Len Ziehm On Golf

Illini off to good NCAA start on another bad weather day at Rich Harvest

The miserable weather that plagued the NCAA women’s golf championship last week unfortunately carried over to the men’s event as well.

Friday’s first round of the men’s competition at Rich Harvest Farms in Sugar Grove couldn’t be completed, and Big Ten champion Illinois is one of the teams with holes left to play today before the second round can begin.

The Illini stand in a tie for fifth place with all of the team’s players through 10 holes. Freshman Michael Feagles, the first Illini to tee off, set a fast pace for his teammates and stands in a tie for third individually at 3-under-par through 14 holes.

“He was huge, and I’m excited for him,’’ said junior Nick Hardy, playing in the fifth spot. “He’s carrying us this round.’’

Coach Mike Small felt the same way.

“The guys did a great job,’’ he said. “They had a good nervous about them, but they were going about their business. I’m very happy.’’

The Illini had 1 p.m. as their first tee time and play was stopped at 3:04. After two false starts play resumed at 6:50 p.m. and was stopped by darkness at 8 p.m.

Vanderbilt, at 8-under through 15 holes, was the team leader followed by Auburn, which had completed play at 6-under. Oklahoma State (5-under through 15) and Southern California (4-under through 15) also led the Illini, who were in a tie for fifth at 3-under with Nevada-Las Vegas, Louisiana State and Baylor.

Defending champion Oregon, which is paired with the Illini in the first two rounds, is tied for 11th and Texas, featuring Arlington Height native Doug Ghim, is tied for 14th.

Small had no problem with the delays, but admitted they required adjustments.

“At first we were building for a great day. We were at 4- or 5-under, then the rain came,’’ he said. “After that we played strong, given the conditions. Delays are all part of golf. The rain came, then the wind. The course changed dramatically in 15 minutes.’’

Some of the early starters did finish their rounds. They included Dawson Armstrong, who won the Western Amateur at Rich Harvest in 2015, and Trent Wallace, the first Illinois State golfer to play in the national finals since the Redbirds’ team made it in 1975. That squad included D.A. Weibring, the veteran PGA Tour player. Wallace qualified for the finals as an individual.

Armstrong, who is part of the David Lipscomb team qualifier, shot 1-under-par 71, which put him in a tie for 24th place and five strokes behind Mississippi’s Braden Thornberry, who posted the low individual round of opening day – a 66.

A holed bunker shot by Armstrong two years ago decided the Western Amateur title in a playoff. Course owner Jerry Rich has been urged to install a plaque commemorating Armstrong’s winning shot but so far hasn’t done it.

“It’d be a little weird putting a plaque in a bunker,’’ said Armstrong, “but it would be cool to put it beside the bunker.’’

Armstrong said he would return to this year’s Western Amateur, which will be played at Skokie Country Club. Illinois’ Dylan Meyer will also defend his title, so the prestigious amateur event will have the rarity of the two most recent past winners in its field.

Wallace, a sophomore from Joliet, shot 73 and called the course “a beast.’’ He was greeted by 40-50 cheering fans at the first tee and received a handshake from Gov. Bruce Rauner, who made a 90-minute visit. Though Wallace is an in-state player he is making his first visit to Rich Harvest.

Runner-up finish in NCAA tourney doesn’t faze NU women golfers

Northwestern’s NCAA contingent had plenty to celebrate after runner-up finish at Rich Harvest Farms.

A national championship eluded the Northwestern women’s golf team Wednesday, but you wouldn’t have known it by their post-tournament meeting with the media. It was non-stop clowning until coach Emily Fletcher was called on to reflect on the weeks’ surprising developments.

NU had a so-so regular season, was dethroned as Big Ten champion and finished second in its regional qualifier. In the finals at Rich Harvest Farms in Sugar Grove, however, the Wildcats were amazing until their last match.

Arizona State, winning the team title for a record eighth time, handled the Wildcats 3-1-1 but that was hardly a downer for a Northwestern team that made its fifth straight appearance in the NCAA finals its best one yet.

“A tremendous week,’’ said Fletcher. “We talked about doing this, but getting here was pretty amazing. It was a surreal experience.’’

