Johns surprise winner as Small falters

Writing from Hinsdale, Illinois

Wednesday, August 28, 2019

There are no locks in golf, no matter how large the lead with 18 holes remaining.

Arnold Palmer could have told you that. Greg Norman still can.

Now, in Illinois, so can Mike Small. Holding a four-stroke lead with nine holes to play in the Illinois PGA Championship, Small, the 12-time winner of same, dropped seven strokes in a five-hole immolation that concluded with a pair of double bogeys on the 13th and 14th holes, an unexpected display that sent him from the lead to also ran in that handful of holes.

The beneficiary – who was also playing quite well, thank you – was Travis Johns, Medinah’s director of instruction. Johns, a 41-year-old native of Australia, had finished second three times in the section’s big dance, all three times at Olympia Fields to Small, which reminded him of his golf youth Down Under.

“When I was a kid from 13 to 18, there was a tournament called the Gary Player Classic,” Johns said. “A good friend, one of the best players I’ve ever seen play golf, played in this and I came second to him five times in a row – one year by 27 shots. When I’m playing against Mike sometimes, especially at Olympia Fields, it brought back memories of this guy wiping the floor with me.”

Wednesday at Ruth Lake Country Club, the memories were neutralized. Johns, fighting through westerly winds that gusted as high as 35 mph, fired a final-round 68 for 4-under 138 to capture the 98th Illinois PGA Championship. That was a stroke better than Garrett Chaussard, who finished with 69 for 139 thanks to birdies on the 13th and 15th holes. Small, who stumbled to a 7-over 78, tied with Brian Carroll (72) for third at 1-under 141.

Wednesday at Ruth Lake Country Club, the memories were neutralized. Johns, fighting through westerly winds that gusted as high as 35 mph, fired a final-round 68 for 4-under 138 to capture the 98th Illinois PGA Championship. That was a stroke better than Garrett Chaussard, who finished with 69 for 139. Small, who stumbled to a 7-over 78, and Brian Carroll (72) tied for third at 1-under 141.

The centerpiece of Johns’ round, which matched Dakun Chang's 68 as the best round of the day, was a string of three straight birdies beginning at the 13th. He was in the threesome ahead of Small, and so was charging when Small was retreating.

“I thought we were playing for second today,” Johns said. “The conditions were really, really difficult. I generally play pretty good in the wind because I can hit it low.”

That worked all the way around, especially on the par-4 10th, where he took dead aim at the peninsula green some 265 yards away and hit it.

“I have always gone for that green,” said Johns, who can belt it. “It was a two-club wind so it was like 285, and I can carry it about that. Luckily I hit it good and straight and it went on the green.”

It paid off with the second of his five birdies and cut Small’s lead to three strokes. It had been five at the start of the day.

Then came the birdie run and the move into the lead, not that he was sure of where he stood until about the 15th hole.

“I think it all happened really quickly,” Johns said. “It flipped everything. But we still didn’t really know.”

All of this was accomplished without the benefit of a sand wedge. Johns had lended his to a Medinah member who promptly went out of town. Since he wasn’t putting to his standard on Tuesday, he added a second putter to his bag on Wednesday, but never used it.

“I had it just in case,” Johns said. “If things didn’t go well, I would have used the other one. It worked out.”

It did, for his third Illinois major, the previous two an Illinois PGA Match Play and the Players Championship. He’s not only $12,000 richer, but an Illinois Open victory away from a career grand slam.

“That one’s getting a bit tougher,” Johns said. “I had a kid hit a hybrid past my driver this year. It’s getting ridiculous."

No true club pro has won the Illinois Open since Todd Tremaglio in 1998.

“We’re going to try our best,” Johns said with a smile.

Not smiling was Small, disappointed by his disastrous turn of events, but not angry.

“I’m not as upset as I thought I’d be,” Small said. “If this happens one time out of 13 times, I’m all right with it.

“I can’t remember the last time I did something like that. I think I gave away one Illinois Open with a three-putt bogey coming in. Besides that, I’ve had leads and I’ve held them pretty good. Sometimes when you’re not on your game, leads are harder to hold.

"It is what it is. I just hit bad shots. I hit wrong clubs four times on the back nine. But I didn’t play well from the start. Even though I shot under par on the front, it was a struggle.

“On 13, I laid up one inch in the rough, there was mud on my ball, and it was a difficult shot. On 14, I hit the wrong club.”

Small’s third on the par-5 13th carried 10 yards over the green. His pitch was short, his chip was just on the green, and he two-putted for a double-bogey 7 from there. Then his misclub on the par-3 14th ended up in the water, setting up another double.

“My fault,” Small said. “I didn’t play good. I didn’t handle the bad breaks. I didn’t fight through those. Some bad squirrelly stuff.

“I’m sure a lot of people aren’t unhappy with me.”

Around Ruth Lake

The top 10 players qualified for the PGA’s club pro championship next spring, thus getting a shot at making next year’s PGA Championship: Johns, Chaussard, Carroll, Small, Curtis Malm, Chris French, Andy Mickelson, Julian Thompson, Dakun Chang and Chris Ioriatti. … With high wind and no cut, the final round scoring average of 79.19 strokes, about eight strokes over par on a course that played to 6,709 yards.

Tim Cronin


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