Len Ziehm On Golf

Stricker finds JDC a rare `home game’ with 4 other Illini alums in the field

SILVIS, IL. – The John Deere Classic doesn’t draw one of the best fields on the PGA Tour, and this week’s 46th playing of the tournament has to contend with the first Olympic Games golf competition since 1904.

The JDC does have Steve Stricker, however – and that counts for a lot.

Stricker has won the tournament at TPC Deere Run three times and shot 60 in one memorable round there. He’ll in the featured pairing off the No. 10 tee, along with past champions Zach Johnson and Brian Harman, at 8:20 a.m. today. Play begins off both Nos. 1 and 10 at 7:20.

“It’s always special coming back here. It’s a special place for me and my family,’’ said Stricker, one of five former University of Illinois golfers in the 156-man field. “There’s a great hometown feel here. This is the way the PGA Tour used to be week in and week out, and we don’t get this feel very often anymore.’’

At 49, Stricker is embroiled in an unusual season as his PGA Tour career is winding down. It all started with a second-place finish at Memphis.

“That got me thinking about getting in majors,’’ he said. “I had tried qualifying for the U.S. Open but missed out on a playoff by a shot. I was trying to gain some Ryder Cup points and some FedEx Cup points and Memphis got me into the British Open.’’

Not only did Stricker get into the Open, he finished a strong fourth after going to Europe a week early to play in the Scottish Open the week before.

“I played well a couple times and that got me into a tournament or two that I wasn’t expecting to get into,’’ he said. “It’s been fun getting back into the swing of things.’’

Stricker is feeling so good about his game that he even envisions making the Ryder Cup team again. How he plays this week will have an impact on his chances, but Stricker will be at the team competition against the Europeans regardless. U.S. captain Davis Love III already named him as one of his assistant captains.

“I’m trying to play my way on,’’ he said. “I don’t know if I can make it on points, but I can get the attention of Davis and the other (assistant captains). I’ve got to play a couple good tournaments to show that I’m worthy.’’

One big thing that he’ll have going this week is his familiarity with TPC Deere Run. He’s making his 15th appearance in the tournament and has found the course better than ever.

“It’s the best I’ve ever seen it. The course is in unbelievable shape,’’ said Stricker. “It’s going to be a great week for everybody here.’’

Here’s how the Olympics might impact the John Deere Classic

SILVIS, IL. – Organizers of what is now established as the John Deere Classic have coped with a variety of challenges for 45 years as a small market tournament on the PGA Tour – but never was the challenge anything like this one.

Golf will be contested at the Olympic Games for the first time since 1904 beginning on Thursday. That’s also the same day the John Deere Classic tees off at TPC Deere Run in this small town the outskirts of Moline, IL., and Davenport, IA.

Normally the JDC is held in July, the week before the British Open. That’s been a good date for the event, especially after tournament director Clair Peterson hired a jet to take any interested players directly to The Open as soon as the last putt dropped in the JDC. That was an amenity widely appreciated by the players.

Going head to head with the Olympics is different, though the Games didn’t get the respect anticipated from the golf’s top players. Six of the top 10 in the world rankings decided against going to Brazil, many citing concerns over the Zika virus. They included Jordan Spieth, who would be defending this JDC title this week if he hadn’t decided to take the week off altogether.

Of the four American players competing in Rio three didn’tt arrived until late Monday. Bubba Watson, Matt Kuchar and Patrick Reed all played in the PGA Tour’s Travelers Championship in Hartford, Ct., which ended on Sunday. Only Rickie Fowler was in Rio for the Opening Ceremonies.

So where did that leave the JDC? At least long-time favorites Steve Stricker and Zach Johnson are in the field. Both are making their 15th straight appearance at TPC Deere Run.

“It’s a special place for me,’’ said Stricker, who won the tournament three times. “The fans really get behind me and Zach. The course is in unbelievable shape – the best I’ve ever seen it. It’s going to be a great week for everybody here.’’

Johnson felt the same way, though he called the scheduling of the tournament opposite the Olympics “unfortunate.’’

“The Olympics has put a wedge in our schedule. It’s affected every tournament post-U.S. Open,’’ said Johnson, a JDC board member. “I don’t know if there’s a positive for anybody. There may not be many negatives either. It’s just different.’’

Olympics or not, the JDC is meaningful a lots players – whether they’re here or not.

