGA Tour, he has three top-10s on the Champions circuit this year and that includes a win at the Toshiba Classic.

Small fades, but still picks up his biggest tourney paycheck

Illinois men’s coach Mike Small, who started the day tied for fifth, was no threat for the title in Sunday’s final round of the Constellation Senior Players Championship at Exmoor, but there was a bright side.

Small picked up his biggest check on either the PGA Tour or PGA Tour champions. He earned $67,200 for finishing in a tie for 10th place. His biggest previous paycheck was $57,200 when he tied for ninth at the 1998 RBC Canadian Open on the PGA Tour.

Paired for the second straight day with Bernhard Langer, Small made birdie on the first hole, but cooled off after that. He posted a 1-under-par 71 and finished the tournament at 15-under 273.

With three top-10s in four starts on PGA Tour Champions, Small has one more event on the circuit before his usual visits to the Illinois Open and Illinois PGA Championship. He is assured a berth in the 3M tourney in Minnesota Aug. 3-5.

Hale and hardy

Hale Irwin, who has titles in three tournaments played on Chicago courses – the Western Open, U.S. Open and Ameritech Senior Open – was far down the leaderboard on Sunday but he had a notable accomplishment.

Irwin shot his age (73) on Thursday and bettered his age on Saturday (70) and Sunday (72). He has shot or bettered his age 37 times on PGA Tour Champions and this marks the ninth consecutive season he’s accomplished that feat. He did it for the first time at the 2010 AT&T Championship when he was 65.

Farewell for awhile

Sunday’s round concluded the first Champions Tour major in the Chicago area since Graham Marsh won the U.S. Senior Open at Olympia Fields in 1997. Sunday’s round also brought an end to the last major on any tour scheduled at a Chicago area course.

PGA Tour Champions hasn’t announced its schedule for next season but executive director Greg McLaughlin, former tournament director of the Western Open, said the closest the circuit will come to Chicago is South Bend. The U.S. Senior Open will be played at the Warren Course there.

Though the open-to-the-public tournament festivities are over, the Champions Tour experience will continue one more day at Exmoor. A private outing, involving 88 players, is scheduled there today.

Being charitable

Constellation, as part of its sponsorship of the tournament, will provide $500,000 in grants to five Chicago charities that focus on education, youth development and affordable housing.

The charities are headed by the Evans Scholars Foundation, the Western Golf Association’s arm that provides scholarships for deserving caddies. Other beneficiaries are the Big Shoulders Fund, which supports inner-city Chicago schools; Girls in the Game, Habitat for Humanity Chicago and Special Olympics Chicago.

Bits and pieces

Jerry Kelly and Duffy Waldorf shot the best rounds on Sunday – 8-under-par 64s. Kelly made eight birdies to climb into a tie for fourth place. Kelly and Miguel Angel Jimenez, who tied for 10th, are the only players with top-10 finishes in each of the first four Champions majors this season.

The local hopes struggled. Barrington product Gary Hallberg, who was inducted into the Illinois Golf Hall of Fame last year, finished at 7-under and in a tie for 32nd and Jeff Sluman was 2-under and in a tie for 57th.

Sixty of the 76 finishers bettered par. There were two withdrawals – John Daly and Fred Funk.

Trio shares Senior Players lead, but Small is in contention, too

Anybody who follows golf in Illinois shouldn’t be surprised when Mike Small gets into contention in a tournament, but when he puts himself in position to win a major title on PGA Tour Champions, well, that’s another matter.

The Illinois men’s coach did just that on Saturday, shooting a third-round 66 at Exmoor Country Club in Highland Park. A fast start got Small within a shot of the lead and he remained there most of the rainy day before hitting the 54-hole stop two swings behind leaders Jeff Maggert, Bart Bryant and Scott McCarron – the tourney’s defending champion. The three leaders stand at 16-under-par 200 for 54 holes.

McCarron and Bryant posted 65s in the third round and fourth-place Vijay Singh matched Small’s 66. Small shares fifth with Bernard Langer, a three-time winner of the tournament and last year’s runner-up.

