Bizarre — that’s the best way to sum up the PGA Championship

Bizarre. I’d say that was the best way to sum up the 106th PGA Championship at Valhalla in Louisville, Ky.

No question the golf was great.  So was the drama. Xander Schauffle was 21-under-par in finally winning a major championship on Sunday. You couldn’t beat the drama, either.  Bryson DeChambeau renewed the PGA Tour vs. LIV rivalry with a final-round charge that ended with him walking off the practice range, his chances at being in a playoff doomed when Schauffle’s six-foot birdie putt dropped on the 18th green to give him a one-stroke victory.

All that was well and good.  I’m afraid, though, that this PGA Championship will be better remembered for some strange things.

They started on Monday as players started arriving at Valhalla. Out came the report that Rory McIlroy had filed for divorce from Erica Stoll, his wife of seven years.

Divorces are sad things, but McIlroy’s timing was unfathomable. Here he’s coming off a big win at the Wells Fargo Championship on Sunday, then files for divorce the next day,  a few days before the next major championship – one where he had won in 2014.  A distraction, both for himself personally and for the tournament overall, was inevitable.  What was Rory thinking?

Stoll was quoted as saying, “There wouldn’t be a divorce if Rory was as faithful to me as he has been to Tiger.’’  To no one’s surprise, there was no comment from McIlroy. (Woods, incidentally, received little attention for good reason; he missed the cut after a second-round 77).

Anyway, the McIlroy scenario wasn’t the biggest news for long.  Scottie Scheffler, the world’s No. 1 player,  skipped the Wells Fargo the week before to adjust to becoming a father for the first time.  He got to Valhalla in good spirits until he drove to the course early on Friday for his second round.

An auto accident near the course led to the death of a man moments earlier, and Scheffler was arrested for an unrelated driving offense. He was slammed against the side of his car by a police officer, handcuffed, finger-printed, photographed in an orange jail shirt and put in a cell. He started his pre-round stretching there before a friendly police officer offered him a sandwich as he was being released.

Scheffler played well despite the unpleasant ordeal and – in sharp contrast to McIlroy – talked to the media for 13 minutes after his round, displaying concern for the family of the accident victim. How he regrouped to shoot 66 still amazes me. Scheffler faded in the third round, finishing in a tie for eighth.

His nightmare isn’t over, though.  Scheffler faces four charges, one a felony. His arraignment was to be on Tuesday, but it was later postponed until June 3.  Scheffler plans to play in the Charles Schwab Challenge this week in Texas.

There were a few other notable things that, of course, paled in comparison to the McIlroy and Scheffler episodes.

Steve Stricker’s withdrawal before the first round was noteworthy, though understandable. The 57-year old PGA Tour Champions star had tied for seventh in the 2014 PGA at Valhalla after playing his first Ryder Cup there in 2008. Those memories had Stricker looking forward to playing Valhalla again, even though he would be in the midst of playing three major championship in three weeks and making three title defenses in five — a stretch that even Woods didn’t have to face  during his heyday.

“I’m excited to get to play the PGA Championship in the middle of all this with the young guys,’’ Stricker had said.  Only he didn’t play.  After all, three Champions Tour majors coupled with his dual role as defender and host at his own tournament just became too much. He’s in the KitchenAid Senior PGA Championship in Michigan this week.

More footnotes:

Collin Morikawa made five straight birdies in his Saturday round to get to the top of the leaderboard but didn’t make another until final hole on Sunday.  At least, as Schauffele’s playing partner,  he got a close-up view of the champion’s exquisite final round.

Jon Rahm, who had the longest streak of the season for avoiding missed cuts, missed this time.  Rahm had gone 18 tournaments before his letdown.  Now Hideki Matsuyama has the longest streak, at 16.

Schauffele’s 21-under-par 263 was a scoring record for a major championship.  He became the 11th wire to wire winner of the PGA, the first being Kentucky native Bobby Nichols in 1964. Shauffele’s first-round 62 tied a record in major championships and Shane Lowry matched it in the third round.  Only five players have shot that number in a major, and Schauffele has done it twice.  The first came in last year’s U.S. Open.