“You can look at it a number of ways,’’ said Johnson, a former Masters and British champion. “There are only two weeks left before the (FedEx Cup) Playoffs. There are only so many weeks left of Ryder Cup points. There are a lot of things at stake, so guys want to play and get some points here and there. But the Olympics touched the majors, too. It made you think about when to play and when to rest, which is more important this time of year.’’

Johnson has been a major contender the last seven stagings of the JDC. That stretch included a victory (in 2012), a playoff loss, two runner-up finishes and two ties for third.

Last week Johnson was paired the first two rounds with Jim Furyk at the Travelers Championship in Hartford, Ct. Furyk barely survived the 36-hole cut before shocking the golf world with a record 58 on Sunday. TPC Deere Run was the site of Paul Goydos’ 59 in 2010, on the same day that Stricker shot a 60.

“(Low scores) are much more attainable here,’’ said Johnson. “You have three par-5s and a drivable par-4. TPC River Highlands (in Hartford) is harder top to bottom.’’

The JDC has led the PGA Tour events in birdies in four of the last five years, and another low-scoring affair seems likely. Johnson and Stricker head the field, as usual, and the rest of the competitors include more than the usual number of college stars who have just entered the professional ranks. They include Aaron Wise, of Oregon; Charlie Danielson, Illinois; Jordan Niebrugge, Oklahoma State; Jon Rahm, Arizona State; and Lee McCoy, Georgia.

First-time winners are not unusual at the JDC. Twenty players have notched their first PGA Tour title at the JDC, the last being Brian Harman in 2014.

The 156 starters will be playing for an $4.8 million purse with Sunday’s champion receiving $864,000. The starters also include former major championship winners Angel Cabrera, Trevor Immelman, Lucas Glover, Stewart Cink and David Toms plus former JDC champions John Senden and Jonathan Byrd.

Illini’s Meyer spoils Horsfield’s bid for a sweep of Western Amateur honors

Sam Horsfield flips his putter after birdie putt at No. 10 fails to drop, giving Dylan Meyer the lead for good.

Dylan Meyer wasn’t one of the high-profile players on the University of Illinois’ powerhouse golf teams the last couple seasons. New pros Charlie Danielson and Thomas Detry filled that role.

When school resumes later this month, though, it figures to be Meyer’s turn – and on Saturday he proved ready for the challenge.

About to enter his junior season for the Illini, Meyer captured the 114th Western Amateur title at the Knollwood Club, in Lake Forest, with a 3 and 1 victory over Sam Horsfield, who dominated the tournament until the title match.

Horsfield, a University of Florida sophomore from Manchester, England, was the tourney medalist by nine strokes and survived his first three matches after that. He was even 2-up on Meyer five holes into the title match before the momentum changed.

Meyer won Nos. 6 and 7 to get the match to all square and took the lead for good with his first birdie at the 601-yard par-5 tenth. Horsfield lipped out a putt from 10 feet that would have halved that hole, and he had lipouts three more times before conceding the par-3 17th hole and the match to Meyer.

“There wasn’t a point that I had total control. Sam’s a great player, and I expected him to do everything,’’ said Meyer. “When I was 2-down my mind was re-setting. My caddie and I had a plan – to be relentless.’’

Illinois’ Dylan Meyer shows off his prize for winning the 114th Western Amateur.

It eventually paid off, as Meyer now joins a select group that includes Jack Nicklaus, Ben Crenshaw, Phil Mickelson and Tiger Woods as Western Amateur champions.

“I didn’t play bad at all. Dylan played great,’’ said Horsfield, who is No. 1 in the Scratch Players World Amateur Rankings (compared to No. 15 for Meyer). “It’s been a great week. I’m proud of how I played and excited where my game’s at.’’

There’s still one big event before school starts – the U.S. Amateur at Michigan’s Oakland Hills course. It begins on Aug. 15 and all the Western Amateur stars will be there, including Meyer and Nick Hardy, his Illini teammate from Northbrook who won the Illinois State Amateur by a shocking 10 strokes three weeks ago. Meyer stayed with Hardy’s family during the Western Am.

Meyer, from Evansville, Ind., needed to survive a sudden death playoff on Thursday to make the Sweet 16 match play qualifiers. He switched drivers in the middle of the tournament, which improved his game but didn’t enabled him to approach Horsfield’s prodigious blasts off the tee. Most impressive of those came at the 426-yard fifth hole, where Horsfield’s tee shot came up just 50 yards short of the green.