If anyone is surprised by Small’s lofty standing in the tournament, they shouldn’t be. At least Small isn’t.

“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.’’

While he’s dominated events like the Illinois PGA Championship, which he’s won a record 12 times, and Illinois Open, which he captured four times, Small’s top performances on the national stage have come at the PGA Professionals National Championship. He won that one three times, but those events are a long way from the caliber of the championship he could win on Sunday.

The Senior Players annually draws the strongest field of the five majors on PGA Tour Champions. And Small wouldn’t rule out his chances of winning.

“Who knows? I’ve got nothing to lose,’’ he said. “I’m just going to play golf tomorrow and I’m going to work on what I’ve got to work on. My golf swing has got to get better and more consistent. It leaves me sometimes, so I’ve got to work on that. If I can pay attention to that I’ll be all right.’’

Small’s game was more than “all right’’ on the front nine on Saturday. He had three birdies and an eagle en route to shooting a 31. Small finished it off with some great iron shots that set up birdies – from two feet at No. 8 and six feet at No. 9.

His play steadied after that until a bogey at the 17th dropped him two shots off the pace.

“That put a little damper on the day,’’ said Small. “Easiest tee shot of the day, and I put it in the trees.’’

Still, a player who is not a member of PGA Tour Champions – Small got into the event off three good showings in tournaments that gave him sponsor exemptions — is 18 holes away from winning one of the most prestigious titles available on the 50-and-over circuit.

Not every one of the seasoned veterans on the tour is surprised that Small is so high on the leaderboard. McCarron and Small have the same teacher, E.A. Tischler. Tischler worked with both of them this week before the tournament rounds at Exmoor.

“It’s not surprising at all for Mike Small,’’ said McCarron. “We played a practice round on Tuesday and he hit the ball really well. I’m not surprised at all that Mike Small is up there. He’s a great player, but he’s got one of the best jobs around, being a college coach. Even if he won he can’t give that up.’’

McCarron believes that this week’s good showing will benefit Small’s coaching.

“He’s always got good recruits,’’ said McCarron. “It’s amazing up at Illinois, which is not a great place in the winter. He recruits very well, and he’s got a great program there. I’m sure this will help.’’

Because of the threat of inclement weather Saturday’s round was played in threesomes starting off both the Nos. 1 and 10 tees. That won’t be the case today. First tee time is 7:55 a.m. and play will be in twosomes. Small and Langer will be paired for the second straight day, starting at 1:45 p.m. Singh and Maggert follow at 1:55 and McCarron and Bryant are last off at 2:05. It’ll mark the fifth straight year that the defending champion plays in the last group of the final round.

Pavel leads latest of Champions’ bunched up major tourneys

The Constellation Senior Players Championship, in progress at Exmoor Country Club in Highland Park, could be the last major golf championship in the Chicago area for quite awhile. None of the pro tours have such a tournament scheduled here after the last putt drops at Exmoor on Sunday.

On PGA Tour Champions, however, majors are a little different. The 50-and-over circuit holds five of them each year. They’re 72-hole events, while most of the regular tour stops are 54 holes.

The scheduling of them is also on the weird side. This is what Scott McCarron, defending champion in the Senior Players, calls “Major Season.’’

The Senior Players is the middle major in a three-tournament stretch. David Toms won the U.S. Senior Open two weeks ago and the tour didn’t have a tournament the following week. The circuit is also idle for a week after the Senior Players before another major, the Senior British Open, tees off. No other pro tour schedules like that.

“I think it’s great,’’ said McCarron. “I love playing four-day events. I love playing where they get the golf courses tough, so it’s great to play three in six weeks basically. It’s a lot of fun for us.’’

Scott Parel had the most fun on Friday, shooting a 6-under-par 66 to take a one-stroke lead midway through the championship. Parel, at 11-under-par 133, leads Brandt Jobe and Jeff Maggert by one stroke and some of the circuit’s more high-profile stars – McCarron among them – are in a seven-way tie for fourth, two shots back.