The nicest thing about the week, though, was a break in the frequently ugly confrontations between members of the PGA and LIV circuits.  LIV member Brooks Koepke won the PGA in 2023 and DeChambeau – with three birdies in the last six holes and two in the last three — made an emotional run at another win for the Saudi-backed circuit.  Though he didn’t get it, he was popular with the gallery and showed appropriate sportsmanship afterwards.

“I gave it my best and lost to someone who played incredibly well,’’ said DeChambeau.  “I put as much effort as I possibly could into it.  Xander is well-deserving of a major championship.’’

Kind words are especially nice to hear during these turbulent times in professional golf.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Gotterup is an appropriate first champion at Myrtle Beach

Chris Gotterup sports his new blue jacket as Myrtle Beach’s first champion. (Joy Sarver Photo)

MYRTLE BEACH, S.C. – This was only fitting.  The newest tournament on the PGA Tour was won by one of the circuit’s youngest players.

Chris Gotterup, just 24 and barely a year removed from his last college tournament, captured the inaugural Myrtle Beach Classic at the Dunes Golf & Beach Club.  He took a four-stroke lead into Sunday’s final round, then floundered twice before finally putting the win away.

Gotterup opened the final round with two bogeys then went birdie-eagle-birdie to open a five-shot lead.  The lead was in jeopardy again when he struggled on the first four holes of the back nine.  His advantage was cut to two after 13 holes before he regrouped again to beat closest rivals Davis Thompson and Canadian Alistair Docherty and earn the blue jacket — the start of a tradition for the tournament’s champions.

“No matter what tournament I’m in, I’m going to grind it out,’’ said Gotterup, whose two comebacks made the surprise arrival of his parents and two brothers all the more special.  They weren’t expected here until Monday.

The final round was marked by a 10-under-par 61 by Denmark’s Thorbjern Oleson, a course record on the ocean-side layout designed by Robert Trent Jones Sr. in 1948. Gotterup’s closing 67 and gave him a 72-hole score of 22-under-par 262.

Meanwhile, Gotterup had only one top-five finish to show for his first 26 starts on the PGA Tour but is now headed for this week’s PGA Championship at Valhalla, in Louisviile, KY. The year’s second major championship tees off on Thursday and Sunday’s win got him there.

Gotterup spent his first four collegiate years at Rutgers, where he had a Player of the Year season.   Then he took a redshirt year at Oklahoma and was even better there. He followed it up by getting eight starts on the PGA Tour, many through sponsor exemptions.

Those eight starts technically ruled Gotterup out of rookie status on the PGA Tour for this season, but he has no complaints about that.

“Those eight starts were huge for me,’’ he said.  “I left school with no status at all but I played good and grinded it out.’’

He also did just that to get his first professional win in the first PGA Tour event at Myrtle Beach, a golf mecca that justifiably bills itself as “the World’s Golf Capital.’’

The tourney, blessed with beautiful weather and good crowd support, made its debut on the same day that the Wells Fargo Championship, held just 173 miles away in Charlotte, N.C., with a much stronger field than Myrtle Beach’s, ended its PGA Tour run.  That decision was made by its sponsor several months ago, but its site – Quail Hollow – will host next year’s PGA Championship.

 

 

One tournament begins, another ends on PGA Tour this week

The Dunes Golf & Beach Club may be the most history-rich course in Myrtle Beach.

OCALA, FL. – Even without a ball being hit yet, the week ahead looms as an interesting one on the PGA Tour.

Holding two concurrent events in the same week isn’t unusual on the PGA Tour, but this is a little different.  The Wells Fargo Championship, in Charlotte, N.C., and the Myrtle Beach Classic are similar in that both are 72-hole events that begin their four-day runs on Thursday.

The Carolina events aren’t that far apart either – only 172 miles, less than four-hour drive.  Otherwise there are some stark differences.

The Wells Fargo is a tournament with some rich history, while Myrtle Beach – which bills itself “the Golf Capital of the World ‘’ with some justification  — has never hosted a PGA Tour stop. The Wells Fargo is a Signature Event with a $20 million purse and many of the game’s top stars.  The Myrtle Beach Classic has a $4 million purse and its field is dominated by the young up-and-coming stars.