That was the pattern throughout the match, but Meyer – a slender 140 pounds – wasn’t distracted.

The end comes when Sam Horsfield conceded the final to Dylan Meyer on Knollwood’s 17th green.

“I know my place. I know my game. I know my stature,’’ said Meyer. “I just accept it. I’m not going to be Jason Day or Dustin Johnson. I’d be a Zach Johnson. I’d short-game a golf course to death.’’

That’s pretty much how he won this tournament. He reached the final four by whipping Doug Ghim, a University of Texas player from Arlington Heights, in Thursday’s quarterfinals and then baffled Will Gordon, of Davidson, N.C., in Saturday’s semifinals, going 3-up on the front nine before winning 4 and 2.

Horsfield had a more difficult semifinal. His opponent, Davis Riley of Hattiesburg, MS., shot a 6-under-par 30 on the front nine and birdied the 10th to go 4-up. Horsfield then won the next six holes and the match to put himself in position to be the first medalist to win the title since Chris Williams in 2012. Meyer, however, spoiled that dream.

The walking gallery kept growing during asDylan Meyer and Sam Horsfield battled at Knollwood.

Hardy, Ghim bow out of Western Amateur; Horsfield, Meyer survive

Friday was not a good day for the local players who made it to match play in the 114th Western Amateur at Knollwood Club in Lake Forest.

Northbrook’s Nick Hardy lost in the Round of 16 to Davis Riley, of Hattiesburg, Miss., 4 and 2 and Doug Ghim of Arlington Heights, survived his first match in 19 holes but was walloped by Hardy’s University of Illinois teammate Dylan Meyer 5 and 4 in the quarterfinals.

Friday’s matches whittled the field in the prestigious championship to four players. Tourney medalist Sam Horsfield, a University of Florida sophomore from Manchester, England, will face Riley, a sophomore at Alabama, in the first semifinal at 8 a.m. and Meyer will take on Will Gordon, a sophomore at Vanderbilt from Davidson, N.C., at 8:15.

Meyer, from Evansville, Ind., needed to survive a playoff on Thursday to make it into the Sweet 16 for the match play portion of the tournament. He was sorry to see Hardy eliminated.

“We root for each other, and I we really wanted to play each other in the finals,’’ said Meyer, “but we’ll meet up again at the U.S. Amateur.’’

That’ll be the last big summer event before the collegiate stars return to their school teams. The U.S. Amateur will be played at Oakland Hills, in Michigan, starting on Aug. 15. Ghim will be there, too.

“It’s been fun testing my game against such a difficult golf course,’’ said Ghim, soon to be a junior at Texas. “I still consider this a good week, though I didn’t have my best game. I tried to be patient, but I kept burning the edges. It didn’t happen this week, but there’ll be more matches in the future.’’

Hardy started slowly against Riley and never recovered. He missed five putts inside of 10 feet on the front nine. The Meyer-Ghim match was similar, in that Meyer built a 3-up lead in the first eight holes and remained in control the rest of the way.

Horsfield, who was nine shots better than the rest of the field in the 72-hole stroke play portion of the tournament, needs to win both his matches today to become the first medalist to win the overall title since Chris Williams did it at Exmoor, in Highland Park, in 2012.

Horsfield dominates stroke play portion of Western Amateur at Knollwood

Englishman Sam Horsfield claims his reward after leading Sweet 16 qualifiers in Western Am.

Just qualifying for the Sweet 16 at the Western Amateur is a great accomplishment, and Northbrook’s Nick Hardy and Arlington Heights’ Doug Ghim both did that on Thursday at Knollwood Club in Lake Forest.

They were only bit players in the third and fourth round of the stroke play portion in the 114th playing of this championship, however. Sam Horsfield, a University of Florida sophomore from Manchester, England, dominated the 72-hole portion that determined the 16 who advance to match play on Friday.

Horsfield opened with a course record 9-under-par 63 on Tuesday, stumbled to a 75 on Wednesday and then cruised in with a 67-64 finish on Thursday to posted a 15-under-par 269 total for the 72 holes. That at least approached the records for the prestigious tournament. The record books are sketchy with the tourney’s Sweet 16 era going back “only’’ to 1956.