Maggert dropped out of a share for the lead when he finished his round with a three-putt bogey at No. 18 on Friday. McCarron also lost a shot – and a share of second place – with a bogey at the last.

“When you make a bogey on the last hole with a sand wedge (for your approach), that’s really disappointing,’’ said McCarron. “But I’m in the mix, so it’s all right.’’

Among those joining McCarron at 9-under are Kenny Perry, the co-first-round leader with Illinois coach Mike Small; Bernhard Langer, the man McCarron upset in last year’s tournament at Caves Valley in Maryland; and the always dangerous Vijay Singh.

Small dropped into a tie for 11th after shooting a 71. Langer had won the Senior Players three years in a row before finishing second to McCarron last year. Now they could duel again in the final 36 holes at Exmoor.

If Parel hangs on to win it would be a surprise. He came to golf late, after working 10 years in the computer industry. He didn’t play college golf and didn’t turn pro until he was 31 years old.. An early starter on Friday, he didn’t think his score would hold up for the lead after his round was over – but it did.

“If the conditions stay the same you’re going to have to shoot the same kind of scores that I’ve shot the last two days to have a chance to win,’’ said Parel. “The course is in perfect shape. The greens are perfect. So guys are going to make a lot of birdies out there.’’

McCarron likes the course but doesn’t feel his defending champion status means much.

“Defending champion doesn’t mean much unless you’re coming back to the same golf course you won at,’’ he said. “Then you have some good positive vibes. Exmoor was a completely new golf course to me and a lot of guys.’’

He’s been battling a sore right ankle that will require surgery when the season is over.

“It’ll be on the ligament that goes right through the ankle. They’ll reattach it,’’ he said. “It doesn’t bother me playing golf. It just bothers me walking. Now it’s starting to bother me under the ball of the foot, so pushing off is difficult. I’m limping around, but that’s the way it goes.’’

Friday’s low score was a 64 by Peter Lonard, who climbed from a tie for 46th place into a tie for 15th. Fifty-six of the 78 starters are under par for the first 36 holes. Today’s play starts at 8 a.m. with Parel, Jobe and Maggert going off last at 10 a.m.

Illini coach Small shares first-round lead at Senior Players tourney

Illinois coach Mike Small started Friday’s second round of the Constellation Senior Players Championship in a tie for the lead and then made birdies on his first two holes. The good times didn’t last for long, however.

Small dropped back after that and finished with a 71. That didn’t knock him out of contention going into the weekend rounds at Exmoor Country Club, but the focus shifted – for awhile at least – to how his Illini stars of the last four seasons are doing in their first two months as touring pros.

Dylan Meyer earned over $200,000 in his first two starts and Nick Hardy made the cut in all four of his tournaments. Both will play on the weekend at the PGA Tour’s John Deere Classic after getting into the field on sponsor exemptions.

“Dylan is one of the most talented players I’ve ever coached and Nick is probably the biggest grinder and the most competitive player I’ve ever coached,’’ said Small, “so between those two guys they’ve got a good future.’’

Meyer was in Champaign last weekend and worked with Small on his putting before heading to the John Deere.

“I watched them (on TV) last night and keep tabs on the guys. They know that,’’ said Small. “We keep in touch.’’

As for his own playing future at least Small is having no trouble getting into tournaments. He is playing at Exmoor because he squeezed into the top 70 on PGA Tour Champions’ Charles Schwab Cup money list. He needed to hole a chip shot on his last hole in his last tournament in Madison, Wis., to do it.

That got him into the major at Exmoor and – because he was a top-10 finisher in Madison – he can also play in the 3M tournament in Minnesota after that.

Then comes the Illinois Open, which Small has won four times, and the Illinois PGA Championship, which Small has won a record 12 times. The Illinois PGA Championship ends on the day classes resume in Champaign. After that Small’s strictly a coach again, but he believes his tournament play now helps his recruiting.