While the Myrtle Beach Classic is a new event, the Wells Fargo is being held for the last time.  Its inaugural playing was in 2003, and its list of champions include Jim Furyk, Tiger Woods, Anthony Kim, Rory McIlroy, Rickie Fower, Brian Harman and Max Homa.  Its defending champion is Wyndham Clark, the reigning U.S. Open titlist. Wells Fargo, though, has announced that it won’t renew its sponsorship after this year’s playing.

Charlotte has been a PGA Tour site long before the Wells Fargo teed off for the first time at Quail Hollow Club, and that venue won’t be disappearing from big-time golf.  It’ll host the PGA Championship in 2025. That won’t be anything new for the club, either.  It was the site of Justin Thomas’ PGA victory in 2017 and the President’s Cup was also played there in 2022.

Robert Trent Jones Sr. created The Dunes course in 1948. (Joy Sarver Photos)

Switching the focus to Myrtle Beach, it’s shocking that this community hasn’t attracted  corporate sponsorship for a PGA Tour event until this year.  For over 40 years MB’s nearly 100 courses have been used for the World Amateur Handicap Tournament.  With entries topping 3,000 annually, it’s believed to be the biggest golf event in the world.

This is a really avid golf town,  and there have been professional tournaments held there in the past.  The U.S. Women’s Open was played in MB in 1962 and the women’s circuit held four tournaments there in the 1990s, with Australian star Karrie Webb winning two of them. Seven Senior PGA Tour Championships were also held there, the last in 2000.

Myrtle Beach even has a TPC course, and many of Dustin Johnson’s trophies are on display there. The Myrtle Beach Classic, however, will be played at The Dunes Golf & Beach Club, a par-71 layout measuring 7,347 yards.  It’s the second-oldest course in Myrtle Beach.

Robert Trent Jones Sr. was the designer in 1948, and insiders believe it can be stretched a little longer to better suit PGA Tour players. Those who were early entrants included Brandt Snedeker, Jonattan Vegan, Daniel Berger, Joel Dahmer, Cameron Champ and Charley Hoffman.

Organizers of the MB event held a unique qualifying event, called The Q, as part of its pre-tournament promotional festivities.  They also had no trouble finding volunteers.  The number needed filled up quickly, — faster, they believe, than any  event with the exception of a Ryder Cup. Clearly the enthusiasm for golf on its biggest stage is bubbling over in Myrtle Beach.

The new event has one – at least minor – concern.  Sunday’s final round will be played on Mother’s Day, and that might cut into attendance. Of course, that could minimally impact the Wells Fargo, too.

What the future holds for both events is uncertain.  It’s unlikely Quail Hollow will be without a big event after the PGA Championship next year.  It’s been just too good of a tournament site and new sponsorship should be forthcoming eventually.  The Myrtle Beach Classic has a contract for two more years and would likely continue long beyond that, assuming the sponsoring and crowd support are up to expectations at the inaugural event.

The ocean views at The Dunes create a stunning backdrop for golfers.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Malnati an emotional winner at Valspar tourney

Peter Malnati uses a yellow golf ball to win the Valspar tourney. (Joy Sarver Photo)

PALM HARBOR, Florida — The winners at PGA Tour events are frequently emotional, but Peter Malnati was in tears immediately after his last putt dropped at the Valspar Championship on Sunday.

Malnati, 36, won his second title nine years after his first.  He had qualified for only three major championships and never made it to the FedEx Cup Playoffs.

This year he had four missed cuts and only one top-10 finish while doubling as a recently-named Player Director on the PGA Tour Policy Board. That has put him in the forefront of the complicated negotiations over the proposed merger with the Saudi-based LIV Golf League.

While that’s a time-consuming extra job Malnati had been better known as one of the few players to use a yellow golf ball.  He switched from white to yellow balls because one of his sons “liked them.’’

“He’s gotten over it now,’’ said Malnati, holding one son while fighting back tears during his first post-round televised interview.  “But it still makes me think of him.’’

Malnati, along with his wife Alicia, attended the University of Missouri before Peter turned pro in 2009. They have two sons – Hatcher and Dash. They were more in the spotlight at the Valspar, which offers an unusual opportunity for players to put what they want on their caddy’s bibs.  Malnati chose honor his sons.

