Writing from St. Charles
Wednesday, July 27, 2016
Carlos Sainz Jr. picked up a trophy in his first Illinois Open appearance, back in 2006.
He was low amateur, a good showing for a 20-year-old.
Wednesday at Royal Fox Country Club, he did himself one better. Sainz won the 67th Illinois Open by five strokes with a record score of 17-under-par 197.
“It’s big,” Sainz said. “I’ve wanted to win this the last four or five years since I turned pro.”
He succeeded in grand fashion, firing his second straight 6-under 65, this one bogey free, at Royal Fox to go with an opening 5-under 67 at Royal Hawk Country Club. The back-to-back 65s for 130 don’t add up to a record – David Cooke, the winner last year at Royal Melbourne, still owns that – but Sainz wrested the scoring and relation-to-par marks away from Cooke in style.
With one bogey in his last 45 holes, Sainz played with the demeanor of a confident man. With family and friends from Elgin on hand, he walked on the first tee with a four-stroke lead and birdied four of the first six holes, including a 40-footer up a ridge on the par-4 third hole. That expanded his lead to five strokes over eventual runner-up Christian Heavens of Fairview Heights and to six over Chicagoan Brad Hopfinger, who took third.
Birds on the fourth and sixth followed, and it was then only a matter of how many rather than who. The dagger came on the 16th, when he punctuated a curling 25-footer for a birdie 3 with a fist pump and a celebratory walk to the cup.
“Those were bonuses,” Sainz said. But he also said, “You have to believe they’re going in.”
Sainz believed deeply this week. With his mother Rose as his nominal caddie, Sainz played his best golf since winning a mini-tour tournament in Florida earlier this year. Since then, he’s played good but not great golf, working on his swing and getting into tournaments when he could. It’s tough to keep one’s confidence intact during such a stretch, especially after losing one’s PGA Tour card.
“Confidence is a lot in this game,” Sainz said. “The guys on tour, they say that when you’re playing well, you have to feel you can win the tournament.”
That’s what Sainz is aiming for on a regular basis.
“I felt good all the way,” Sainz said. “I knew they had to come catch me today.”
The victory, more than the $17,500 first prize, will boost that confidence when he jumps on the Mackenzie Tour, the PGA Tour’s Canadian operation, for the weeks leading to the Tour’s qualifying tournaments. The better he plays in Canada, the fewer “Q School” stages he has to play in.
Heavens’ 5-under 66 for a total of 12-under 202 – which would have won all but four 54-hole Illinois Opens – was built on a fast start, the highlight a 10-foot eagle putt on the sixth hole after a brilliant approach. But Heavens could never get closer than four strokes, that after birdies on the 10th and 11th holes, which Sainz parred, and again after a deuce on the 17th.
Hopfinger was similarly climbing uphill all day. His best run was a stretch of three birdies on five holes to start the back nine, which moved him to 11-under. Sainz was 16 under by the 14th hole.
In finishing fourth, Northbrook’s Nick Hardy accomplished what Sainz did a decade ago, capturing the low amateur award. Wednesday’s 3-under 68 put Hardy at 9-under 205.
“I had nothing to lose, so I went to make as many birdies as I could,” Hardy said. “I played all right. I did not putt like I normally do this whole tournament. That’s kind of what held me back and why I didn’t finish like Carlos did. That’s golf.
“Last week they were going in. This week they weren’t.”
Hardy made 15 birdies in three rounds, but missed birdie attempts, rather than his six bogeys, held him back.
Hardy may be going from strength to strength. He won the Illinois Amateur last week at St. Charles Country Club, and next week competes in the Western Amateur at Knollwood Club in Lake Forest. Those two tight treelined parkland courses are more similar to each other than either is to Royal Fox, a Dick Nugent layout opened in 1990.
“The greens are different, the way they roll and react to shots,” Hardy said of Royal Fox to St. Charles.
Amateurs Kevin Flack of Belvidere and Branden Mounce of El Paso and Mistwood pro Andy Mickelson tied for fifth at 7-under 207. Flack’s 65 moved him up from a tie for 25th entering the round.
Royal Hawk head professional Brian Carroll, who with Heavens was a first round co-leader, finished in a tie for 12th at 4-under 210 after a 1-under 70.
Around Royal Fox
Illinois head men’s coach Mike Small and recruit Tommy Kuhl of Morton played in the third-from-last threesome and ended up among those tied for ninth at 5-under 209. Both shot even-par 71, while Tim “Tee-K” Kelly, the Ohio State stalwart from Wheaton, posted a 65. ... Carlos Sainz’ brother Michael scored 2-under 69 for even par 214 and tied for 24th. ... Christian Heavens made $13,000 for second place, $500 more than the first money Vince India collected last year after finishing second to amateur David Cooke. ... Cooke tied for 29th this year after a closing 70 for 1-over 215. ... Chris French, at 2-under 141 through 36 holes, withdrew late Tuesday after the final round pairings were made, telling officials he wasn’t sure of his score on one hole. ... The 51 players completing 54 holes averaged 71.71 strokes on the par 71 Royal Fox layout in the final round, with 11 players in the 60s and 21 under par.
– Tim Cronin