“I’m going out to the U.S. Junior next week for three days,’’ he said. “What better conversation piece for recruits than this: I played with Bernhard (Langer) the Saturday of the tournament in Wisconsin, and that was a great learning experience for me. What better way for a coach to still be learning, still growing?’’

As far as playing goes he has no goals.

“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.’’

Crosby is a surprise leader after Round 1 of Senior Women’s Open

Scotland’s Trish Johnson is the only woman to have won a major senior tournament. She won the only one – the first Senior LPGA Championship last fall – and she got off to a good start on making it two-for-two in Thursday’s first round of the inaugural U.S. Senior Women’s Open at Chicago Golf Club in Wheaton.

She’s not leading, though. Elaine Crosby, a late starter, posted a 3-under-par 70 to claim a one-stroke lead on Johnson, Sweden’s Liselotte Neumann and England’s Laura Davies. Crosby, 60, plays on The Legends Tour.

Johnson, who led wire to wire in the Senior LPGA Championship at Indiana’s French Lick Resort, won’t be able to go wire to wire at Chicago Golf Club, and Crosby, a former member of the LPGA Tour who lives in Jackson, Mich., wasn’t her only problem in the first round. Johnson encountered a couple things that were unnerving.

For one, though she was in the second threesome to tee off, there was a wait at the first tee. Opening ceremonies involved remarks by Mike Davis, executive director of the U.S. Golf Association, and a stirring rendition of The National Anthem by Grammy winner Heather Headley. Then came the opening tee shot by JoAnne Carner, a ready-made photo op for fans who stood four-deep at 7 a.m. to celebrate the long-awaited national championship for women 50 and over.

“A 20-minute wait or so on the first tee, it was quite nerve-racking, to be honest,’’ said Johnson after posting her 71.

Then there was the pin position at the par-3 10th hole. Johnson put her tee shot on the 136-yard hole on the back of the green, then rolled her downhill putt past the cup, off the green and into a bunker. Playing partner Helen Alfredsson of Sweden did the same thing and so did former U.S. Women’s Open champions Pat Bradley and Amy Alcott.

“If you’re behind the flag you cannot stop it. You’ve got to be either short or to the side,’’ said Johnson, who apparently is learning fast about America’s first 18-hole course that is hosting its 12th U.S. Golf Association championship but only the second for women. The first was the U.S. Women’s Amateur way back in 1903.

Chicago Golf Club offered a look this week’s players don’t see very much. Spectators can walk with them in the fairways. There are no gallery ropes, just directional markers around the greens.

That’s not the only difference from her first major win at French Lick, a Pete Dye design.

“French Lick is harder than this course,’’ said Johnson. “The fairways here are a lot wider. French Lick’s aren’t at all; You can hardly see any of them. And here it’s four rounds walking, which is not something you do on The Legends Tour.

Crosby qualified for this Senior Open at Conway Farms in Lake Forest, shooting a 72 to earn one of the five spots offered there. A big supporter of The Legends Tour, she has hosted its Wendy’s Charity Classic tournament for the last 16 years.

“Hopefully The Legends will gain momentum from this Senior Open,’’ said Crosby. “It’ll show that we can play. We may not have a lot of tournaments, but we do have a lot of pro-ams and we’re really good at those.’’

Davies – one of the expected contenders — finished her round in style, making eagle on the 18th hole. She hit a good drive on the 425-yard par-5 and put a 7-iron approach from 168 yards to 10 feet. She played with Juli Inkster and Neumann, and they’ll be paired again in today’s second round.

Neumann and Davies go way back. They played together in 1979 in the European Junior Championship. Inkster, the third member of the threesome, is still active on the LPGA Tour but she couldn’t keep up with the two Europeans. Poor putting has hampered her much of this season, but that wasn’t the problem on Thursday.

“I hit the ball like crap,’’ she said. “I drove really bad and played defensive all day. I hit maybe four fairways with my driver, and that’s been my best club all year. But it could have been a lot worse. I’m just excited that I actually putted pretty good.’’