Keith Mitchell started the day with a two-stroke lead on Malnati, who was in a three-way tie for second.  Mitchell faded to a 77 in the final round while Malnati shot 67 and won by one stroke over Cameron Young. Malnati posted a 12-under-par 272 for the 72 holes and earned $1,512,000.

“That moment of winning a tournament and have your family come out on the green, the big hugs and all that, that’s something I’ve seen other families have and that has been my dream,’’ said Malnati.  “ There’s been a lot of stretches in golf over the last nine years when I wondered if I’d ever have that experience. It feels completely surreal.’’

Wheaton’s Kevin Streelman, who led the tournament after Round 1 and was tied for the lead after Round 2, shot 73-72 on his weekend rounds and finished in a tie for 28th with, among others, Northwestern alum Dylan Wu. It was Streelman’s best finish of the season. Defending champion Taylor Moore tied for 12th.

 

LET Tour starts a team series in Florida with Saudi ties

 

Charley Hull, Carlota Ciganda and Lexi Thompson (left to right) are among the stars in the Aramco Team Series season opener. Ciganda is the defending champion. (Joy Sarver Photos)

CLEARWATER, Florida – The scheduling for the Aramco Team Series opener was unusual, its opening event being slated opposite the PGA Tour’s Arnold Palmer Invitational just an hour away in Orlando.

With a teeoff Friday on International Women’s Day, the Aramco event is unusual enough.  Imagine a women’s team event — one put on by the Ladies European Tour (LET) with $1 million in prize money provided by the Public Investment Fund of Saudi Arabia, which also bankrolls the controversial men’s LIV Golf League — being played on American soil.

After this tourney concludes on Sunday the series will have stops in South Korea, London, Asia and Saudi Arabia.

This women’s tourney at Feather Sound Country Club has a stellar field. The 82 players come from 24 countries and own 39 wins on the European Tour, nine on the LPGA Tour and three in major championships.

Though it’s an LET event, the field includes American stars Lexi Thompson, Brittany Lincicome, Marina Alex and Megan Khang.  Top Europeans are England’s Charley Hull and Bronte Law and Spain’s Carlota Ciganda, who won the tournament last year at Trump International in West Palm Beach, FL.

Ciganda and Alex were the only ones among those hotshots to show top form in Friday’s Round 1.  Both carded 6-under-par 66s to share the lead with Chloe Williams, of Wales, and Kim Metraux, of Switzerland.

Defending champion Ciganda had a great start (birdies on the first two holes) and a solid finish.  “I birdied three of my last five holes.  I’m very happy,’’ she said.

This year’s tournament was under the radar because lining up a U.S. site was a  slow process.  Feather Sound wasn’t assured of hosting until five weeks ago, a very short time for tournament preparation. First-round play was also slow, reaching 5 ½ hours at the end of the day on Friday.

This event, though,  is being contested in four-player teams (of three pros and one amateur) for two days.  It’s the only team series on any of the pro golf tours.

After 36 holes the top 60 pros will compete for individual prize money in Sunday’s final round with no qualms about going head-to-head with the $20 million Arnold Palmer Invitational, one of the “elevated’’ events on the PGA Tour schedule.

 

 

 

LPGA changes are imminent as season winds down

Linking up with Annika Sorenstam changed the atmosphere at Pelican.

BELLAIR, Florida – Changing times on the LPGA Tour are unlike the PGA-LIV soap opera on the men’s circuit, but the women are in the progress of some adjusting, too – starting with the name of the season’s penultimate tournament.  Instead of using the name of the host club in the title, what was the Pelican is now The Annika driven by Gainbridge at Pelican.

It honors Annika Sorenstam, one of golf’s all-time greats.  It’s the first time an LPGA tournament has been named in honor of a player, and more legends might be recognized down the road.

“It’s important to have history involved in the game,’’ said Stacy Lewis, the U.S. Solheim Cup captain.  “It’s important for these girls to know the players that have come before them.  Fortunately, everybody knows Annika. I wish we had more of them because there are a lot of players that played even before Annika that we probably haven’t done a good job of honoring.  There needs to be more of it.’’

Betsy King, Nancy Lopez and Kathy Whitworth have been similarly honored at tournaments, but not quite like Sorenstam. The Annika has a bigger purse ($3.25 million, biggest on the LPGA circuit minus the majors and CME event) and a better field than was the case in the event’s three seasons as the Pelican. The signage and décor very much highlighted Sorenstam’s connection to the event.

