Sainz has best start among Chicago players at Ivanhoe

The 156 starters in Thursday’s $600,000 Rust-Oleum Championship at Ivanhoe Club included six Chicago area players and two more who played collegiately at Illinois. None were a threat to first-round leaders Andrew Novak, of Raleigh, N.C., He claimed the 18-hole lead with a 7-under par 65.

However, four of the locals got off to solid starts. Elgin’s Carlos Sainz Jr. posted a 3-under-par 69 and Lake Forest’s Brad Hopfinger, Deerfield’s Vince India and Libertyville’s Michael Schachner shot 2-under 70s.

Schachner, an Ivanhoe member, and India got into the field on sponsor exemptions and were late starters.

Sainz, who is tied for 17th place after Round 1, made birdies on four of the first six holes. He and Hopfinger are former Illinois Open champions in contention to earn PGA Tour cards for 2019.

Schachner, an Ivanhoe member and mini-tour player, was the surprise of the day while playing in the last group to tee off. India,, a college teammate of Hopfinger’s at Iowa, is a former Tour regular who has had trouble getting into tournaments this season. That trio is tied for 39th place.

Hopfinger, standing No. 38 on the Tour money list, has the best chance to advance to the main circuit at the moment. The top 25 at the end of the season advance. Sainz is down at No. 91, but coming into the portion of the season where he historically has played his best.

“I’m looking forward to the summer,’’ said Sainz. “We’re in the middle of our season now and have next week off. Then we have 11 tournaments in a row. I don’t know if I’ll play all 11, but you never know. I played 14 in a row in 2014.’’

Hopfinger was just one stroke ahead of Sainz in the fall qualifying school. Hopfinger earned full Tour privileges. Sainz had to play well in the early season chances he got. He was first alternate in the season opener before getting a chance to play.

“I was one shot out of full,’’ said Sainz, “but I got into two of the first four events based on how I finished at Q-School. Some players who tied me (in Q=School) didn’t get into anything. Then I had a top 10 (actually a tie for eighth in Colombia) and that pretty much gave me (playing) status for the rest of the year.’’

Sainz spent one unsuccessful season on the PGA Tour but could be on his way back now that he will get starts on the top alternative circuit.

“I’m happy to be on this tour again,’’ he said. “I’ve started to play some good golf. Though my scores aren’t always reflecting it, we’re on the right track.’’

Hopfinger is playing his fifth tournament in a row and had his second top-10 of the year two weeks ago at Nashville. He’s not sure how much more money he’ll need to win to make it to the PGA Tour for the first time.

“The goal is to finish in the top 25,’’ he said. “You just try to play good golf every day. That’s all you can do. You can’t think about how much you have to make.’’

As for the other locals, things didn’t go so well. Northbrook’s Nick Hardy posted a so-so 72 in his first professional round after completing his outstanding collegiate career at Illinois. A five-foot birdie putt on the final hole lifted Hardy’s spirits for Friday’s second round, when he is in the last group off the tee at 2:15 p.m.

“I didn’t have my best stuff,’’ Hardy said of Round 1. “I’m just happy to get the first round out of the way.’’