More changing of the guard for the Illinois PGA

Call it a changing of the guard, or just a transition. I’ve always thought that change was generally a good thing, and there’s certainly been plenty of that going on within the Chicago golf community in the last few months.

It started with the departure of Michael Miller, long-time executive director of the Illinois PGA who moved to Arizona to re-organize the Southwest Section of the PGA. He left town in May, and new IPGA president Jim Opp heads a group that will study 22 candidates before determining Miller’s replacement.

Even before Miller left the biggest tournament for state residents, the men’s Illinois Open, underwent a major format change with the announcement that its finals would now be played on two courses with more qualifiers. And, before the summer is out Chicago will be without its annual stop on the Champions Tour. The third and last playing of the Encompass Championship is closing in.

No where, though, was change more obvious than at the first major tournament of the season. May’s 64th playing of the Illinois PGA Match Play Championship figured to showcase the usual suspects – Curtis Malm, Travis Johns, Doug Bauman, Matt Slowinski, Rich Dukelow, Garrett Chaussard.

Well, none of them were even among the semifinalists who squared off on the last day of the four-day, weather-plagued event at Kemper Lakes in Long Grove. It was indeed an extraordinarily strange finish, since seeding was determined off last year’s player of the year point standings and none of the top seven seeds make it to the final four.

Instead the semifinalists were Jim Billiter, the eventual champion; Brian Brodell, who has worked in the area for less than a year; Kyle Bauer and Simon Allan. Billiter called them collectively “the bottom of the barrel guys’’ because none of the quartet has been much of a factor in previous IPGA majors.

Billiter, at No. 8 thanks in part to his win in last year’s IPGA Assistants Match Play tournament, was the highest seed among the semifinalists. Allan, head pro at Prestwick in Frankfort, was No. 21; Bauer, head pro at Glen View was No. 26 and Brodell, new to the section, was No. 54.

Still, all were up to the task at Kemper Lakes – especially Billiter and Brodell who battled over 21 holes in the championship match. Both were reluctant to declare a changing of the guard in the IPGA competitive ranks after it was over, however.

“It was just nice to see a lot of young guys playing along with the older pros,’’ said Billiter, whose victims en route to the title included 66-year old veteran Mike Harrigan. “I loved the mix of generations.’’

“It’s just that in the Chicago area there’s so many good players,’’ Brodell said.

The results, though, speak for themselves. Malm, the White Eagle pro who was going after his fourth straight title in the tournament, was knocked out in the fourth round by Scott Baines, a long-time assistant pro at Chicago’s Bryn Mawr club. Johns, the Medinah teaching pro who won 2010 Match Play and is the reigning IPGA Player of the Year, was eliminated by Billiter in the quarterfinals.

Biltmore’s Bauman, another past champion who reached the title match six times, had the craziest match of the week against Conway Farms’ Slowinski. Bauman was 3-up at the turn but lost six straight holes from Nos. 11-16.

The final had its crazy side, too. Billiter won the first two holes but his lead was gone six holes later. He finally got back to all square at No. 16 but promptly splashed his tee shot at No. 17 and went to the final hole 1-down. He forced extra holes with an eight-foot birdie putt before winning the title with a bogey – yes, a bogey! – on the third extra hole.

Billiter put his 8-iron tee shot in the water on that par-3 (No. 3 in Kemper’s rotation) as well and Brodell, who survived a 19-hole match with Bauer in the morning, kept his ball dry when his 7-iron tee shot bounded over the green. That put Brodell in a good spot to close out the match, but he couldn’t do it. .

“When I shanked it in the water I thought it was over,’’ admitted Billiter, “but then when I saw him hit it long I knew I still had a chance because he had a real delicate shot.’’

Billiter put a 90-yard shot from the drop area to six feet of the cup, then watched Brodell chunk his first chip shot and run his second four feet past the cup. Billiter holed his put for bogey, and that was good enough to win the match after Brodell missed.

“A sad way to end it,’’ said Brodell, who came to Mistwood last September to work with the club’s junior programs after serving as assistant coach for both the men’s and women’s teams at Purdue University. “I hit the same club on that hole as I did in the morning match, the wind was the same and I expected a two-putt uphill and the match was mine. Then all of a sudden my shot flew long and I had one bad chip.’’

That showed, once again, what a crazy game golf can be.

Billiter reached the final with a first-round bye, then eliminated host pro Matt Swann, 7 and 6, Harrigan 3 and 2, Biltmore assistant Katie Pius 2 and 1, Johns 1-up and Allan 4 and 3. All those matches came after he played 36 holes on Monday, when he wasn’t scheduled to compete at Kemper.

He was tired afterwards, but still $4,000 richer. That was the champion’s share from a purse of $20,000. In still another sign of these changing times, the field was down to 90 players, meaning that 38 drew first-round byes. The field has dwindled each year since Johns, then teaching at Twin Lakes in Palatine, beat a full field of 128 players in his first year in the section in 2010.

Next of the IPGA’s four major events is the 66th Illinois Open, to be played July 20-22 at Royal Melbourne and Hawthorn Woods. Then comes the 93rd Illinois PGA Championship Aug. 31-Sept. 2 on Medinah’s No. 1 course and the IPGA Players Championship, which returns to Eagle Ridge in Galena on Oct. 5-6.