One difference was evident even before Thursday’s first round was over when darkness set in at 5:48 p.m. with one player still to finish.  Nelly Korda, the champion the last two years, had a less-than-ideal start. Though she shot a 67 on the par-70 Donald Ross design course, Korda trailed nine of the players who also had morning starting times and she was tied for 31st when Thursday’s play ended. Canadian Brooke Henderson was the leader with an 8-under-par 62.

Two-time defending champion Nelly Korda wasn’t at her best in The Annika’s debut at the Pelican, but the colorful atmosphere was refreshing.

Lexi Thompson, runner-up twice in the previous three years, started in the afternoon and posted a 64 with a lot of added pressure.  The CME Group Tour Championship, the biggest money event in women’s golf with $7 million on the line, is coming up Nov. 16-19 to conclude the season.  Only 60 players will qualify for the CME at another Florida facility, Tiburon in Naples. (Tiberon will also be the site of a new December event in which some LPGA players team up with players on the PGA Tour).

Thompson, who has missed the cut in eight tournaments this year and had only two top-10 finishes, stands 88th in the point standings so she needs to climb the leaderboard before the tourney ends on Sunday.  New Zealand’s Lydia Ko, another top player for many years, is also on the outside of the CME field, too.  She stands 101st.

Stacy’s Solheim Cup team is also smarting from a 14-14 tie in Spain, which enabled their European counterparts to retain possession of the trophy.

“I hate how it finished because I felt we played good enough to win,’’ said Lewis, who will return as the American captain the next time the bi-annual event is played.  “There are definitely some changes to be made.’’

 

The Annika will give a big boost to more than just the LPGA

Ready for The Annika’s November debut are (from left) sponsor exemption Louise Rydqvist, executive director Marci Doyle, host Annika Sorenstam and Pelican member and recent LPGA winner Elizabeth Szokol. (Pat Eastman Photo)

 

BELLEAIR, FL. — Annika Sorenstam was a legendary player before she stepped away from the LPGA Tour in 2008. Now she’s back again in a variety of roles, most notably as the host of a revitalized tournament called The ANNIKA driven by Gainbridge at Pelican.

The Pelican Golf Club, on the outskirts of Tampa, hosted the LPGA circuit for tournaments beginning in 2020. It was called the Pelican Women’s Championship then and Nelly Korda goes into the revised version as the two-time defending champion.

Sorenstam’s presence changed the event considerably from when Pelican was the title sponsor. This year’s penultimate event on the LPGA schedule has an elevated purse of $3.25 million, the largest outside of the major championships and the season-ending CME Group Tour Championship in Naples. Marci Doyle has come from the PGA Tour’s Arnold Palmer Invitational to assume the executive director’s role at The Annika.

The Annika effect also showed in the field. Eight of the world’s top 10 and 16 of the top 20 in the Rolex Women’s World Rankings  are scheduled to compete this time around, headed by Korda and world No. 1 Lilia Vu. Also in the stacked field  are major championship winners Brooke Henderson, Lydia Ko, Danielle Kang and Lexi Thompson.

So, why is Sorenstam here?

“When I stepped away in 2008 it was a step away from competitive golf, but I wasn’t stepping away from the game,’’ said Sorenstam.  “It was more what can I do to share my passion and knowledge or inspire the next generation.  It started with the foundation, then a few things all connected.  I’m still here, and I want to do things.  I want to inspire.  I want to grow women’s golf, and all the things that this tournament stands for are things that I stand for personally.’’

At the Media Day she shared the spotlight with Elizabeth Szokol, a Pelican member who won for the first time on the LPGA circuit this year, and Louise Rydqvist, a Swedish player who is a junior at the University of South Carolina.  She will make her first LPGA appearance as a sponsor’s exemption at The Annika.

“I played the Annika Cup in Sweden and then I played her Annika Invitational in Europe,’’ said Rydqvist.  Then I came to college and I played her intercollegiate event.  Now, all of a sudden, it’s kind of closing the full circle.  It’s very surreal, and I’m super, super thankful to be here.’’