Using that as guideline, Horsfield had the fourth-best stroke play score in the history of the tournament, the best being a 265 by Aron Price at long-time host site Point O’Woods, in Benton Harbor, Mich., in 2004.

Danny Lee, the last medalist to go on to win the overall title in 2008, shot 268 at Point O’Woods and Chris Williams also posted that number at North Shore in Glenview in 2011. Their scores in relation to par and margin of victory were not available.

Horsfield, who won his qualifying medal by nine strokes over runner-up Michael DeMorat of Merritt Island, FL., was concerned with only one record.

“I knew the course record was 63 and I tried to make my birdie putt on the last hole for 62,’’ he said. That putt didn’t drop and Horsfield missed his comeback putt as well.

“Finishing bogey-bogey somewhat sucks, but I achieved my goal of making it to match play,’’ he said. “It was a special day. I had all things clicking.’’

At least that was the case most of the time. He needed a tuneup on the range between rounds on Thursday to work out a minor kink in his swing. After that it was clear sailing.

“In the afternoon I was in control of my game’’ he said. “Once I got to 3-under after nine I had nothing to worry about. My caddie and I decided to look at the rest of the round like it was a practice round.’’

Horsfield reached 17-under and led by 11 at one point on the final nine but that was incidental.

“If somebody told me I’d get to 17-under before the round I wouldn’t have believed it,’’ he said. “I told my girlfriend I wanted to get to 15-under, and once I was there I kind of just hit it around.’’

Earning medalist honors in no way guarantees that match play will be a similar walk in the park.

“Match play is a different animal,’’ said Horsfield, who was also a Sweet 16 qualifier last year. “You’re not playing the golf course, you’re playing your opponent. A lot of great names have won the medal. It’s a pretty neat accomplishment, but it’s over. I came here to win the tournament.’’

Hardy, the reigning Illinois State Amateur champion, finished 71-69 and tied for fourth. Ghim went 73-70 on Thursday and ended in a tie for sixth. They’ll be in the first round of match play, which starts at 8 a.m. on Friday. Winners will play in the afternoon quarterfinals, and the four survivors will decide the title on Saturday with semifinals in the morning and the title match in the afternoon.

Hardy will host Davis Riley, of Hattiesburg, MS., in the Round of 16 while Ghim will take on Max McGreevy, of Edmond, Okla. Horsfield’s opponent is Joaquin Niemann of Chile, who survived a six-man playoff for the final five spots in match play.

Among the other playoff survivors was University of Illinois golfer Dylan Meyer, who will face DeMorat. Four members of the Sweet 16 are foreigners.

Ghim is in the hunt again in Western Am after 2 rounds

Doug Ghim doesn’t play in many Chicago tournaments — but he’s ready for this one.

Doug Ghim lives in Arlington Heights but the Chicago area rarely gets a chance to see how good he is. Wednesday, though, was one of those days.

Ghim started fast and finished strong to climb into a tie for second place after two rounds of the stroke play competition at the 114th Western Amateur at Knollwood Club in Lake Forest. Posting scores of 69 and 71, he trails England’s Sam Horsfield by one stroke entering Thursday’s 36-hole session, which will decide the 16 qualifiers for the match play portion of the competition on Friday and Saturday.

The field was cut from Tuesday’s 156 starters to the low 44 and ties for Thursday’s double round. Ghim is tied with four others, among them Todd Mitchell — the 38-year old veteran from Bloomington – at the 36-hole mark. Northbrook’s Nick Hardy is also in the mix, two strokes behind Ghim.

Ghim has taken an unusual path to success. He skipped high school competition at Buffalo Grove after his freshman year, preferring instead to play in national junior tournaments. Then, rather than attend college close to home, he opted for the perennial powerhouse program at Texas.

Both Ghim and Hardy are entering their junior seasons. Hardy is at Illinois, and he has enjoyed a great summer. He won the Illinois State Amateur by 10 strokes and finished as low amateur at the Illinois Open in the last three weeks. Ghim didn’t play in either one.

“I wanted to play the State Am but was late for registration,’’ he said, “and I didn’t have time to qualify for the Illinois Open, which was a bummer. I wanted to play. I wish I could have given Nick a run for his money but I just totally forgot that I wasn’t exempt for those events. It didn’t even cross my mind that I’d have to qualify.’’

