Illinois flavor is lacking in this year’s Masters

The  88th playing of the Masters tees off on  Thursday, and like every other staging, it’ll trigger golf enthusiasm throughout the world.  The year’s first major championship is traditionally a sign of spring. The tour players are ready for a serious test after three months of tournaments of much lesser importance. That’s just the way it is —  every year.

This Masters, though, is an unusual one from an Illinois perspective.  The local highlight of tournament week at Georgia’s Augusta National Golf Club has already taken place – and it was provided by a pair of 9-year olds.

Emory Munoz, of Lockport, and Lucy Wiertel, of Oswego, were among the very select group of youngsters nation-wide who participated in Sunday’s Drive, Chip & Putt finals. Emory was one of seven participants to earn a return trip after making the finals in 2023.

There were 10 finalists in each age group at Sunday’s nationally-televised competition, and neither Emory or Lucy could match the feat of Northbrook’s Martha Kuwahara a year ago.  She was one of the champions.  This time Emory improved from ninth in 2023 to seventh this time, and Lucy was ninth in her age group. The chance to compete at Augusta National, though, gave both the thrill of a lifetime.

This was a special year for Drive, Chip & Putt, too.  The Masters field will include the first ever Drive, Chip and Putt participant.  Akshay Bhatia, who won the PGA Tour’s Valero Texas Open in a playoff last Sunday, was in the youth event in 2014.

Local tour players couldn’t wangle a Masters invite. Northbrook’s Nick Hardy was a winner on the PGA tour last season, and that usually merits an invite.  Hardy’s win came in a two-man team competition in New Orleans, however, and that didn’t merit his first spot in the Masters. Hardy, though, had his best finish of the season – a tie for 25th at the Valero Texas Open.

Wheaton’s Kevin  Streelman, a 45-year old tour veteran, didn’t make it, either.  He’s been slowed by a back injury suffered in February’s Pebble Beach Pro-Am and that’s hampered his play. His game may be be on the way back up, however, as he’s made three of five cuts since the injury, including the last two tour stops.

Streelman was in the news, too.  His first-round 64 at the Valspar Championship in Florida got him media attention, and the national media were intrigued by a new revolving ball marker that he introduced there.

The Masters has produced some Masters memories already for Streelman.  He won the colorful Par-3 Championship there in 2015 and played in five Masters. He made the cut in the last three appearances, from 2014-16,  with his best finish a tie for 12th in 2015.

Arlington Heights’ Doug Ghim and Northwestern alum Dylan Wu are also PGA Tour regulars still hoping for the opportunity to make a Masters debut.

HERE AND THERE:  Tickets are already on sale for the John Deere Classic, Illinois’ only annual PGA Tour stop.  It’ll be held July 3-7 at TPC Deere Run in downstate Silvis.  The tourney’s Birdies for Charities program started this week.  Since its debut in 1971 it has raised $174 million for local charities.

The Illinois PGA will hold its first Chicago area competition on Monday (APRIL 15).  It’s the Pro-Pro-Pro Scramble, a three-man team event at Mistwood, in Romeoville.

The Chicago District Golf Assn. season opens with qualifiers for the CDGA Mid-Amateur at Maple Meadows, in Wood Dale, on April 22 and Sunset Valley, in Highland Park, on April 23.