Ex-Illini Dylan Meyer is this JDC’s sponsor exemption to watch

This is an ideal time for the top college golf stars to get a jump-start on their professional careers, and Illinois’ Dylan Meyer has already done just that.

After four years of stardom for the Illini Meyer made his professional debut at the U.S. Open. After surviving sectional qualifying he finished in a tie for 20th place, and that was worth $122,387. Then, like many of the top collegians, he received a sponsor’s exemption into a PGA Tour event, last week’s Quickens National. He tied for 17th and picked up another $96,086.

Meyer has at least one more chance to cash in next week, along with former Illini teammate Nick Hardy and Arlington Heights resident Doug Ghim – the national collegiate player-of-the-year for Texas. They are among the invitees to Illinois’ only annual PGA Tour stop, the John Deere Classic at TPC Deere Run in Silvis, Ill.

The JDC, in its usual spot on the PGA Tour schedule – a week before the British Open, has a $5.8 million purse on the line for its July 12-15 tournament rounds.

Hardy, who survived the 36-hole cut at last year’s JDC while competing as an amateur, is three-for-three in making cuts since turning pro at the Rust-Oleum Championship last month at Ivanhoe Club. Combining his invites to two Web.com Tour events and the PGA Tour’s Travelers Championship Hardy has pocketed $19,575 in his first month as a pro.

Ghim, who played in the U.S. Open as an amateur, earned his first check at the Quicken Loans National — $13,987 for a tie for 71st. Sponsor’s exemptions are an annual sidelight to the JDC, as tournament director Clair Peterson pays special attention to the collegiate ranks in awarding his invitations.

This year, though, the young pros will be part of one of the strongest fields in JDC history. Bryson DeChambeau is the defending champion, and he’s adjusted quickly to the professional ranks after winning the 2015 U.S. Amateur at Olympia Fields. He claimed his second professional victory last month at the Memorial tournament and is already a strong contender to make the U.S. Ryder Cup team for this fall’s matches in France.

Steve Stricker, who won the JDC three times before turning 50 and eligible for PGA Tour Champions, has opted to return the John Deere rather than play in the Constellation Senior Players Championship – one of the five majors on the 50-and-over circuit. It’ll be played at Exmoor, in Highland Park, the same days as the JDC.

In addition to veterans like Zach Johnson, Davis Love III, Ryan Moore and Kevin Streelman, the JDC has picked up Brandt Snedeker, who tied for second in his last appearance in the tourney in 2009, and two notable foreign stars – Italy’s Francesco Molinari and 19-year old Chilean sensation Joaquin Niemann. Molinari claimed his first win on the PGA Tour at the Quicken Loans National last Sunday.

Young at heart

Ellen Port, who has won four U.S. Women’s Mid-Amateur titles and three U.S. Women’s Senior Amateur crowns, competed against much younger players in last week’s Women’s Western Amateur at Mistwood in Romeoville. The St. Louis resident did it for one big reason – she wanted to get ready for the inaugural U.S. Senior Women’s Open, also July 12-15 at Chicago Golf Club.

Port, 57, hadn’t played in the Western Amateur since 2005 and her 119 rivals were mainly elite college players. Port had won the St. Louis Women’s Metro Championship for the 17th time before heading to Mistwood, because she needed a bigger challenge to tune up for the Senior Open.

“Every tournament is big, and the Women’s Western Amateur is wonderful,’’ said Port, a high school teacher and coach for 32 years before spending the last three as the women’s golf coach at Washington University. “But the inaugural U.S. Women’s Senior Open – there’s only one of them, so it’s a big one. I love the Western, and I’ve jumped into events before that I wasn’t really ready for. That’s why I got as good as I was as quickly as I did.’’

Posting scores of 78 and 81 on a par-72 course set up at 6,131 yards, Port wasn’t among the 32 players who qualified for the match play portion of the Western Am but she’s excited about competing against legendary touring pros like Pat Bradley, Jane Blalock, Juli Inkster and Jan Stephenson on a par-73 course 46 yards shorter than the one she played at Mistwood.

Exmoor update

The third event sharing the July 12-15 dates, the Constellation Senior Players Championship, is the second of three consecutive majors for PGA Tour Champions players. David Tomas won the U.S. Senior Open at The Broadmoor in Colorado on Sunday and the British Senior Open follows the Exmoor stop from July 23-29 at St. Andrews, in Scotland.

The Western Golf Association will conduct the Exmoor tourney, the first major in the Chicago area for senior men since the 1997 U.S. Senior Open at Olympia Fields. Gates at Exmoor open to the public on Wednesday, July 11 for the Accenture Pro-Am, and the tournament rounds will be held the next four days.