Day, McIlroy mull BMW chances – and Woods

Writing from Carmel, Indiana

Wednesday, September 7, 2016

There are two defending champions at this year’s BMW Championship.

There’s Jason Day, who ran off and hid last year at Conway Farms Golf Club.

Then there’s Rory McIlroy, who won at Crooked Stick Golf Club four years ago, and returns to the scene of the sublime as the winner Monday at the Deutsche Bank Championship.

These two superstars answered as many questions about a third party on Wednesday than they did about their games or their chances at Crooked Stick, where the BMW – the 113th Western Open to old-timers – commences with a threatening weather forecast on Thursday morning.

It was to be expected, for the third party was Tiger Woods, who announced in the late morning that he hopes to return to competition next month, and both were eager to see the 40-year-old in action after so much inaction.

“This time I think he’s done it the right way by waiting and not coming back too soon,” Day said. “I’m definitely looking forward to watching those tournaments and seeing how his body holds up and how the mental side and obviously the golf side of things hold up as well.

“We chatted a bit and he felt like he was pretty positive with how the progression was going with his body. He felt like he was starting to make the turn with it and obviously if we’re going to see him three times in the fall, that means his body’s in good shape.”

McIlroy, like Day, was curious about now only how Woods plays, but how he plays in comparison to how he has played, and warned against unfair comparisons against his halcyon years.

“That 10-year stretch (of 13 major titles among 58 PGA Tour wins) is the best stretch of golf we have ever seen on the planet by anyone,” McIlroy said. “I don’t care what anyone says about Jack Nicklaus’ record or anyone else, that 10-year stretch of golf was the best.

“People are going to expect him to go out at Napa and play well, and it’s going to take time. It’s a process. Sometimes you have to take the bigger picture. I’m sure he’s sort of thinking play at Napa, but the long-term goal is if he can get himself ready for the Masters next year, that’s where he wants to be.”

This is the 10th edition of the evolved Western-cum-BMW, with 69 players – British Open Henrik Stenson champion is missing, resting for the Ryder Cup – chasing two things: The $1,530,000 first prize from the announced purse of $8.5 million, and the top 30 places in the PGA Tour’s point standings to be eligible for the pot o’gold in the Tour Championship at East Lake Golf Club in Atlanta two weeks from now.

Of Day and McIlroy, McIlroy may have the edge. Day had never even seen the course until his pro-am time on Wednesday afternoon. McIlroy said he remembered every hole. But with almost every top player in the world on hand aside from Stenson, picking a winner is like picking a favorite cloud on a windy day. Wait a minute and there’s another choice. 

Around Crooked Stick

The WGA green coat of Gary Planos was on the practice range this week even if Planos, who died earlier this year, was missing for the first time in memory. It was a fitting tribute to the longtime WGA director who caddied at Westmoreland, became an Evans Scholar, and eventually ran the Kapalua resort in Hawaii, where he was also tournament director for the Tournament of Champions. ... The famous shrimp cocktail of St. Elmo’s, the legendary bistro in downtown Indianapolis, is on sale in the food court close to the 18th tee. It’s a sinus-clearing concoction indoors with a libation at hand. Now imagine what it would be like under a broiling sun and high humidity. ... Thursday’s tee times run from 10:03 a.m. to 2:13 p.m. ET, a new threesome off the first tee every 11 minutes. It’s the first one-tee start in the first two rounds in decades. ... McIlroy, Adam Scott and Jordan Spieth, sure to draw a few people, commence firing at 1:53 p.m. Day starts with U.S. Open champion Dustin Johnson and Patrick Reed at 11:47 a.m.

Tim Cronin


Small prevails in Illinois PGA for record-extending 12th time

Writing from Olympia Fields, Illinois

Wednesday, August 31, 2016

Mike Small thought Wednesday’s final round of the 95th Illinois PGA Championship turned on the 14th and 15th holes on Olympia Fields Country Club’s testing South Course, where a brace of birdies drew him into a tie with 36-hole leader Curtis Malm.

As big was what happened next. With Small making pars, Malm three-putted the par-4 16th, missing a four-footer for par, and triple-bogeyed the par-4 17th via a pair of penalty strokes created by excursions into the jungle.

In four holes, Small had gone from two behind to three ahead of Brian Brodell and Travis Johns and four ahead of Malm.

