Will new PGA Tour member Sainz defend his Chicago Open title?

Sure, there’s plenty of golf to be played in the Chicago area for a few more weeks but the Chicago Open will be it as far as big-time competition goes. It begins with a pro-am on Oct. 3 and the three-day, 54-hole tournament proper tees off on Oct. 5, with everything again going on at Cantigny, in Wheaton.

The Chicago Open has had a checkered past. Marty Schiene, the men’s coach at Chicago State University and a former PGA Tour player, triggered the creation of the present version when he was the Illinois Junior Golf Assn. president in 2013. He envisioned the event as both a fundraiser for the Illinois Junior Golf Assn. and a tuneup for players preparing for the Web.com Tour qualifying school, which offers playing privileges on the PGA Tour’s satellite circuit for the 2014-15 season.

That wasn’t always the scenario for the Chicago Open, a tournament which has a history dating to 1914 – the year the Chicago District Golf Assn. was founded.

The first tournament called the Chicago Open was held at Chicago Golf Club and was won by Bob Gardner, a Hinsdale Golf Club member who beat a field of 18 others – all members of CDGA clubs. At times the Chicago Open was considered a stop on what we know now as the PGA Tour, with its champions including Macdonald Smith (1926), Johnny Farrell (1927), Abe Espinosa (1928), Gene Sarazen (1937), Sam Snead (1938), Ben Hogan (1941, 1942 and 1947), Byron Nelson (1945 and 1946), Bobby Locke (1948) and Ken Venturi (1958 and 1959).

During those years the tourney participants also included such notables as Walter Hagen, Tommy Armour, Johnny Revolta, Billy Casper, Gary Player and even the legendary Bobby Jones.

The names of the champions weren’t so lustrous in the other years, though Luke Donald – still a college boy at Northwestern – was the winner in 2000.

In all there have been 24 tournaments called the Chicago Open, so this year’s version represents the tourney’s 25th anniversary and it’ll be played at Cantigny, which is also celebrating its 25th season. There’s some symmetry there.

The IJGA, formed in 1967, conducts over 100 events annually for golfers between the ages of 8 and 18. The organization revived the tournament last year after an 18-year absence during Schiene’s presidency, and it blossomed into the primary fundraiser for the IJGA. The revival event, also held at Cantigny, offered a $50,000 purse. This year’s Chicago Open will be similar to that one, when players from 18 states and three foreign countries were among the entrants.

Given the change in stature, the last Chicago Open had a fitting champion. Carlos Sainz Jr., from Elgin, was an alumnus of IJGA events. He has hopes of playing on the PGA, and last year’s event helped him progress towards that goal. Sainz, who is scheduled to defend his title, comes in as a much more seasoned player this time.

His game blossomed at the right time in 2013, when he won an event on the Canadian PGA Tour and lost the Illinois Open title in a playoff before winning the Chicago Open. He did it by making five birdies in the first seven holes of the final round en route to posting a 68. That gave him a 6-under-par 210 for the 54 holes and a two-stroke advantage on runner-up Matt Thompson of Marshall, Mich. That provided a springboard to the good things that happened shortly after that.

Sainz went on to earn playing privileges on the Web.com Tour in the aftermath of his Chicago Open victory and, after struggling for most of his rookie season, came on strong at the end earn a place in the Web.com Tour Finals, which offered 25 berths on the PGA Tour for the 2015 season. The Finals concluded on Sept. 21.

In addition to Sainz this year’s early entrants included Mike Small, the University of Illinois men’s coach who won the Illinois PGA Championship for a record 11th time in August, and Australia-born Mark Hensby, who has already scored an Illinois slam of sorts. Hensby won the Illinois State Amateur in 1994, the Illinois Open in 1996 and the PGA Tour’s John Deere Classic at downstate Silvis in 2004.

Small tied for eighth in last year’s Chicago Open and will squeeze a tournament appearance in between his coaching duties with the nationally-ranked Illini. The only other Chicago are player in the top 10 last year was Libertyville’s Michael Schachner, who tied for fourth. That’s an indicative of the widespread quality in the field that can be expected again at Cantigny.

The IJGA scheduled five qualifying rounds to supplement the field of invitees and exempted players. First was held at Milwaukee’s Brown Deer course, former site of the PGA Tour’s Greater Milwaukee Open.

Others were at Metamora Fields, the central Illinois course that hosts the Illinois PGA Players Championship, and Village Links of Glen Ellyn, long-time site of Western Open Monday qualifiers. The final two were played at Lake Michigan Hills, in Benton Harbor, Mich., and Makray Memorial, in Barrington.

The pro-am is Friday, Oct. 3. The following day a free junior walking clinic will be conducted amidst afternoon practice rounds. The 54-hole tourney will be conducted over the next three days.

As was the case last year, many of the Chicago Open participants will try to do what Sainz did in 2013 – use the event as a springboard to a good showing at the Web.com Tour Q-School. The first stage of the Q-School begins on Oct.7, the second stage on Nov. 11 and the finals are Dec. 11-16 at Palm Beach Gardens, FL.