Kacie Komoto, the only senior on the team, was the only match winner against Arizona State.

“It’s been a blur,’’ she said. “We all feel very blessed to be here.’’

Sophomore Janet Mao, who put NU in the final match thanks to a dramatic win in a 19-hole morning semifinal match, said the team’s surprising showing was an indication of things to come.

“This was a testament that we can do anything if we put our minds to it,’’ she said. “It’s a big stepping stone to what we can do in the future.’’

Coach Emily Fletcher and a Golf Channel staffer were Kacie Komoto’s only company on one of the many bad-weather days at Rich Harvest Farms.

Komoto will be gone, but Mao and Stephanie Lau are just sophomores and Sarah Cho and Hannah Kim are juniors. They’ll be back and expecting bigger things next year.

Their highlight on the final day of the weather-plagued tournament wasn’t the final match. It was what it took to get there. The Wildcats won the stroke play portion of the tournament and then took 3-2 wins over Kent State and Southern California to earn a shot at the title.

The semifinal matches were to be completed on Tuesday but miserable weather prevented that. A 2-hour 20-minute delay in play when lightning was detected in the area led to both Final Four matches being completed on Wednesday morning. NU trailed in four of its five matches against USC was darkness halted play but the Wildcats were a new team the next morning.

Cho and Kim rallied to take 2 and 1 victories to put NU ahead 2-0 but Komoto and Lau dropped their matches to even the team battle at 2-2. That left the fate of both teams up to the only players left on the course – Mao and USC senior Gabriela Then.

The Mao-Then match went to extra after Mao won the 18th hole. Both were left with testy par putts on the playoff hole. Mao rolled hers in from six feet, then Then’s stopped a revolution short of the cup. NU players mobbed Mao to complete a stirring team comeback and the emotion of the big win carried over to Fletcher as well.

“They just believed in each other,’’ said Fletcher, who has taken her team to the last five NCAA finals. “They felt there was fight left in them, and they kept fighting.’’

Now, after five days of women’s play, the scene changes to the men. The University of Illinois will be among the favorites in the 30-team field when four rounds of stroke play tees off on Friday.

Rainouts shorten NCAA Women’s, Legends tourneys

The view from the Geneva National clubhouse shows why The Legends Tour couldn’t finish Round 1.

Saturday was not a good day for all the top women golfers who are visiting for two big tournaments.

Both the NCAA Division I Women’s Championship at Rich Harvest Farms in Sugar Grove and the $300,000 Red Nose Walgreen’s Charity Classic, for players on the LPGA Legends Tour, were rained out.

No balls were struck at Rich Harvest. The field of 24 teams and 12 individuals were scheduled to begin second-round play at 7:30 a.m. The tee times were first pushed back and then the round was called off as the rains continued to fall.

“With the severe weather threats that we monitored throughout Saturday morning, our committee came to the determination that, given the conditions, cancelling Saturday’s round was needed to maintain the overall student-athlete experience and the integrity of the championships,’’ said Jim Fee, chairman of the NCAA Division I women’s golf committee.

The 8:30 a.m. starting time for the scheduled first round in the Legends event on the Gary Player Course at Geneva National Resort in Lake Geneva, Wis., was pushed back 30 minutes and play did begin there. The course became unplayable before the last threesomes could tee off and – after a lengthy delay – the round was cancelled at 2 p.m.

Both tournaments plan to resume play on Sunday. The Legends, playing their first-ever tournament close to the Chicago area, had planned a 36-hole competition to climax four days of activity. A Wednesday pro-am and a qualifying tournament on Thursday went off as scheduled before the bad weather set in. The tournament will now be reduced to 18 holes.

Despite cold, rainy weather, the NCAA Division I Women’s Championship got in one round on Friday with Northwestern grabbing the team lead, two strokes ahead of second place Kent State. They’ll be paired again in Sunday’s second round.

The tourney originally called for 36 holes before the field would be cut from 24 to 15 teams, then two more rounds before the teams were reduced to eight for the match play climax to determine the champion. Now all 24 teams will continue with stroke play rounds on Sunday and Monday. Then the top eight teams will advance to match play, as per the original schedule.

