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Len Ziehm On Golf

With Hardy, Kelly missing this Illinois Amateur will be a wide open affair

July’s 87th playing of the Illinois State Amateur will be – at the very least – different.

The prestigious championship will be contested over 72 holes from July 18-20 at Calumet Country Club in Homewood. None of the 86 previous stagings of the State Am were played at Calumet, though the private layout is one of the oldest in the Chicago District and comes with a noteworthy tournament history.

Not only will the site be different, but so will the field. Neither Tee-K Kelly nor Nick Hardy, the tourney’s two most dominant players of recent years, will be competing. That means the battle for the title should be a wide open shootout.

Kelly, from Wheaton, played in the last four State Ams in between his collegiate years at Ohio State. He finished first at Aldeen, in Rockford, in 2013; 11th at Cantigny, in Wheaton, in 2014; first again at Panther Creek, in Springfield, in 2015; and second last year at St. Charles Country Club. He turned professional after his final collegiate season with the Buckeyes and is now playing on the PGA Tour Latinoamerica.

Hardy, from Northbrook, just completed his junior season at Illinois. His Illini teams reached the Final Four of the last three NCAA tournaments and Hardy’s record in the State Am is almost as good as Kelly’s. Hardy lost the 2014 title to Naperville’s Ray Knoll in a playoff at Cantigny, finished third at Panther Creek and then scored a rousing victory at St. Charles.

The win by Hardy last year was one for the record-books. He owned a 10-stroke margin over Kelly, which was one stroke off the tournament record for margin of victory set by Rob Grube in 2006.

Other than the Grube mention, there was nothing to compare Hardy’s brilliance with in the rich history of the tournament. Hardy’s 260 score for the 72 holes was a full 10 better than the former record set by PGA Tour player Bob Zender in 1971 and Jerry Haas’ previous record 13-under-par winning score in 1984 paled in comparison to Hardy’s 28-under at St. Charles.

With one more season of collegiate eligibility remaining Hardy could have gone for a State Am repeat, a feat last achieved by Bloomington’s Todd Mitchell in 2002-03. Instead he opted to bypass the tournament in order to take advantage of other attractive playing opportunities that his sterling record produced.

Hardy was named to the U.S. team for the Palmer Cup matches June 9-11 in Atlanta and also received a rare amateur sponsor’s exemption to the PGA Tour’s John Deere Classic at TPC Deere Run, in the Quad Cities, in July.

“I considered playing in the State Amateur again, but June is busy and I have two tournaments in July that conflict,’’ said Hardy. The John Deere Classic concludes on July 16 and the Western Amateur starts at Skokie Country Club in Glencoe on July 31. Squeezing the State Am in between those two would be difficult.

In bypassing the State Am Hardy gave up the chance to join six players who have won the title in back-to-back years since the tourney went to a stroke play format in 1963 – Zender (1970-71), Gary Hallberg (1978-79), Joel Hirsch (1988-89), Jay Davis (1991-92), D.A. Points (1998-99) and Mitchell. Zender, Hallberg and Points either were or (in Points’ case) are members of the PGA Tour.

Calumet Country Club, meanwhile, may not have hosted a previous State Am but it did host the Chicago District Amateur three times (1930, 1933, and 1947). Interestingly, each of those years produced a champion in the process of winning back-to-back titles. Jack Westland, a three-time winner, had two of his victories in 1930 and 1931. George Dawson won in 1933 and 1934 and Frank Stranahan took the crown in 1946 and 1947.

The CDGA Amateur wasn’t the biggest tournament played at Calumet, however. The club’s Donald Ross-designed course opened in 1901 and hosted the 1924 Western Open, won by Bill Melhorn. Known as “Wild Bill’’ for his sometimes errant tee shots, Melhorn won 20 times on the PGA Tour, was runner-up in the 1925 PGA Championship and finished third in two U.S. Opens.

Calumet also hosted the 1945 Chicago Victory Open, which was one of Byron Nelson’s wins when he took a record 11 tournaments in a row. The course now play 6,619 yards from the tips and is a par 71.

The field for this year’s State Am was decided at nine qualifying rounds played across the state in June. Thirty-five players were exempt from qualifying off past performances. The entire field plays 18 holes on July 18 and 19 and the low 35 and ties go 36 more to determine the champion on July 20.