Sorenstam has made a few tournament appearances and her husband-caddie Mike McGee says she’s also become the main swing coach for their son Will.  The 13-year old, who plays daily with the sons of Henrik Stenson and Ian Poulter at Lake Nona, made a big splash playing in the PNC event in Orlando last year.  Annika and Will were paired with Tiger and Charlie Woods. Mike has also been a go-between for Annika’s projects involving the LPGA.

“I have a long wish list of things I want to achieve at the Annika Foundation,’’ she said.  “We started at the end of 2007, and 15 years later we have seven global tournaments.  We are in different parts of the world.  We do different initiatives, whether it’s six year olds to 12 year olds to 22 year olds. We started with different initiatives this year.  It’s a development program for young players who just left college and are now turning professional.’’

What Sorenstam has done for women’s golf is nothing short of terrific – and much needed if the game is to grow.  Her role at the inaugural Annika hasn’t been clearly defined yet.  She was asked if she’d hit the ceremonial first tee shot. Surely she’ll do much more than that.’’

“I am playing in the pro-am.  I’m committed to that’’ she said.  “I look forward to that, but I’m a host and I’m up for anything to make this tournament great.’’

The pro-am is on Wednesday, Nov. 8.  Then there’ll be four rounds of tournament play on the private course, a Donald Ross original design that has been redesigned by Beau Welling.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

This amateur golf doubleheader is not one to miss

 

Rarely has Illinois been treated to a golf tournament doubleheader as attractive as the one on tap for this week – and it’s all about the amateurs.

The Women’s Western Amateur has been played without interruption since 1901, and the 123rd staging begins on Tuesday at White Eagle, in Naperville.  The always popular Illinois State Amateur also tees off that day at Bloomington Country Club. This will be that tourney’s 92nd playing.

Obviously the players will be more familiar in the State Am, to be played at Bloomington for a record ninth time, but the Women’s Western – always one of the most prestigious events in women’s golf – may have its strongest field ever. The 120 competitors represent 29 states and 15 countries.

“Our partnership with the Western Golf Association (which began in 2019) has helped us strengthen our fields,’’ said Susan Buchanan, the WWGA president, “and our local players are getting better along with the national ones. They’ve realized that they can play in a big, strong national tournament without having to travel.’’

Geneva’s Sarah Arnold and New Lenox’ Grace Curran, who finished one-two in the Illinois Women’s State Amateur, are also Western contenders and Naperville’s Lisa Copeland,  the runner-up as a 15-year old in last year’s Western Junior. Is also in the field.

Defending champion this week is Teglao Jeeravivitaporn of Thailand, and she’ll be trying to become the first repeat winner since Meredith Duncan in 2000-01. The 2021 champion, Marissa Wenzler, is also competing.

In its rich history the tournament has had only nine back-to-back winners, the first being Chicago’s first great woman player, Bessie Anthony, who won the first three titles in 1901-03. She was the lone three-peater, and the best known of the others to win two in a row was Hall of Famer Louise Suggs, who won in 1946-47 in the years leading into the creation of the Ladies PGA in 1950.

Past Western Am winners also include Nancy Lopez (1976), Beth Daniel (1978), Cristie Kerr (1998), Grace Park (2003), Brittany Lang (2006), Stacy Lewis (2012) and Ariya Jutanugarn  (2012). Past Western competitors have won 327 times on the LPGA Tour, including 12 major titles, and made 28 Solheim Cup appearances.

While the field is stronger,  the venue is also tougher than the last two playings at Park Ridge and Sunset Ridge.  White Eagle was the site of LPGA tournaments from 1992-94 and also hosted two of the last three Illinois Opens. The original Arnold Palmer design was upgraded in recent years by Todd Quitno.

There will be 36 holes of stroke play qualifying on Tuesday and Wednesday with the top 32 advancing to match play.  Matches will run Thursday through Saturday.

STATE AM: Hinsdale’s Mac McClear will defend his title at Bloomington and try to become the first repeat winner since Ethan Farnam.  He won in 2019 and 2021, with the pandemic canceling the event in 2020. Bloomington’s Todd Mitchell was the last to win in consecutive years (2002-03).