The team title will be decided on Wednesday after two days of match play eliminations. Golf Channel coverage will begin on Monday with pre-game coverage starting at 3 p.m. followed by live coverage at 4 p.m. That coverage will continue through the match play portion of the tournament.

Miserable weather can’t derail fast NCAA start by NU women golfers

Umbrellas were a requirement for spectators and players alike on first day of NCAA tourney.

The Northwestern women’s golf team couldn’t repeat as conference champions; the Wildcats were runner-up to Michigan State. And, they couldn’t win their NCAA regional, either. NU was second to Alabama in that one.

Coach Emily Fletcher’s team was no bridesmaid in Friday’s first round of the NCAA Women’s Championship, however. The day may have been miserable weather-wise at Rich Harvest Farms in Sugar Grove but the Wildcats weren’t fazed in the least.

Perhaps a pep talk from two of Northwestern’s most successful coaches, football boss Pat Fitzgerald and men’s basketball leader Chris Collins, the week before the tournament helped. As bad as it was, the weather may have been beneficial as well.

NU’s Hanna Kim was ready to take on the challenging weather at Rich Harvest.

Starting late in the day NU finished with a 13-under par 301 total, two strokes better than playing partner Kent State. The late start may have helped both, since the weather improved in the afternoon. The morning starters played through rain and windy, cold weather throughout their rounds but the rain stopped in the afternoon.

Northwestern finished ninth in last year’s NCAA finals, the best in school history, and Fletcher has only one senior on her tournament roster at Rich Harvest. But it was a sophomore, Janet Mao of Johns Creek, Ga., who sparked the impressive first round showing. She shot a 1-over-par 73.

“We’ve played in this weather before,’’ said Mao. “Coming in and thinking in a positive manner was a big factor in helping us.’’

Mao had played Rich Harvest once in the fall but could remember only four holes and playing the rugged course in such difficult conditions made the experience all the more unique.

Rich Harvest was all decked out for the first day of the 13-day run of NCAA tournament play.

“It was encouraging, something for us to build on,’’ said Mao.

Other members of the NU squad were junior Hanna Kim of Chula Vista, Calif. (75); sophomore Stephanie Lau of Fullerton, Calif. (75), senior Kacie Komoto of Honolulu, Hawaii (78) and junior Sarah Cho, of San Diego, Calif. (78).

Lau was appreciative of the Fitzgerald-Collins visit.

“We feed off their two teams,’’ she said. “The conditions today were hard, but I’m proud of the way we fought for every shot. We had to be mentally tough.’’

Though in the finals for the fifth straight year, NU was only the No. 12 seed and Kent State was No. 14. The Wildcats are 10 strokes ahead of top-seeded Stanford, which is tied for third with No. 7 Arizona State, No. 17 Baylor and No. 25 Ohio State – one of a record five Big Ten teams in the finals.

Mao was one stroke behind the individual leaders, August Kim of Purdue and Elodie Van Dievost of Michigan.

Northwestern has an earlier tee time in today’s second round. The first Wildcat goes of the No. 10 tee at 8:36 a.m. and the last at 9:20.

These are the rewards that will be presented to the best players and teams in the NCAA women’s finals.

NU women golfers are in spotlight as NCAA tees off at Rich Harvest

The golf version of the NCAA Championships tees off Friday at Rich Harvest Farms. The women go first in the competition that will keep the private layout in Sugar Grove a busy place until the last putt drops in the men’s tournament on May 31.

Northwestern is the “home team’’ in the women’s competition. Coach Emily Fletcher’s team starts play at 1:06 p.m. with Wildcats having tee times through 1:50 p.m. They’ll be paired with players from Miami and Kent State. The same teams will begin play at 8:36 a.m. in Saturday’s second round.

The field will be cut from 24 teams to 15 after Saturday’s play. Two more 18-hole rounds are on tap for Sunday and Monday before the field is reduced to eight teams for the two-day match play portion of the tournament, which will determine the champion. Last year Northwestern finished ninth in the stroke play portion – the school’s best NCAA showing – but came up one spot short of advancing to match play.

