Sainz’ title defense in Chicago Open is in limbo

Carlos Sainz Jr. will be the focal point of the Chicago Open, the last big tournament of the local season – assuming he plays, that is.

Sainz, 28, earned his PGA Tour card two weeks ago and the premier circuit’s 2014-15 season begins next week. The Chicago Open features a pro-am on Friday and tournament rounds Sunday through Tuesday (OCT 3-5) at Cantigny, in Wheaton.

The first event of the PGA Tour’s next season is the Open, a California event that starts two days after the Chicago Open concludes. The problem is, Sainz hasn’t secured a place in the field for what might be his first PGA Tour event and he might not know if he’s in until the last minute.

Latest report is that he’s the No. 6 alternate in the Open. He’s also the defending champion in the Chicago Open. The Open has a $5 million prize fund. Last year’s Chicago Open paid $50,00 last year, but it does offer Sainz a competitive event. As a tour player, he must go where the money is, and he played tournaments 14 weeks in a row at one point this season.

In addition to playing lots of tournaments this year, he also found competition in Colombia, Chile, Brazil, Panama and Mexico in addition to the U.S. So, squeezing in events in Chicago and San Martin, Calif., in the same week isn’t that big a deal.

“I’ll play the Chicago Open unless I know I’m in the Frys,’’ said Sainz. “As of now I’m not. We’ll see how things go.’’

Sainz, who grew up in Elgin and attended Larkin High School before moving on to Mississippi State University, doesn’t have much priority on the PGA Tour’s performance list. He was No. 49 of the 50 qualifiers off the Tour’s advancement list. That means he’ll have trouble getting into the big-money PGA Tour events.

“I’ll get into 15-20 events,’’ he said. “It comes down to, when I get in, I’ve got to be ready to play. It might be harder for me, but I’m looking forward to the challenge. I’ll get in enough events, in my eyes, to make it.’’

So, Sainz will be watching the priority list on a daily basis to see if enough players withdraw for him to compete. If enough drop out early enough he could skip the Chicago Open and head straight to California. He could also try to get into the Frys event via a Monday qualifying tournament, but he’d prefer competing in the Chicago Open to doing that.

“I’ll know where I stand,’’ he said. “Every tournament has between two and 10 guys withdraw. If I’m close I’ll play the Chicago Open, then head to California and practice there Wednesday and play in the tournament.’’

Sainz will face a similar dilemma for most of the season. In fact, he might not get into a PGA Tour event until January. His money total come September will determine where he plays next season. If he’s in the top 125 he’ll remain on the PGA Tour for another season. If not, he’ll be back to the Tour Finals, where he earned his PGA Tour card for this season.

The Chicago Open will be played for the 25th time, and is part of Cantigny’s 25th anniversary season. The Chicago Open, though has had an on-again, off-again history. The Illinois Junior Golf Assn. revived it last year as its primary fundraiser.

This year’s tourney has 147 entrants. In addition to Sainz they include Mark Hensby, former winner of the Illinois State Amateur, Illinois Open and PGA Tour’s John Deere Classic; Illinois men’s coach Mike Small, who won the Illinois PGA Championship for a record 11 times in August; and former Northwestern star Jack Perry.