So did Jamie Fischer, the director of instruction at Conway Farms. A qualifier for the tournament at her home club, Fischer started the finals with a 1-over-74 and is tied for 11th place after Round 1.

Carner, the star of the show at the first tee in early morning, made birdie on the last hole to shoot her age – a 79.

Socializing is over; now things get serious at first U.S. Senior Women’s Open

So far the inaugural U.S. Senior Women’s Open has been a feel-good story — the long-overdue creation of a national championship for women golfers who have passed their 50th birthday.

They’re delighted the U.S. Golf Association added the event to its schedule, and it’s brought a lot of former professional and amateur competitors together again. In fact, the atmosphere at Chicago Golf Club over the last three days even resembled a high school reunion, especially at Tuesday night’s players’ dinner.

“It was a lot of people just having fun, meeting old acquaintances, catching up with people,’’ said Juli Inkster, one of the favorites to be at the top of the leaderboard after the regulation 72 holes wrap up on Sunday at the Wheaton layout that became America’s first 18-hole course in 1893.

Now the socializing is over, and it’s down to business with the challenge of becoming the first champion of the USGA’s newest national championship on the line for 120 players from the original entry of 462. The finalists will tee off starting at 7 a.m., with JoAnne Carner having the honor of smacking the first tee shot.

Carner had a brilliant amateur and professional career. She won an NCAA title, a U.S. Junior crown, five U.S. Amateurs, two U.S. Opens and 43 Ladies PGA tournaments. She deserves the honor of hitting the first ball, but Carner is 79 now and her chances of winning this week are slim and none.

She has fought recent hip problems and spent 2 ½ weeks of the last month on a boat trip to the Bahamas. That’s hardly conducive to good preparation for a big tournament. Still, Carner walked 18-hole practice rounds the last three days in 90-degree heat, and said with a grin “I’m always ready. I’ve been waiting 29 years for this. I was hoping I’d still be alive to play in it.’’

Carner will probably do just fine, but there figures to be just four main challenges for the coveted title. Inkster is one, mainly because she still plays frequently against the young stars on the LPGA circuit.

Hampered by putting problems, she hasn’t had a good year, though. Inkster shot 79-77 and missed the cut in the KPMG Women’s PGA Championship at Kemper Lakes, in Kildeer, two weeks ago. She is switching back to a cross-handed putting grip this week after using a claw most of the season.

“My path was bad,’’ she said. “I don’t know how you get into these funks, but I do.’’

She been working with her club professional husband Brian to correct the problem, but the results haven’t been encouraging so far.

“He’s been drinking a lot this week, poor guy,’’ quipped Inkster.

The member of the favorite foursome who would seem to be the best bet to win is Scotland’s Trish Johnson, mainly because she was the winner of the only previous major championship for senior women. She led wire to wire in the Senior LPGA Championship last fall at French Lick Resort in Indiana. Johnson also won a Legends event in Washington this year.

Two other foreign players – Sweden’s Liselotte Neumann and England’s Laura Davies – are the other members of the favored foursome. Neumann, winner of 13 LPGA titles and 11 European Tour events, has also won three times on the Legends Tour, for LPGA stars of the past who have reached their 45th birthday.

Davies, a World Golf Hall of Famers, has remained competitive on the LPGA Tour. She is Inkster’s favorite to win this week.

“I don’t know about being the favorite,’’ said Davies, “but the USGA is taking this seriously because it’s an inaugural event. It’s the real deal. The USGA has done the players proud, and hopefully now we’ll do them proud with our performances on the course.’’

Though that foursome appears to be the class of the field, there are some other interesting possibilities.

Jane Blalock is the founder of the Legends Tour, and Suzy Whaley will soon become the first female president of the PGA of America. Blalock got in the field as a sponsor’s exemption and Whaley survived sectional qualifying. So did Kay Cockerill, a former LPGA player who converted into a tournament analyst for The Golf Channel.

Cockerill will have her husband Danny as her caddie. He was on her bag during Cockerill’s years on the LPGA Tour but hasn’t carried since Kay’s failed attempt at a U.S. Open qualifying round in 2006.