Illinois will be the “home team’’ in the men’s finals, which start on May 26. Coach Mike Small’s Illini had to rally in Wednesday’s final round of regional play at West Lafayette, Ind., to earn their 10th straight berth in the NCAA finals.

On the men’s side five teams advanced to the finals from each of six regionals. Illinois was in sixth place after two days of play on Purdue University’s Kampen Course but climbed into third with a strong final round on Wednesday.

“We’ve qualified for the national championship every way you can imagine for the last 10 years,’’ said Small. “This was unique because we were treading water for a day and a half and struggling.’’

This Illini team is without a senior and Nick Hardy, the Illinois State Amateur champion, sparked the final round surge at West Lafayette. The junior from Northbrook shared medalist honors in the regional with a 3-under-par 213 for the 54 holes.

While regional drama was good for Illinois it was just the opposite for Northwestern. The Wildcats narrowly missed a finals berth in a regional at Baton Rouge, La. NU tied with Jacksonville for fifth place during the regulation 54 holes but Jacksonville earned the berth in the finals on the second hole of a sudden death playoff.

Interestingly, Illinois and Northwestern had NCAA qualifiers in both the men’s and women’s competition. The NU women survived regional play while the Illini missed out. On the men’s side Illinois and Northwestern finished one-two in the Big Ten tournament but only Illini got through the regional.

The NCAA women’s finals started in 1982 and have never been played in the Chicago area. The men’s national championship was first held in 1898 and Chicago courses hosted four previous times – at Olympia Fields in 1931 and 1943, North Shore in Glenview in 1936 and Conway Farms in Lake Forest in 1997.

Billiter survives unusual final in Illinois PGA Match Play tourney

New Kemper Lakes head professional Jim Billiter took another win in the Illinois PGA Match Play Championship while his club is beginning its preparations to host the KPMG Women’s PGA Championship in 2018. (Rory Spears Photo)

There was a sharp contrast between the players in Thursday’s final of the 66th Illinois PGA Match Play Championship at Kemper Lakes in Kildeer.

Both Danny Mulhearn, the head professional at Glen Oak in Glen Ellyn, and Jim Billiter, in his first year as Kemper’s head man, were past champions of the event – but that’s where the similarity ends.

Mulhearn, 50, won his title in 1998 but entered this week’s event as the No. 20 seed. Billiter, 30, was the 2015 titlist and the No. 3 seed. Mulhearn walked in all six of his matches in the four-day tournament. Billiter, who was at least 30 yards longer than Mulhearn off every tee shot, rode in all of his six matches.

Youth ended up being served, as Billiter took the $4,800 first-place check with a 1-up victory but Mulhearn left with a good feeling, too, and downplayed the walking aspect.

“It’s easier to walk, with the cart path only (policy, used when courses are softened from heavy rains),’’ said Mulhearn. “I felt good all day. Playing six rounds of golf and taking Jimmy to the 18th hole makes me feel good.’’

“Walking keeps you in rhythm,’’ said Billiter, “and I love walking.’’

But not with the physical demands that playing two matches for three straight days entails.

“Danny always walks. His club is a big supporter of the Evans Scholars (the Western Golf Association’s foundation that sends caddies to college),’’ said Billiter. “I give him credit for that. He played very steady, and that put a lot of pressure on me.’’

Mulhearn eventually cracked when his 5-iron tee shot at the par-3 seventeenth hole wound up in a bad lie in a green-side bunker. His escape shot went over the green and he chipped long on his third shot. That enabled Billiter to win the hole with a conceded par and he took a 1-up lead to the No. 18 tee.

Again showing his superior power , Billiter blasted his drive well past Mulhearn’s but his ball ended up in a bunker – one that Billiter had never reached before. He was left with a 160-yard approach against the wind after Mulhearn had put his second shot on the back of the green.

Billiter responded with the shot clinched him the tournament, his ball ending up on the front fringe of the green. After Mulhearn missed his long birdie putt Billiter lipped out a birdie try before Mulhearn conceded him a par and the match.

Billiter was an assistant pro at Merit Club, in Libertyville, when he won the tournament for the first time. He felt it was harder to win with the pressures of being the host pro but got the job done without playing his best.

