Cantigny will produce another memorable State Amateur

The Illinois State Amateur doesn’t have a home course. It moves around the state annually, but in the last two decades one location has become a favorite. Cantigny, in Wheaton, has hosted four times in the last 22 years and will be the site for the tourney’s 89th staging from July 16-18.

“For us amateur golf has always been a big deal,’’ said Patrick Lynch, Cantigny’s head professional and a staff member since 1998. “We try to support it as best we can.’’

Cantigny has 27 holes plus the nearby Youth Links, which has 1,500 in its programs

“That’s a huge number,’’ said Lynch. “We run the full gamut in youth and amateur golf, and that’s very important for the growth of the game.’’

And for the development of its players. In 2014, the last time the State Amateur was played at Cantigny, four of the top seven finishers were connected with the public facility in some way or another. Ray Knoll, the champion that year, got his start in golf on the Youth Links when he was 5 years old.

The State Am is a 72-hole test that climaxes with a 36-hole final day. It’s always filled with great drama, and this year’s version figures to be a wide-open affair with recent stars Tee-K Kelly, Nick Hardy and Patrick Flavin now in the professional ranks and Spring Grove’s Jordan Hahn, the winner in 2018 at Bloomington Country Club, was not among the entries.

Hahn, a tower of strength at 6-foot-8, shot a tournament record 61 while finishing second to Flavin at Calumet Country Club, in Homewood, in 2017 before getting the victory a year later. Hahn completed a solid collegiate career at Wisconsin in the spring and his future plans in golf haven’t been announced.

The return to Cantigny will stir memories of great tournaments of the past. The course, designed by the late Roger Packard, opened in 1989. Golf Digest tabbed Cantigny the Best New Course in America that year, the first in a long list of honors the facility has received. Cantigny’s Woodside and Lakeside nines will again be used for the tournament. Assuming the championship tees are used, the finalists with face a 7,055-yard, par-72 course.

Though Cantigny hosted two national championships – the 2006 Western Amateur and 2007 U.S. Amateur Public Links – the course’s tournament resume started with the State Am of 1996. Mark Small, then a 33-year old architect from Frankfort, won the title that year with a two-stroke victory over former University of Illinois golfer D.W. Bruce.

Small, who posted a 5-under-par 283 score for the 72 holes, eventually spent several years as a professional. He later decided to regain his amateur status and contended in another State Am in 2011.

The tournament returned to Cantigny in 2002 with the golf not nearly as impressive as it had been six years earlier. Bloomington’s Todd Mitchell, a former shortstop in the St. Louis Cardinals organization, needed only a 7-over-par 291 to win the title but it was the start of big things golf-wise for him.

Mitchell went on to win a record five Illinois Mid-Amateur titles and was the runner-up in the 2008 U.S. Mid-Amateur. Mitchell continues to be a factor in state play. He was the CDGA Player of the Year four times between 2006 and 2016 and won the Central Illinois Player of the Year Award eight times from 2003 to 2013, when the award was discontinued.

Zach Barlow was a collegiate hotshot for Illinois when he won at Cantigny in 2008. A 2010 Illinois graduate, Barlow also won the Olympia Fields/Fighting Illini Invitational that year and was the Western Amateur runner-up in 2009. Now he’s in his fifth season as the assistant to Illini head coach Mike Small.

The most exciting of the Cantigny State Ams came in 2014 when Knoll, preparing to enter his sophomore year at Iowa, beat Nick Hardy, awaiting his freshman year at Illinois, in a four-hole playoff. Both were 8-under-par in the regulation 72 holes with Hardy shooting 66-69 in the double round final day before losing in extra holes.

Hardy rebounded, though. He set the tournament scoring record with a sizzling 28-under-par 260 in winning the tourney by 10 shots two years later at St. Charles Country Club.

The starting field at Cantigny will be finalized after eight state-wide qualifying rounds, to be played from June 10-19. The field will be cut to the low 35 and ties after the first two rounds at Cantigny.