That’s a lead someone of Small’s caliber is not going to surrender, especially in a championship he holds so dear and on a course he knows so well.

So it would be. Small’s 4-under-par 68 for 10-under 208 earned him a two-stroke victory over Brodell, Malm and Johns, an auspicious triumph that was a familiar result but hardly routine.

It was the record-extending 12th Illinois Section championship for Small, and third on Olympia Fields South. Nobody else has won it on the layout since the championship returned here in 2010 after a 40-year absence.

All 12 of those titles have been won in the 21st century, by a total of 47 strokes, across 36 rounds in which Small is 94-under-par.

This one, though, was different in that the tables turned quickly at the end in favor of the coach of Illinois' men's golf team.

“I feel bad for him, because he played really well,” Small said of Malm, who led by three after three holes but never more than two thereafter. “He played great. But the birdies on 14 and 15 were big for me.”

They followed a bogey 5 on the 13th that Small kicked himself about going to the 14th tee. At that point, Malm, despite missing a 15-foot birdie putt on the 13th, was 11-under and led by two strokes. 

“If (Curtis) makes the birdie putt on 13 and I miss the bogey putt, it’s a three-shot swing, tournament over,” Small said. “Instead, it’s a one-shot swing and I birdie the next two holes.”

He made an 18-footer to cut the lead to one on the par-3 14th, and a solid 10-footer on the 15th made tied Malm for the lead and set up, effectively, a three-hole showdown for the title. It was over after two holes.

“If I don’t make birdies right away, it’s over,” Small said. “That’s momentum in golf. I talk to my team about that: Individual momentum, making birdies on top of birdies. He had control of the thing all day today on me and Travis.”

Malm was, literally, bloodied but unbowed. He had three nasty scrapes on his right hand from seeing if he could play the tee ball that went wayward to the right on the penultimate hole. Instead, he gashed himself.

“I got in there and I took the club back a little bit to see if I would catch any resistance, and everything just kind of leaped on me,” Malm said. “It was an easy call to take the unplayable. Drop it, catch another tree and hit it in the junk, take another unplayable, and then almost hole it and miss another putt. It would have been the greatest bogey anybody had ever seen.

“I didn’t make the greatest swing in the world on 17, but if that ball bounces anywhere but directly back, I chip out and make 5. It’s a different ball game. What are you gonna do?”

Small began to win the title back on the 203-yard par-3 fifth, where his knockdown 3-iron went for the cup like an arrow, finishing eight inches from tumbling in. It was not only the only birdie of the day on the hole, it was the shot of the championship.

“It was just perfect all the way,” Small recalled. “It drew about five yards right in there.”

And it sent a message. Small had started the final round tied for third place at 6-under, two strokes behind Malm, with Johns at 7-under. Small parred the first four holes and was still two back.

“That was huge,” he said. “I’d played some good shots on the first four holes but I couldn’t make a birdie.”

He would make five more thereafter. Even a meaningless bogey at the last didn’t take his smile away.

Malm didn’t collect the first prize of $11,200, but didn’t feel all that bad when looking at the week as a whole.

“For as not well as I thought I played, I finished second again,” Malm said. “That’s three in five years. But like I said here three years ago, some day he’s going to retire and seconds turn into firsts.”

Johns had seemed to play himself out of it after opening 3-over on the first six holes, but birdied three in a row and four of five starting at the ninth to race home in 71 and 208 for a share of second. Brodell was even faster, with eight birdies and three bogeys for a 5-under 67 to reach the same total. But starting five strokes behind Malm, he had no illusions about his chances.

“None,” Brodell said. “Not against Curtis and Travis and the greatest club pro in history.”

There’s a new title for the 50-year-old Small. And here’s one more goal. The oldest to win the Illinois PGA is Gary Groh, who was 57 when he won in a playoff at Kemper Lakes in 2002.

The fellow Groh beat? Mike Small, his only runner-up placing.

Rousing finish to Round 2

While Malm was authoring a birdie-birdie finish to his second round for a second straight 4-under 68 and total of 8-under 136 entering the final 18, Exmoor’s Brian Janty did even better.

His 6-under 66 earned him a tie for third with Small at lunchtime. He had gone out in 4-under 32 on the South Course’s back nine, then added a birdie on No. 1 before darkness Tuesday. Wednesday morning, Janty birdied the third and fourth holes and was 7-under on his round, but played the final five holes 1-over just when he was threatening to match or surpass Malm.