He had to eliminate three-time winner Curtis Malm, of White Eagle in Naperville, 2 and 1 in Thursday morning’s semifinals to reach the championship match. Mulhearn got there with a 4 and 2 victory over Skokie’s Garrett Chaussard. The Match Play is the first of the Illinois PGA’s four major tournaments of the season. The next two are both in August — the Illinois Open and Illinois PGA Championship.

Northwestern freshman paces U.S. Open local at Midlane

The first tee shot of 117th U.S. Open at Wisconsin’s Erin Hills course, is still five weeks away but the battle to get there got into full swing this week with one notable surprise. Northwestern freshman Everton Hawkins not only survived one of the local qualifying rounds, he was also the medalist.

The U.S. Golf Association accepted 9,485 entries – the fifth highest in history – and Hawkins was one of 8,979 who began the road to Erin Hills at the local level. There will be 114 local eliminations held across the U.S. and Canada through May 18 and 525 survivors will go to sectional play May 22 through June 5. That’s when the 156 starters at Erin Hills will be decided.

Hawkins, from Irvine, Calif., wasn’t one of Northwestern’s stars during the Wildcats’ drive to next week’s NCAA regional play but he was red hot at Midlane, in Wadsworth, on Monday. He shot a 4-under-par 66, one better than McHenry pro Peter Kindstrom, in leading four players into sectional play. Hawkins’ more-heralded NU teammates, Dylan Wu and Ryan Lumsden wound up the first and second alternates.

Others to advance to sectional play from the 72 entrants at Midlane were Park Ridge’s Anthony Albano and Andrew Hansen of Mequon, Wis. Both shot 69s.

Wu and Lumsden were first-team all-Big Ten selections and Wu had the lowest stroke average in the conference during the league season. They, along with Hawkins, will be trying to get the Wildcats into the NCAA finals next week in NCAA regional play. The men’s finals are May 26-31 at Rich Harvest Farms, in Sugar Grove.

The Midlane competition was one of three Open locals scheduled in Illinois. Illini Country Club, in Springfield, also hosted one on Monday with its 62 players largely from downstate. Shane Smith, of Godfrey, was the only one to break par. He shot a 2-under 70 and Ian Nelson, of Macomb; Gideon Smith, of Quincy; and Michael Suhre, of Edwardsville, survived a six-players-for-three-spots playoffs to become the other sectional qualifiers there. All the Illini qualifiers were professionals

Cantigny, in Wheaton, will host the other Illinois local qualifier next Monday (MAY15) with 90 players battling for five sectional berths. Illinois hopefuls don’t necessarily have to go there, however.

Vince India, the Web.com Tour player from Deerfield, for instance, will put his Open hopes on the line on Thursday at The Bull at Pinehurst Farms – a Jack Nicklaus-designed course in Sheboygan Falls, Wis., because that better fits his tournament schedule.

Here and there

The qualifiers for the women’s portion of the NCAA finals at Rich Harvest will be determined Wednesday (TODAY) with the conclusion of four 54-hole regional eliminations. Northwestern is making its bid in Albuquerque, N.M., and Illinois in Athens, Ga. The qualifiers compete at Rich Harvest from May 19-24.

Canadian Taylor Pendrith has received the third of four sponsor’s invites into next month’s Rust-Oleum Championship, a Web.com Tour stop at Ivanhoe Club. Pendrith, who played collegiately at Kent State, won the 2014 Porter Cup and was third on the Canadian Tour money list in 2015.

The Illinois PGA Match Play Championship, first of four major events on the section schedule, is near a climax at Kemper Lakes in Kildeer. The semifinals are Thursday morning with the final in the afternoon.

The Western Golf Association has announced that Sean Maruyama will attempt to become the first Western Junior champion in 76 years to successfully defend his title. Maruyama, who has made a verbal commitment to attend UCLA, plans to compete in the 100th playing of the Western Junior – the oldest national junior tournament, at Park Ridge Country Club next month.

Cantigny, the only Illinois course among the 30 selected for the U.S. Golf Association’s Play9 initiative, begins its participation on Sunday (MAY 14). Play9 events are also scheduled there on June 11, July 9, August 13, September 10 and October 8.