McClear, who won last year at Westmoreland in Wilmette, also captured two of the last three Big Ten individual while playing collegiately for Iowa. Last year he beat out Illinois’ Tommy Kuhl at Westmoreland, and Kuhl won’t be on hand this week.  He recently entered the professional ranks, but McClear will have one particularly tough opponent in Parker Wisdom, the home club hopeful.

Wisdom, who led Illinois Wesleyan to the Missouri Valley Conference title as a senior, tied for third in last year’s State Am.

The 132 players competing at Bloomington were determined after eight state-wide qualifying rounds in June. The full field of finalists will play 18 holes on Tuesday and Wednesday, then the field will be cut to the low 35 and ties for a 36-hole wrapup on Thursday.

Bloomington, which opened in 1896, last hosted the State Am in 2018 when Jordan Hahn was the winner.  At 6,561 yards and a par 70 it’ll be the shortest course to host the event since 2008.

No 59, but Straka still wins at the John Deere Classic

 

Austrian Sepp Straka posted the best final round by a John Deere Classic champion.

SILVIS, IL. – Low numbers are nothing new at the John Deere Classic, and Sunday was no exception. Sepp Straka, far down the leaderboard at the start of the final round, shot 28 on the front nine at TPC Deere Run and strung four birdies on holes 11-14.

With four holes left Straka needed just one more birdie to shoot a 59.  Only one other player – Paul Goydos in 2010 – hit that milestone at the JDC.

Straka’s hot round took a strange twist, however.  That much-needed birdie never came. After three pars he hit an 8-iron approach shot from 180 yards into a pond left of the 18th green.

“My only bad shot.  I pulled it about seven yards left of my target,’’ said Straka.

A chip and two putts later he had a double bogey and – though Straka’s scorecard showed a 9-under-par 62 – the title was up for grabs.

The 62, matching the best round of the week, put Straka at 21-under-par 263 for his 72 holes.  Third-round leader Brendon Todd and Alex Smalley, aiming for his first PGA Tour win, had six holes left and Straka’s lead was down to two strokes.

“I wasn’t thinking about a 59,’’ insisted Straka, who was born in Austria but has lived in Georgia since he was 14 years old.  “As fun as it would have been to shoot a 59, I wasn’t going to change my game plan. It’s always better to win a golf tournament.’’

Straka went to the clubhouse to watch Todd and Smalley on television.  Todd got within a shot at one point but, when both players failed to make par at the par-5 seventh hole, Straka had his two-stroke lead back.

He was warming up on the practice range in anticipation of a playoff when both his rivals went to the No. 18 tee.  Both needed to make eagle on the finishing hole to force a playoff, and neither came close.

“It was stressful,’’ said Straka.  “Thankfully the playoff didn’t happen.’’

Post round concerts by Darius Rucker and Blake Shelton near the 18th fairway swelled the galleries for the JDC’s weekend rounds. (Photos by Joy Sarver)

Straka posted the lowest final round by a JDC champion, beating Payne Stewart’s 63 in 1982. It was also Straka’s career low on the PGA Tour, and he also had a 63 in Friday’s second round.

“It was pretty awesome,’’ he said. “The key here is getting the putter hot, and mine stayed hot.’’

A reason for that came via text from his putting coach on Thursday.

“We made a little tweak in my putting setup,’’ said Straka. “The toe of my putter was sticking up a little bit. All of a sudden I got hot.’’

Straka’s second win on tour – he captured the Honda Classic in Florida in WHEN – gave him a winner’s check of $1,258,000 from a purse of $7.4 million but he had an immediate expense, too.  He was staying with six other players at a home in Geneseo.  Among the others was defending champion J.T. Poston. Poston picked up the tab for the group of renters, and Straka did the same.

Ironically Todd was to be in the group but his family decided to join him so he rented a hotel room.

“I’ve known Sepp since he was in college at Georgia,’’ said Todd.  “He’s just a great guy, good personality, always happy for those around him.’’

With the win Straka moved up to No. 18 in the FedEx Playoff standings and No. 27 in the Official World Golf Rankings. He won in his third JDC appearance, having tied for 26th in 2019 and missing the cut in 2021.

Poston finished tied for sixth in his title defense after leading wire-to-wire last year. He was six shots behind Straka.