Defending champion Jim Billiter parred his final three holes Wednesday morning for a 7-under 65, the best round of the championship.

Billiter, Janty and Nick Taute of South Side Country Club in Decatur finished tied for fifth.

Heard under the clock tower

With Small already exempt, next 10 finishers qualified for next year’s PGA Professional Championship, a.k.a. the club pro championship. That group included Steve Orrick and Adam Schumacher, who tied for eighth, 10th place Tim Puetz and 11th place Matt Slowinski. Doug Bauman, 59, is first alternate. ... The field averaged 75.35 strokes in the final round, with 56 of the 138 birdies recorded on the par-5 10th and par-4 11th holes, the latter shortened to 288 yards for the day. ... Dakun Chang of Twin Orchard Country Club jumped into a tie for 24th with a 3-under 69, behind only Brodell’s 67 and Small’s 68 for the day’s best round.

Tim Cronin


Three-way tie in Illinois PGA, but Small may have the edge

Writing from Olympia Fields, Illinois

Tuesday, August 30, 2016

If you pick one hole of the 18 on Olympia Fields Country Club’s stout South Course and call it a difference maker, the par-5 10th may be the one.

At 500 yards, the dogleg left is reachable in two strokes for the big hitters in the field.

The tri-leaders when the second round of the 95th Illinois PGA Championship was suspended for darkness at 7:10 p.m. Tuesday all answer to the description of big hitters.

Curtis Malm, at 6-under with two holes remaining on Wednesday morning, is 1-under on the 10th after two attempts. Travis Johns, at 6-under with six holes left in his second round, is 2-under on it with back-to-back birdies. Mike Small, at 6-under and in the group with Johns, is 4-under on it. Eagle in the first round, eagle in the second.

Small has won the Illinois PGA 11 times, including the last two times it has been played at Olympia, where he’s an honorary member. Malm and Johns have done no better than second place.

Wonder where the smart money will be placed when the third round is played Wednesday afternoon?

Small is 5-under on his round, and it could have been better.

“I hit it pretty well, made a good up-and-down for par on No. 8 and was 2-under to there,” Small said. “Then I made a long putt (of 25 feet for birdie on No. 9 and an eagle on No. 10.”

Small’s second eagle in as many days was simple: Driver, 3-iron, putt. A 3 on the card allowed him to pick up nearly two strokes on the field. No. 10 was the only hole to play under par on Tuesday, at 4.81 strokes. He parred the 11th and 12th and kicked himself for missing makable birdie putts, but has a half-dozen holes on which to cash in after breakfast.

Malm was 7-under through 14 holes before a bogey on the par-4 15th. He parred the 16th and is semi-optimistic going into Wednesday’s activity.

“We’ll see if we can make one on one of those two (remaining) holes and see how the boys finish,” Malm said. “I haven’t played that well, just hit a lot of greens and taken care of the par 5s, but I’m not real solid. I’m hoping something clicks tomorrow and I can get back to my normal ways.

“It’s been a little ugly, but it’s worked out.”

He’s 5-under on the seven par-5s he’s played, including an eagle on the 18th in the first round. But he believes he hasn’t gotten everything out of his game given he’s hit 28 greens in regulation.

Johns said he played “OK” en route to his 3-under status for the round through 12 holes and 6-under total through 30. He scattered for birdies on his card, against one bogey, that on the treacherous sixth.

Nick Taute of Decatur’s South Side Country Club, Andy Schumacher of Indian Hill Club and defending champion Jim Billiter of Merit Club stand tied for fourth at 4-under, with Taute in the clubhouse,  Schumacher through 11 holes and Billiter a blistering 7-under on his round through 15, the feature an eagle on the par-4 11th sandwiched between birdies on the 10th and 12th. If Billiter, 6-under on the first six holes of the back nine, pars in, he’ll shoot 65.

The plan, barring more bad weather of the type that stalled play until late morning on Tuesday, is to finish the second round beginning at 8:30 a.m. and send the survivors of the cut on their way beginning at noon. With both tees in use, a 6 p.m. finish is hoped for.

Taute is at 4-under 140 thanks to Tuesday’s 5-under 67, six of his seven birdies were accumulated in 12 holes, accomplished largely because of an equipment change.

“I put a new putter in my bag on Saturday,” said Taute. “A new Ping.”