Chicago’s Wilson Sporting Goods will have a second season of its Driver vs. Driver competition on The Golf Channel. Deadline for inventors to enter the competition is June 4.

Kemper awaits another IPGA Match Play, then will be a tour stop again

Kemper Lakes, for 28 years, has been a focal point for tournament golf in the Chicago area and it’ll again host the first big local tournament of the season this month. The 66th staging of the Illinois PGA Match Play Championship, however, will have some new looks.

Within the last year Kemper Lakes has completed a major bunker project and hired a head professional who is among the best players in the local ranks. Both could factor into the tournament, which starts its four-day run on May 8.

Kemper isn’t the oldest private club in the Chicago area by a long shot but its tournament history betters most of the others and the Illinois PGA has benefitted greatly from its connection, whether the club was in its public phase or after it became a private venue.

Back in its early years Kemper was a big player on the national – and even the world – stage. Its biggest event was the 1989 PGA Championship, won by Payne Stewart, but the course also hosted the 1992 U.S. Women’s Amateur, the 2001 U.S. Women’s Public Links Championship, annual Senior PGA Tour stops from 1996-2001, four Grand Slams of Golf and a Buy.com Tour event in 2002.

Now, though, its biggest event is on the local front – just as it was in the past when all the national events were also stopping by.

From 1979 until 2002 Kemper Lakes was the site of the Illinois PGA Championship. Then the club went private. Fortunately for both the club and IPGA that decision didn’t preclude their relationship for long.

Kemper was suddenly a much quieter place tournament-wise after it went private. A glimmer of the thrill-packed early years returned when the IPGA brought its best players to the facility, which is – depesnding on the whims of local politicians – located in Long Grove, Hawthorn Woods or Kildeer.

In 2006 Kemper returned to the local tournament scene as the site of the IPGA Match Play Championship. That didn’t have the impact of the IPGA Championship but the early spring dates fit the club’s schedule and helped the club retain its local profile. From the IPGA side the tournament received a huge boost in prestige by moving to Kemper Lakes. It was clearly and win-win for both parties.

The Match Play brings out most all the IPGA members who still have a competitive side. The opening day field numbers is capped at 128 players. They are seeded according to last year’s Bernardi Points standings. If the field doesn’t fill up the top seeded players receive first-round byes.

Once the shooting begins its dawn-to-dusk golf for four days with the highlight coming on Thursday, when the tourney concludes with semifinals in the morning and the championship match in the afternoon. Last year’s final saw Kyle Bauer, the 11-year head pro at Glen View Club, defeating 2010 champion Travis Johnson of Medinah 4 and 3.

Though match play golf is known for its unpredictable nature, the tournament has been won by established players most of the time since it was played at Kemper Lakes. Last year’s final was one of the more unusual, though Johns, a long ball-hitting left-handed golfer, usually had a 50-yard advantage over Bauer after their tee shots but that didn’t prevent Bauer from winning handily.

A year earlier the tourney had a surprise winner, too. That’s when Jim Billiter, a long-time assistant pro at Merit Club in Libertyville, got his game together for a march to his first big win. He beat Johns along the way, too.

“That was the only match in which I was under par,’’ recalled Billiter. “You have to play like that to hang in there with a player like Travis Johns. Otherwise it was more of a survival walk.’’

This year Billiter is no longer a Merit Club assistant. He’s the first-year head pro at Kemper Lakes. How that plays into his bid to win the title again remains to be seen but his increased knowledge of the course certainly can’t hurt.

Kemper, despite its rich history as a tournament host, hasn’t stressed playing talent in choosing its head professionals in the past. Only Emil Esposito, Kemper’s first head pro, had a notable playing resume. He was a for Illinois PGA and Illinois Open champion.

Billiter had a brilliant 2015. He followed his Match Play win with a victory in the IPGA Championship on Medinah’s No. 1 course but – despite winning two of the section’s four major titles – couldn’t claim the Player-of-the-Year award. That was because a club commitment prevented him from competing in the Illinois Open, the IPGA’s biggest tournament.

