Hallberg has been Chicago’s best ever home-grown golfer

No Chicago-born and raised golfer has accomplished more than Gary Hallberg, and now he’s coming back.

Hallberg was a state high school champion at Barrington, an Illinois Open winner twice, an NCAA champion at Wake Forest and the first player to earn PGA Tour playing privileges without going to qualifying school.

As a professional he was the PGA’s rookie-of-the-year in 1980. He won on the PGA Tour three times, the Nationwide (now Buy.com) circuit and the Champions Tour. He also won in Japan. Last year he was runner-up to Fred Couples in the Senior British Open.

About to turn 55 on May 31, Hallberg is a regular on the Champions Tour. He’ll be competing in the Senior PGA Championship, at Bellerive in St. Louis, starting on Thursday, and has entered the Encompass Championship, which begins at North Shore in Glenview on June 21. That event marks the 50-and-over circuit’s return to Chicago for the first time in 12 years.

Hallberg is happy to compete in Chicago again, though he’s lived in Colorado for several years. Born in Berwyn, Hallberg’s family lived in Park Ridge before moving to North Barrington in 1969. His parents still live there, and Hallberg’s heart has never left the area. He was back last week, in part for a practice round at North Shore before heading to St. Louis.

“My folks are here and my daughter goes to school here,’’ said Hallberg. “It’s my home away from home. I love to reminisce about the good days here.’’

His father George, a Swedish immigrant, introduced Hallberg to golf when he was 8 years old. His first round was at Rob Roy, in Prospect Heights. He developed his game playing the former Thunderbird (now Makray) course in Barrington and still holds the course record (a 64) at Stonehenge, the Barrington private facility. He also caddied at Biltmore, another Barrington private club.

“All I wanted to do back then was play golf,’’ said Hallberg. “If there was a patch of green grass I wanted to hit a ball off it. I developed an addiction to the game. I’d polish my clubs with a tooth brush.’’

The passion for golf has never left, though Hallberg is married with two grown children now. His son Eric, 19, is showing interest in playing golf.

“He wants to give it a shot, but it’s whatever he wants,’’ said Hallberg. “I stand back a little. It’s his journey. That’s what my dad did.’’

This Champions Tour season hasn’t been a rousing success yet. Hallberg’s best finish in a tie for 17th. But he’s well rested going into this week’s first major championship for the circuit at Bellerive. He’s also looking forward to North Shore, where he played several times as the guest of the club’s late long-time professional Bill Ogden.

“I feel prepared after a few works off to work,’’ said Hallberg, “and it’s fantastic we’re going to North Shore. I think we’ll get a great turnout.’’

More honors for Small

Life couldn’t get much better for Illinois men’s coach Mike Small these days. As a player he shot 69 and earned the last of four U.S. Open sectional qualifying berths offered in a local qualifier at Sangamore Club in Noblesville, Ind. As a coach, his Illini won an NCAA regional at Fayetteville, Ark., to advance to the finals starting next Tuesday (MAY 28)_in Atlanta.

To cap off the month Small was selected to the Illinois Golf Hall of Fame. The selection committee voted in Small, Champions Tour veteran Jay Haas and Bob Harris, former head professional at Sunset Ridge in Northbrook. Induction ceremonies will be held in October at The Glen Club in Glenview.

Another big event at Medinah

Medinah will never have an event as big as last fall’s Ryder Cup, but the club will host perhaps the year’s biggest charity event next Tuesday (MAY 28). It’ll include play on the famed No. 3 course, the Ryder Cup site.

The fourth annual Medinah Patriot Day will be played on both the Nos. 2 and 3 courses. No. 1 is undergoing a renovation supervised by architect Tom Doak. The event provides financial assistance to support Illinois military families.