The Glen returns as `permanent’ home of the Illinois Open

No sooner will this week’s Western Amateur at Skokie Country Club wrap up on Saturday than the 68th Illinois Open will tee off at two other north suburban locations next week.

The Illinois Open remains a 54-hole affair for 264 finalists, the survivors of eight state-wide qualifying rounds. The first two rounds of the finals, on Monday and Tuesday, will be played at both The Glen Club, in Glenview, and Briarwood Country Club, in Deerfield.

After 36 holes the low 50 and ties will go for the title at The Glen, and that was particularly significant after Illinois PGA executive director Carrie Williams announced the tournament details last week.

The Glen will be hosting for a record 10th time, and Williams declared “I hope this is the permanent home for the Illinois Open.’’

So does Steve Skinner, executive director of KemperSports – the Northbrook-based firm that has managed The Glen since its opening in 2001.

“The course was built around the Illinois Open, to host it,’’ said Skinner. “There was a lot of competition to host it. We were competing with the PGA Tour, which wanted to bring the Western Open here. We partnered with the Illinois PGA and (architect) Tom Fazio to deliver a full package – the (IPGA) section offices, the Illinois Golf Hall of Fame and the Illinois Open (to The Glen Club).’’

Michael Miller was the midst of his 23-year run as IPGA executive director when The Glen hosted for the first time in 2002. When Miller took a similar post in Arizona in 2015 Williams took over and negotiated a new lease with KemperSports. It apparently cleared up the relationship between the club and the IPGA’s biggest tournament.

Williams said “it was always the intent’’ to hold the Illinois Open at The Glen.

It frequently didn’t happen that way, though. Five times in the last 15 years – including the last two — the tournament went elsewhere.

“Sometimes the dates didn’t work out,’’ said Williams, “but I love the idea of staying with The Glen Club as the anchor. We want to keep the tournament as convenient for the players as possible.’’

Armed with a two-year contract that automatically renews from year to year, she plans to rotate the companion courses from among the many high-quality layouts on the North Shore – much like the Western Golf Association has done with its Western Amateur.

Briarwood was a great choice to start the arrangement. It hosted the Illinois Open in 1966, when Emil Esposito won the title for the first time. Esposito was on hand for the pre-tournament festivities, which also commemorated his 50 years as a PGA member.

Esposito won’t be playing this year, and neither will four-time champion Mike Small. The University of Illinois men’s coach, who needs one more win to match Gary Pinns’ record five Illinois Open victories, will compete in the PGA Championship in North Carolina instead. Small won all of his four titles at The Glen.

The field will, however, include defending champion Carlos Sainz Jr. as well as Tee-K Kelly and Nick Hardy, whose battles dominated the Illinois State Amateur the last four years. Kelly has since turned pro and already won on the PGA Latinoamerica circuit. Hardy is approaching his final season playing for Small at Illinois.

Hardy was low amateur at last year’s Illinois Open, finishing tied for fourth – eight strokes behind Sainz’ 17-under-par performance at Royal Fox and Royal Hawk, two St. Charles courses. Kelly tied for ninth.

Twelve former champions are in the field along with Highwood’s Patrick Flavin, the recently-crowned Illinois State Amateur champion, and Hinsdale’s Brendan O’Reilly, an Illinois recruit who won the Illinois State Junior Amateur an unprecedented three times between 2013 and 2017.

The field won’t include any women this year, though some have qualified in the past. Oldest finalist is 72-year old ex-champion Gary Groh, the former head professional at Bob O’ Link in Highland Park and a recent selection to the Illinois Golf Hall of Fame. Youngest is Dominic Scaletta, 15, of Inverness. Using a caddie who is only 11, Scaletta shot 2-over-par 73 and tied for fifth in a qualifier at Makray Memorial, in Barrington.

Romo in the Skokie spotlight

As for the Western Amateur, the first cut comes after Wednesday’s round when the 150 starters will be cut to the low 44 and ties and the contestants will be whittled to 16 after a 36-hole session on Thursday.

The talk of the early round was former NFL quarterback Tony Romo, who played after an invitation from the Western Golf Association. He survived local qualifying for the U.S. Open in May but expected a bigger challenge against the world’s top amateurs.

“I’ve played plenty of tournament golf over the years. I just haven’t played much over the last four or five years, so I’m trying to feel get back to feeling comfortable. I want to start playing good enough to start competing.’’