Pearson goes for third title on more challenging course in Illinois Women’s Open

Wheaton’s Jenna Pearson can become only the second player to win the Phil Kosin Illinois Women’s Open three times when the 18th annual tournament begins today at Mistwood in Romeoville.

“I’m definitely hoping to be in that category,’’ said Pearson, who plays on the LPGA’s Symetra (formerly Futures) Tour. She captured the IWO as an amateur in 2006 and as a professional last year. Only Burr Ridge’s Kerry Postillion, who is also in this week’s field, has three IWO victories. Postillion won the title in 1996, 1997 and 1999.

Pearson is one of four players to win the tourney twice, the others being Emily Gilley, Nicole Jeray and Aimee Neff. Gilley and Neff join Postillion as the only back-to-back champions. Pearson missed her first chance at that when she lost an epic 10-hole playoff to Libertyville amateur Nicole Schachner in 2007.

That playoff — longest in an Illinois golf tournament — was conducted entirely on a par-5 third hole, which was radically re-designed by Michigan architect Ray Hearn since last year’s IWO.

“I liked the original hole. I had a lot of practice on it,’’ quipped Pearson, “but I wasn’t sad to see it leave.’’

Hearn’s re-design – the renovated course re-opened two months ago – was most notable for its 19 new sod-wall bunkers that give the course a European flavor. Pearson, who played the new layout for the first time last week, applauded the changes.

“I like what was done,’’ she said. “The changes made on the course have improved it. Some of the bunkers will make players think more, and the course will be more challenging.’’

Pearson went to the finals of the LPGA qualifying school last fall but couldn’t qualify for the big tour. Since then she’s struggled after making some swing changes, but she’ll have a steadying influence at the IWO. Her mother Laura, who carried her bag for both her IWO victories, will again be Pearson’s caddie.

This year’s 80-player field will compete over 54 holes, with a cut after 36. The champion will receive $15,000 from a professionals’ purse of about $15,000.

Small ready to compete again

Illinois coach Mike Small will compete in the Colorado Open this week as will Eric Meierdierks, loser to Max Scodro in last week’s Illinois Open playoff. For Small getting back in action as a player is essential.

“I haven’t played much, and I need reps,’’ said Small, who has the PGA Championship at South Carolina’s Kiawah course coming up next month. “The Illinois Open was only my second multi-day event since last year. I’ve always been a coach first and a player second, and with (the NCAA) tournament, recruiting and camps I haven’t had time to play that much. I need to play before the PGA.’’

Small, a four-time Illinois Open champion, is coming off his worst showing in that event – a tie for 26th. He’s made one previous appearance in Colorado’s Open, losing the title in a playoff in 2008.

This year’s PGA will mark Small’s 12th appearance in a major championship and his ninth in the PGA. He qualified by finishing fourth in June’s Professional Players National Championship.

Here and there

The 156 players competing the 110th Western Amateur get their final practice rounds on Monday at Exmoor, in Highland Park. After two days of stroke play qualifying the top 16 will decide the prestigious title in three days of match play competition….Last week’s big national amateur event, New York’s Porter Cup, ended with Georgia Tech’s Rusty Werensky dethroning Stanford’s Patrick Rodgers, and both will be in the field at Exmoor Rodgers finished third in the Porter Cup. The Western Am has drawn four of the top six players in the world rankings.….Mike Natale won the 108th Chicago City Amateur at Jackson Park last week….The Chicago District Golf Assn. will conduct qualifiers for the U.S. Amateur on Thursday at Crestwicke, in Bloomington, and next Monday at both Bull Valley, in Woodstock, and Edgewood Valley, in LaGrange….The Illinois PGA will honor veteran professionals Jim Sobb of Ivanhoe and Doug Bauman of Biltmore at its Senior Masters tournament Monday at Onwentsia, in Lake Forest.