The No. 9-ranked amateur in the world, Ghim has a loftier status than Hardy, who is No. 24. They could meet in the Western Am, but both have to survive Thursday’s 36-hole session to qualify for the Sweet 16 first.

“It might seem like I’m not trying to play locally, but I love playing around here, where I can sleep in my own bed,’’ said Ghim. “It’s nice to have this big tournament, with the best players in the world, in my hometown.’’

Ghim is used to big tournaments. He played for Team USA in the Palmer Cup in England this summer and also competed in tournaments in Pittsburgh and San Francisco.

Very little golf will be played at Knollwood after the Western Am ends on Saturday. After a members event on Sunday and an outing on Monday the course will be closes to enable a re-grassing of the greens. Those surfaces are a big challenge for the field in the Western Am.

“I’ve been drawing off my experience of two years ago (when he was the Western Am medalist at Beverly Country Club in Chicago),’’ said Ghim. “The courses are similar, and the greens may be firmer than those at Beverly.’’

“They’re a lot like Beverly’s, maybe even faster,’’ chimed in Hardy. “They’re not hard to read, just hard to putt. I love how they have Knollwood in this condition and, if I can win, it’d be my biggest win ever. But we’ve still got to get to match play. Then it’s anyone’s tournament.’’

Sainz smashes Illinois Open scoring records in 5-stroke victory

Illinois PGA president Jim Opp presents Illinois Open trophy to Carlos Sainz Jr.

Golf has been played in the Chicago area for 124 years, and – as far as local players go — there’s never been a two-week stretch quite like the one that ended with a rousing Illinois Open victory by Elgin’s Carlos Sainz Jr. on Wednesday.

Those two weeks — in tournaments played on three courses in St. Charles that are only a few miles apart – produced record victories in both the Illinois State Amateur and Illinois Open. Those events are the biggest events annually for local players.

The epic two weeks started with Nick Hardy, a University of Illinois junior-to-be from Northbrook, devouring the field in the Illinois State Amateur with a 28-under-par performance over 72 holes at St. Charles Country Club. The State Am has been played for 86 years and Hardy’s 260 score for 72 holes erased a record that had stood for 46 years and his relation to par score eliminated a record that had been standing for 32 years.

Hardy was only part of the supporting cast on Wednesday, however. He hung on for low amateur status in the Illinois Open, edging playing partner Branden Mounce of El Paso and Kevin Flack of Belvidere by one stroke. The Open was played on two St. Charles courses, Royal Fox and Royal Hawk, and Hardy was fourth overall.

Sainz shot shot 67-65-65, with the last two rounds one off the course record in the eight Illinois Opens played at Royal Fox. Flack and Wheaton’s Tee-K Kelly, runner-up in last week’s Illinois State Amateur, also posted 65s on Wednesday but Sainz was clearly the star of this show.

He played like a PGA Tour player — which he was last year and hopes to be again – against the best professionals and amateurs who also reside in Illinois. The tourney had 638 entries and the 156 in the finals were determined after seven state-wide qualifying tournaments.

The Illinois Open, which has been played for 67 years, is contested over 54 holes. Sainz was a five-stroke winner over long-hitting Christian Heavens, a mini-tour pro from Fairview Heights near St. Louis. Like Hardy the week before, Sainz rewrote the tournament record books with his 17-under-par 197 performance. The records he erased weren’t as longstanding as those made irrelevant by Hardy. Bolingbrook’s David Cooke set the old records – 15-under 199 for 54 holes over the Royal Melbourne and Hawthorn Woods courses just last year.

“This was big – something I’ve wanted to win as a pro the last four-five years and almost did the last time I played it,’’ said Sainz, who was also low amateur in the tournament before turning pro.

Sainz was on a role in 2013. He won for the first time on the Canadian PGA Tour, flew to Chicago that night and three days later made it into a playoff in the Illinois Open that was eventually won by Antioch’s Joe Kinney. Sainz was exhausted after seven straight days of pressure-packed tournament golf but returned a few weeks later to win the now defunct Chicago Open.

The momentum gained from those tournaments helped Sainz get playing privileges on the PGA Tour in 2015 but he didn’t earn enough money to keep his tour card. He hopes to get it back, and Wednesday’s win was a step in the right direction. He’ll rejoin the Canadian circuit – now called the Mackenzie Tour – next week in preparation to another crack at the PGA’s fall qualifying school.