Matt Swann’s departure for a club job in Michigan during the winter created an opening in the Kemper pro shop and Billiter, who spent 11 seasons as Don Pieper’s assistant at Merit Club, was hired as Kemper’s head man. Billiter got married on March 3 and took the Kemper job a week later. He’s slowly adjusting to his new position.

“So far, so good, but we haven’t had a big event yet,’’ he said. The Match Play will kick activity into high gear at Kemper, and the players will notice some upgrades. Libertyville architect Rick Jacobson completed a bunker renovation – the bunkers are now white – and some holes were lengthened. Billiter pronounced the bunkers as “beautiful’’ and the course “in great shape and perfect for match play.’’

The upgrades weren’t made for the benefit of the IPGA tourney. They were made at least in part to land a bigger tournament and it worked. The club landed the KPMG Women’s PGA Championship, and that means the return of big-time tournament golf to the club in 2018. This year’s KPMG Women’s PGA Championship will come to Olympia Fields from June 27 to July 2.

Last year while at Merit Club Billiter worked with the best in women’s golf, too, as that club hosted the LPGA’s International Crown team event. That marked a rare return of tournament play to the Libertyville club, but more big events will likely be coming to Kemper Lakes.

Billiter, though, still won’t be able to play in the Illinois Open. While general manager John Hosteland has encouraged Billiter to compete, the Illinois Open dates won’t work for Billiter at Kemper any more than they did at Merit Club. “We have massive events on Monday and Tuesday (of tournament week),’’ he said. “That tournament is getting hard to win anyway, because more and more great college players are in it now.’’

NU, Illini women receive NCAA golf bids

Northwestern and Illinois were both selected to play in the NCAA women’s golf championship, the finals of which will be played at Rich Harvest Farms in Sugar Grove next month. To get to Rich Harvest, however, both teams must survive regional tournaments.

Coach Emily Fletcher’s Northwestern team was awarded the No. 3 seed in a regional to be played at The Champions Course in Albuquerque, N.M. The University of New Mexico will host that event. Illinois drew the No. 8 seed in a regional on the University of Georgia’s course in Athens. All teams learned their fate via The Golf Channel’s selection show on Thursday morning.

Notre Dame’s Emma Albrecht was selected as an individual and will compete in the regional on Ohio State’s Scarlet course in Columbus, Ohio. The regional tournaments will run May 8-10.

Each of four regionals were assigned 18 teams and six individual qualifiers. Those 834 golfers will be whittled to 132 for the finals at Rich Harvest, which run from May 19-24.

Northwestern, an NCAA qualifier for the fifth straight year, had its best NCAA finish last year – a tie for ninth, one stroke shy of qualifying for the match play climax to the tournament. NU was second in last week’s Big Ten Championships behind Michigan State, but the Wildcats drew a far better NCAA seed than the Spartans, who were tabbed No. 14 in the same regional.

Four other Big Ten teams – Purdue, Ohio State, Michigan and Wisconsin – were assigned to the Columbus regional.

Fletcher learned of her team’s assignment at Rich Harvest, where owner Jerry Rich was gearing his club up to host another big tournament.

The NCAA men’s finals will also be played at Rich Harvest as soon as the women’s tournament is over. That climax to the collegiate season will run from May 26-31 and the men’s teams will learn their regional assignments next Thursday.

One of the men’s selection announcement gatherings will be at Wrigley Field. Mike Small, coach of Illinois’ perennial powerhouse, and Luke Donald, an NCAA individual champion while a student at Northwestern, will be throwing out the first ball at the Cubs-Phillies game that day and Donald is also scheduled to sing at the Seventh Inning Stretch.

PGA Tour braces for first Bay Hill tourney without Palmer

Tournament sponsor MasterCard commissioned this statue of Palmer, now a landmark for golfers.

ORLANDO, Florida – Tuesday is usually the quiet day at PGA Tour stops. It’s the time in between pro-am days when players have the course and practice facilities to themselves to get ready for the start of competition on Thursday.

That wasn’t the case at Bay Hill Club Tuesday, as players, officials and spectators braced for the first Arnold Palmer Invitational without Arnold Palmer. The golfing legend passed away at age 87 in September.