There is also a sister duo in the field. Hollis Stacy was a three-time U.S. Women’s Open champion. Her sister, Martha Leach won a U.S. Women’s Mid-Amateur. The last time they played together in a tournament was in 1990, at the U.S. Open.

U.S. Senior Women’s Open at Chicago Golf Club is a real feel-good story

WHEATON, IL. –The inaugural U.S. Senior Women’s Open, which teed off on Thursday in the Chicago suburb of Wheaton, has been a celebration of women’s golf. It resembled a high school reunion, too, with the best pros and amateurs of the past re-connecting during three days of practice rounds and pre-tournament activities.

More than anything, though, this tournament for women who have reached their 50th birthday was overdue. In fact, it was long, long overdue.

JoAnne Carner – the only woman owning titles in the U.S. Girls Junior, the U.S. Women’s Amateur and the U.S. Women’s Open — said she had been waiting for the Senior event for 29 years; she’s now 79.

“I was just hoping I’d still be alive to play in it,’’ Carner said.

Jane Blalock first presented the concept of a senior tournament for women to the U.S. Golf Association after a captivating 1998 U.S. Women’s Open ended in a playoff victory by Korean Si Re Pak at Wisconsin’s Blackwolf Run. That tournament triggered a big change in the women’s game, giving it a more global appeal, but it didn’t change the USGA’s view on senior women playing with money on the line.

Blalock formed her own Legends Tour, which provided some competition for players after they turned 45 but had little support even from the LPGA. Last year – in an effort to beat the USGA to the punch – the LPGA conducted its first Senior LPGA Championship at Indiana’s French Lick Resort.

That only accentuated a glaring absence in the USGA tournament schedule. The organization already had a U.S. Junior, a U.S. Amateur, a U.S. Mid-Amateur, a U.S. Senior Amateur and a U.S. Senior Open for men and similar national championship for women with that one exception.

Despite years of pressure from fading stars on the Ladies PGA Tour (and some of the top amateurs as well), the USGA was reluctant to find a place for a U.S. Senior Women’s Open and — once a commitment was made — it took three years in the planning stages to launch the tournament.

Finally, on Thursday at historic Chicago Golf Club, Carner smacked the first tee shot and the event became a reality. USGA executive director Mike Davis made some opening remarks at 6:45 a.m., then came a stirring rendition of the National Anthem by Grammy winner Heather Headley and player introductions by the legendary Nancy Lopez, who can’t play because of her knee problems and the walking-only requirement for the tournament.

After Carner’s 7 a.m. tee shot, made in front of a gallery standing four deep, there were even a few tears mixed in with the enthusiastic applause. Chunks of the gallery from the opening ceremonies followed each threesome, walking with the players down the fairway. It was a real feel-good thing all day long and will likely remain so until the first champion is crowned on Sunday.

The tourney’s reception in the Chicago area was a warm up, though it didn’t hurt one bit that it was held on America’s first 18-hole course. Chicago Golf Club is hosting its 12th USGA championship but the bulk of them were in the first two decades after the course opened in 1893. Prior to this week the last time the club opened its gates to the public was in 2005, for the Walker Cup matches.

Clearly there is a mystique about Chicago Golf Club, and Juli Inkster called it “a perfect place to hold this first one.’’

Lopez wasn’t the only former LPGA great missing from the field.

“We’re missing a few of the legends – the Beth Daniels, the Meg Mallons, the Kathy Whitworths and the Patty Sheehans,’’ said Inkster, “but we’ve got a lot of good ones.’’

The tournament drew 462 entries, and the starting field of 120 included 29 amateurs and 62 survivors of the nation-wide qualifying rounds. The finalists included players from 12 countries, with 95 from the U.S. They took on a course set up at 6,082 yards with a par of 73. Green speeds were around 12 on the Stimpmeter.

And there was decent crowd support despite some miserable planning by t being played on exactly the same dates as two other Illinois events — the Constellation Senior Players Championship, one of the five majors on PGA Tour Champions, and the PGA Tour’s John Deere Classic.