“When you’re playing well you’ve got to feel you’re going to win the tournament. That’s how I feel at the Illinois Open,’’ said Sainz. “Now I’ve got to learn to do it at the national level, and on bigger stages.’’

He has shown signs of doing that. He was 20-something under par in a similarly handy win in South Florida last winter.

“But that was a long time ago,’’ said Sainz. “It’s nice to have a solid week again.’’

He had this Illinois Open in hand from the get-go after owning a four-shot lead to start the final round. That lead grew to as many as six strokes as he made birdies on four of the first six holes and then coasted in. The highlight of his final round were 25-foot birdie putts at the third and 16th holes.

“I felt great all day and controlled my emotions well,’’ said Sainz, who picked up $17,500 for his victory.

Royal Fox was no problem for Sainz in Round 2 of Illinois Open

Royal Fox’ course in St. Charles is again presenting a challenge for Illinois Open finalists.

Usually a golfer makes his mark in the Illinois Open and uses it as a springboard to earn a regular spot on the PGA Tour. For Carlos Sainz, though, it’s been the other way around – at least for now.

Sainz had a strong showing in the 2013 Illinois Open, losing the title to Joe Kinney in a three-way playoff, and then earned his PGA Tour card at qualifying school. Last season Sainz was a regular on the big circuit but didn’t earn enough money to keep his card, so now he’s starting the process all over again. On Tuesday he showed lots of progress.

A 65 over the Royal Fox course in St. Charles propelled the Elgin resident to a four-stroke lead in the 67th playing of the biggest championship for state residents. He’ll go for the title in the final 18 of the 54-hole test on Wednesday.

Sainz owns a four-shot lead on 2014 champion Brad Hopfinger and Christian Heavens, who could become the event’s first African American champion if he gets hot in the last round. The top two amateurs — Branden Mounce of El Paso and Nick Hardy of Northbrook — are five strokes back along with Andy Mickelson, director of golf at Mistwood in Romeoville.. Another amateur, 16-year old high schooler Tommy Kuhl of Morton, is another shot back.

If Hardy rallies to win he’d be the second player to win the Illinois Amateur and Open titles in the same year. David Ogrin accomplished that feat in 1980.

Given the size of his lead, though, the tournament is Sainz to lose. After rounds of 67 and 65 he’s at 11-under-par and showing the form that got him to the PGA Tour in the first place. This year he’s splitting time between the Web.com and Canadian circuits while shaking off the disappointment of his rookie PGA Tour season.

“It was frustrating,’’ admitted Sainz, “but it was a great learning experience. It’s the same game out there, but those players are really good. The PGA Tour is really competitive. You know that coming out but don’t really know it until you’re there.’’

Sainz earned most of his $124,115 PGA Tour winnings in one tournament – a top-10 finish in the Sanderson Farms Classic in Mississippi. He went to college at Mississippi State and is now training at the school’s new practice facility at Mossy Oak Golf Club.

“Playing on the PGA Tour only made me better,’’ said Sainz. “It gave me a taste of it, and I really want to get back there. I feel I have the game to do it.’’

His top challengers on Wednesday have never made it to the big time. Hopfinger spent this season between the Web.com and PGA Latinoamerica circuits. Heavens turned pro after being a First Tee graduate of Georgetown College in Kentucky in 2011. He’s tested his game playing “pretty much all over the play, wherever I can find an affordable tour.’’

Hopfinger is the last of seven players to win both the Illinois Amateur (2011) and Open. Mounce spent his freshman year at Illinois State and is transferring to Bradley. Hardy, a sparking 28 under par in winning the Illinois State Amateur last week at St. Charles Country Club, is headed for his junior season at Illinois. Mickelson is the reigning PGA Assistants champion.

The pros will have a bit more incentive in the final round than they’ve had in recent years. Carrie Williams, in her first year as Illinois PGA executive director, announced that the purse will hit the $100,00 level for the first time since 2003. That’s in large part because the entries were up from 537 last year to 638.

Host pro Carroll shares lead after Round 1 of Illinois Open

The 67th Illinois Open had two co-leaders after Monday’s first round, and neither was exactly a surprise.