“It’s a very different week with Arnold not being here with us,’’ said Henrik Stenson, the Swedish star who now lives in Orlando and finished in the top 10 of the last four API events without getting a victory. “He’s meant so much to the game of golf, and this being his own tournament on his own golf course. He’ll be dearly missed, and we will do our best to make it a very successful week without him.’’

Bay Hill opened in 1961. Palmer played it during the height of his career, loved it and worked hard to eventually buy it in 1970. Now a statue of Palmer, measuring 13 feet in height and weighing 1,400 pounds, stands in front of the pro shop. With no golf to watch on the course spectators made it a gathering point for photographs and conversation on Tuesday.

Everyone had an Arnold memory. I certainly have mine, starting with my first interview with him in 1968. He was battling for a Western Open title at Olympia Fields that week but was eventually beaten by his long-time rival, Jack Nicklaus. Through the years Palmer has been the focal point for many more interviews, and we were guests at Bay Hill for a few days in recent years.

The tone for this Arnold Palmer Invitational is evident from this view at Bay Hill’s front gate.

It was at Bay Hill that you could get one of the best glimpses of the man who inspired an army. Indeed every golf fan on hand Tuesday was a member of Arnie’s Army at one tournament or another. At Bay Hill, though, he wasn’t just the athletic legend. He was a guy who dined with his wife and friends right along with the club’s guests. He played cards with them, indulged in friendly conversation and posed for what must have seemed like unending picture-taking. That’s what made Bay Hill a very special place.

Bay Hill is nice 27-hole facility in a comfortable neighborhood. In no way is it ostentatious, like the residential areas that so many athletes seem to prefer once they accumulate enough money to buy in.

No player has done as much to popularize golf as Palmer did, and the PGA Tour made sure that this week’s tournament will be a celebration of his extraordinary life rather than the start of a sad farewell for a tournament that could be in decline.

The PGA’s Florida Swing isn’t what it used to be. This year the four events that usually filled the March portion of the PGA Tour schedule were down to three. The stop at Donald Trump’s Doral in Miami was dropped in favor of a stop in Mexico. Not only that, but the PGA Tour botched the scheduling. Mexico was inserted in the week between the Honda Classic in Palm Beach Gardens on the East coast and the Valspar Championship in Palm Harbor on the West. The fields at both the Honda and Valspar suffered, as players struggled with awkward travel options.

That wasn’t the case this week. The Palmer stop was made more enticing with a hike in prize money and the availability of more FedEx Cup points. Still, three top ones missed it – leading money-winner Dustin Johnson and two of his most popular pursuers, Phil Mickelson and Jordan Spieth. That trio skipped the entire Florida Swing, feeling that might be the best way for them to prepare for next month’s Masters.

All golfers have their Arnie memories. Here’s mine, taken in 1970 during an exhibition at Rolling Green Country Club in Arlington Heights, Ill.

In an effort to offset Palmer’s absence the tour named five ambassadors for this year’s API – players Curtis Strange, Graeme McDowell, Peter Jacobsen and Annika Sorenstam and Tom Ridge, the former U.S. secretary of homeland security.

Wednesday’s speakers prior to the Opening Ceremony will include new PGA Tour commissioner Jay Monahan, defending API champion Jason Day, current stars Rory McIlroy and Rickie Fowler and Sam Saunders, a PGA Tour member who was also Palmer’s grandson.

This is one of those rare sports events in which the 72-hole competition itself, which begins on Thursday, may well be overshadowed by the preliminary buildup. The players will have decals of Palmer’s umbrella logo on their golf bags.

Still, there is concern that Palmer’s passing will negatively impact both his small hometown of Latrobe Pa., as well as the annual tournament at Bay Hill. The passing of Ben Hogan, Byron Nelson and Dinah Shore led to the decline of their golf tournaments and keeping the Palmer atmosphere around Bay Hill won’t be easy.

It’s well worth a try, though, and for now we should just enjoy his tournament and be thankful for the memories he created.

Those colorful umbrella logos, Palmer’s trademark, were always in evidence at Bay Hill.

These bleachers at Bay Hill’s first tee will be packed once the tournament tees off on Thursday.

Palmer quotes were on display throughout the course — a good way to remember the man.