The Senior Players event is at Exmoor Country Club, about an hour’s drive northeast of Chicago Golf Club, and the John Deere Classic is a two-hour drive to the west. Next year’s U.S. Senior Women’s Open will have the stage to itself, at Pine Needles in North Carolina.

Small will compete in Senior Players while 2 ex-Illini stars are in JDC

It isn’t that Mike Small hasn’t gotten into big golf tournaments before. The super successful men’s coach at the University of Illinois has remained a competitive player in large part by taking advantage of sponsor’s exemptions.

Small didn’t get an invitation to this week’s Constellation Senior Players Championship, which tees off at Exmoor Country Club in Highland Park on Thursday, however. It’s the third of the season’s five major events on PGA Tour Champions, and the only way Small could get into the field was by making it into the top 70 on the circuit’s Charles Schwab Cup money list.

“This is real special because you have to qualify to get in,’’ said Small. “I’m excited to have the opportunity to play. Majors are always something you get up for….majors are different.’’

So, at the same time that Dylan Meyer and Nick Hardy – the stars of Small’s Illini teams of the last four seasons – are playing in the PGA Tour’s John Deere Classic in downstate Silvis, Ill., on sponsor exemptions the coach will be part of the strongest field of the season on the 50-and-over tour.

Small made it off his performances in three tournaments in which he received sponsor invites. He used those three starts to earn $103,895. That moved him to No. 68 on the Schwab Cup money list.

“I knew I had to have a top 10 finish in Wisconsin (the American Family Insurance Classic in Madison) to make the field,’’ said Small.

He barely made it thanks to a tie for 10th in a tournament organized by Steve Stricker that ended on June 24. Small and Stricker were teammates on Illini teams in the 1980s.

Two weeks before his strong finish in Wisconsin Small tied for ninth in the Principal Charity Classic in Iowa and he also had a tie for 24th in the Cologuard Classic in Arizona in March. Small learned that his spot in the Senior Players field was official while he was on the Exmoor course over the weekend.

“It’s always fun to play in front of Chicago fans,’’ said Small. “I played in the Western Open many times when it was at Cog Hill, and being at Exmoor is going to be a semi-home game for me. We have a lot of Illinois alumni and friends who are members at Exmoor. I’m excited to go up there to compete.’’

Vince Pellegrino, vice president of tournaments for the Western Golf Association – the manager of this Senior Players event, is excited, too.

“Mike’s well-known and respected throughout the Midwest, and we expect his presence to add an extra energy level and excitement to the championship,’’ said Pellegrino.

Interestingly, Stricker – one of the top players on PGA Tour Champions – will skip this major to compete in the John Deere Classic instead. He’s a three-time winner of that event. Davis Love III, who is also eligible to compete on the 50-and-over circuit, will also play in the JDC, in part because that tournament gave a sponsor’s exemption to his son Dru.

The Western Golf Association had planned to hold its Western Amateur championship at Exmoor this year, but the club campaigned for the senior major over two years ago and was successful. So, the Western Amateur will tee off later this month at Sunset Ridge, in Northfield, and Exmoor will serve as that tournament’s host at a later date.

Exmoor is one of Chicago’s most historic golf venues. The club was founded in 1896 and is the third oldest in Illinois behind Wheaton’s Chicago Golf Club (1893) and Lake Forest’s Onwentsia (1895). Chicago Golf Club will host the inaugural U.S. Women’s Senior Open at the same time the Constellation Senior Players Championship is in progress.

Charles Blair Macdonald, founder of Chicago Golf Club, also designed Exmoor’s original nine-hole course. Donald Ross turned it into an 18-hole course in 1915 and architect Ron Prichard completed a renovation of the course in 2003.

Forty-one of the 78 players in this week’s field were expected to check in on Monday and the rest can practice on the course on Tuesday. Gates open to the public for Wednesday’s pro-am before four days of tournament play begin on Thursday.