Christian Heavens, a touring pro from Fairview Heights near St. Louis, had the best score in the seven state-wide qualifying rounds – an 8-under-par 64 at Effingham Country Club on June 24 – and that good play carried over to Monday’s first round of the finals when he shot a 6-under par 66 in the morning over the Royal Hawk course that is co-hosting the 54-hole event.

The other 66 was by Royal Hawk pro Brian Carroll, who played his opening round on his home course in the afternoon. He birdied the first hole, triggering a 5-under-par front nine, and coasted in from there.

“A fun day,’’ said Carroll, who reported early to make sure all was going smoothly in the pro shop and then concentrated on playing. “I’m very happy with how I played. Now I’ve got to do the same thing the next two days on a different golf course. There’s still a long way to go.’’

Carroll conceded that home course knowledge might have been a factor.

“Some people think I have a great advantage playing here, but I’ve only played Royal Hawk twice all year,’’ he said. “Most golf pros don’t get to play all that much.’’

A full-time player six years ago before entering the club pro ranks, Carroll has played only 27 holes this year at nearby Royal Fox over a two-day span, one of which was in bad weather. Royal Hawk and neighboring Royal Fox are co-hosting the finals and all the best scoring came at Royal Hawk on Monday.

The group one stroke behind Heavens and Carroll – Bloomington’s Brandon Holtz, Lockport’s Andy Mickelson, Elgin’s Carlos Sainz and Northbrook’s Nick Hardy – also played their first round of the tournament at Royal Hawk and will play their second on Tuesday at Royal Fox, which will also be the site of Wednesday’s final round.

Hardy, the only amateur among the 66 and 67 shooters, won the Illinois State Amateur with a rousing 28-under-par performance at nearby St. Charles Country Club last week. He’s trying to become only the second player to win both the state’s Amateur and Open in the same year. David Ogrin, a PGA Tour journeyman, did it in 1980.

Mickelson, the reigning PGA Assistants national champion, is director of golf at Mistwood in Romeoville and Sainz was a PGA Tour member last year.

Holtz’ round was the exact opposite of Heavens.’ Holtz had two eagles in his first five holes at Royal Hawk and was 5-under-par after six holes before cooling off. Heavens finished strong. He made five birdies in the last six holes.

Cooke’s bid for a repeat is just one sidelight in Illinois Open

The UL International Crown may wrap up on Sunday, but there’s no break on the area tournament calendar. The 67th Illinois Open begins its three-day run on Monday at two St. Charles clubs, Royal Fox and Royal Hawk.

Defending champion is Bolingbrook’s David Cooke, who posted the best 54-hole score (199) and best score in relation to par (16 under) in winning by five strokes at Royal Melbourne in Long Grove last year.

As always, the Illinois Open has an interesting field. Among the other amateurs among the 258 starters is Bears’ cornerback Kyle Fuller.

Illinois men’s coach Mike Small, who has won the title four times, will be joined in the field by one of his star players – Northbrook’s Nick Hardy, who won the Illinois State Amateur with a record 28-under-par performance at the nearby St. Charles Country Club last week.

Small will also have one of his future players in the field in Tommy Kuhl, a 16-year old from downstate Morton. Still in high school, Tommy has already committed to the Illini while his 18-year old brother Pete will be playing for Wisconsin in the fall.

The Baumans will also be a family act again. Doug, head professional at Biltmore in Barrington, will be joined by sons Greg and Riley.

Carlos Sainz Jr., of Elgin, is also part of the pro contingent. The low amateur in the 2006 Illinois Open at The Glen Club in Glenview, Sainz played on the PGA Tour last year and is splitting time between the Web.com and PGA Latinoamerica tours this season.

Gary Groh, the long-time head professional at Bob O’Link, in Highland, Park, will be the oldest player in the field. The 71-year old Groh won the Illinois Open when it was contested at Royal Fox 22 years ago.

Royal Fox returns as the tournament site after a 15-year hiatus and this year’s staging marks the 25th anniversary of the first Illinois Open played at the course. Since last hosting the tournament has changed its format to allow more players from the state-wide qualifying rounds to participate in the finals. That necessitated the need for an alternate course, and Royal Hawk will fill that bill.

The field will play 18-hole rounds at both courses Monday and Tuesday and the final round – for the low 50 and ties and anyone within 10 strokes of the lead – will be at Royal Fox on Wednesday.