Northbrook’s Nick Hardy, who shot a 65 on Sunday, was the best of Chicago connected players with a tie for 21st.  Arlington Heights’ Doug Ghim was a shot behind Hardy in a tie for 26th and Wheaton’s Kevin Streelman, who had a second-round 63 sandwiched in between three rounds at par 71, tied for 51st.

Arlington Heights’ Doug Ghim had to escape a bunker on his last hole Sunday to happily finish in a tie for 26th at the John Deere Classic. Ghim was 65-67 in his middle in between to 70s.

 

 

 

 

Another first-time winner in the JDC? Smalley could be the man

Alex Smalley had his game in top form in the third round of the John Deere Classic. Can he do it again and become the 24th first-time winner at Illinois’ only annual PGA Tour stop?  (Joy Sarver Photos)

SILVIS, IL. – Every year a prominent story line at the John Deere Classic is who will be the next first-time winner on the PGA Tour and this year is no exception.

The JDC has had 23 champions who won for the first time in its 51-year history. That’s an extraordinarily high number, and they range from big names like Deane Beman, D.A. Weibring, Payne Stewart, Jordan Spieth and Bryson DeChambeau to the not-so-famous like Mike Morley, Blaine McCallister, J.L. Lewis, Michael Clark II, David Gossett and Michael Kim.

The stage was set to add another first-timer to the list Saturday when Alex Smalley charged into contention with the best score of the week – a 9-under-par 62 —  in the third round at TPC Deere Run.

Smalley will start Sunday’s final round one shot behind leader Brendon Todd, who shot 66 on Saturday. He stands at 16-under-par 197 after 54 holes and won’t be in the “first win’’ battle because he already has three titles on the PGA Tour. That doesn’t lessen the intensity ahead in the final 18 holes.

“You always want to be the guy being chased,’’ said Todd. “It’s just head down and made birdies.  It’s going to be hard to run away and hide here.’’

Especially considering his closest pursuers. Smalley’s colleagues at one back include Denny McCarthy and Adam Schenk. They’re also hungry for that first win, but Smalley fits into the list of new champions perfectly if he can get the job done. He has special ties to the JDC.

The JDC has always been receptive to giving promising young players a chance through its issuing of sponsor’s exemptions each year.  Smalley wasn’t one of those lucky ones, but he has his own story to tell.

Smalley Monday qualified for the JDC in 2021 with his mother Maria  working as his caddie.

His agent landed Smalley a veteran caddie, Don Donatello, in time for the tournament that year and he tied for 47th. That meant a $17,339 payday for a young player just out of Duke University who hadn’t earned his PGA Tour card yet.

Donatello became his regular caddie and last year they came back and did even better. Smalley tied for 16th and earned $115,141.

Now TPC Deere Run seems the perfect place for Smalley’s first PGA Tour win after his hot round Saturday. He started birdie-eagle, shot 30 on the front nine and added four birdies on the back side.

“It was a dream start,’’ admitted Smalley. “I feel comfortable here.  After my first experience here in 2021 I liked the course. I like the atmosphere, the vibes, at the tournament. I don’t know why the next first-time winner here couldn’t be me.’’

The only trouble with that is that a few other players know the JDC’s reputation for first-time winners. They feel the same way and have come tantalizingly close already this year.

McCarthy lost to Norway’s Viktor Hovland in a playoff at the Memorial. Schenk, who also used Donatello as his caddie in the past, has two runner-up finishes.

When the last putt drops the champion will get $1,258,000 from a $7.4 million purse.  A spot in the British Open, coming up in two weeks at Royal Liverpool in Hoylake, England, is also on the line.

That’s particularly enticing for Smalley, who will play in next week’s Scottish Open no matter how the JDC turns out but still hopes to play in the British, the year’s last major championship.

Last year he missed a spot in the British when he made bogey on the last hole of the Scottish Open. He has a history at Hoylake, though. The 2019 Walker Cup amateur team matches were played there, and Smalley was a star for the U.S. team.

“I was 3-1 in the matches, and that was the first Walker Cup we won on foreign soil since 2007, so I certainly have good memories there,’’ said Smalley. “It was also the first time I played links golf.  It would be great to go back and draw on those memories.’’

Brendon Todd took the lead in the JDC but there’s still one round to go.