That was good from just about anywhere in that stretch, and couldn’t be blamed for his birdie at the last, when his tee shot landed in the right rough and things got worse from there.

Taute had one advantage on the threesome at 6-under on Tuesday night. He was finished five hours before the horn blew.

“It’ll be nice to have dinner and watch the Cubs game,” Taute said.

Notes from under the clock tower

The course has averaged 76.17 strokes so far in the second round, about two strokes better than the first round. ... The morning’s 3.5 hour delay came courtesy of lightning and about a half-inch more rain, added to the 10 inches the course has taken in the last 10 days. That meant a move to lift, clean and place through the green, for otherwise, in the morning, the course would have been next to unplayable. ... Along with the title, 10 spots in the PGA National Professional Championship, a.k.a. the club pro, are on the line Wednesday. ... 

Tim Cronin


Malm Illinois PGA leader after first round

Writing from Olympia Fields, Illinois

Monday, August 29, 2016

Some days, one good shot can trigger a series of them.

Steve Orrick hit one of those shots on Monday morning, and it led to a handful of similarly good shots that brought him within a stroke of leader Curtis Malm after one round of the 95th Illinois PGA Championship on Olympia Fields Country Club’s testing South Course.

“I hit a little six,” Orrick said, thinking back to his 6-iron on the 180-yard 12th hole, his third of the day.

That little six hit the flagstick and stopped two feet from the cup, allowing him a kick-in birdie to trigger a opening nine of 3-under 33. That led, after a pair of birdies and a pair of bogeys on his inward half, to a 3-under 69 for the head professional from the Country Club of Decatur, matching Travis Johns of Medinah entering the second round.

Doug Bauman (Biltmore), Brian Brodell (Mistwood) and Adam Schumacher (Indian Hill) fired 2-under 70s, while a quintet including 11-time winner Mike Small stood at 1-under 71 at day’s end. In all, 11 players broke the South Course’s par of 72, and another eight matched it.

In his pursuit of Malm, Orrick had one other shot that kept his round going. He hit his second on the 18th into the trees on the right and didn’t have a great lie for his third shot.

“I just punched it out onto the front of the green, and then made it (for birdie) from 40 feet,” Orrick said.

Call it a bonus, and necessary to stay a stroke behind Malm, the professional from White Eagle Golf Club. Out in the day’s second group, Malm posted equal nines of 2-under 34, the feature attraction an eagle 3 on the par-5 18th, a 530-yard adventure. That followed a birdie on the par-4 17th, which followed bogeys on the previous two holes, and so sent him to the front nine for the second half of his round in good humor. He made three more birdies there.

Malm won the Illinois Open as an amateur in 2000, but has so far been shut out in the Illinois PGA. He was runner-up to Orrick at Stonewall Orchard in 2012, and shared the runner-up spot with Matt Slowinski behind Mike Small at Olympia in 2013.

Doug Bauman’s 2-under 70 might have been unexpected to outsiders, given that the Biltmore Country Club fixture is 59. But it shouldn’t have been. Three of his last five competitive rounds were 71s, including circuits of Onwentsia and Glen Flora.

“I’ve got a pretty long golf swing, and for years it was too long, but now it’s down to a proper length,” Bauman said with a wink.

He also has a pair of sons, Riley and Greg, who have given him all he can handle on the course, which also keeps him sharp.

“We had a match on Friday, and that helps me move it out there, because they hit it past me,” Bauman said.

He triumphed twice at Kemper Lakes, in 1996 and 1997, and if successful would wipe out Gary Groh’s mark of 13 years between victories. But he acknowledged it’s a long way between one good round and holding a trophy on Wednesday afternoon.

“I’m still not entertaining winning,” Bauman said. “I told Craig Bertrand and Katie Pius, who work with me and are playing in this, I’m just trying to make eight pars and one birdie per nine. That’s all I’m trying to do.”

It was six birdies and four bogeys, evenly split between nines, on Monday, but the net result was what Bauman hoped for, 1-under on each side.

As for Small, the 11-time winner opened with a 1-under-par 71, the highlight of the day an eagle on the par-5 10th, one of only two on the day on the hole.

“I played pretty good, just hit it on the wrong side of the hole all day,” Small said. “It was hard to hit the ball close to the hole, because the balls were spinning (back).

“I need to find my form better tomorrow.”

Those who have relished success so many times are never satisfied with an average performance.

Notes from under the clock tower 

Defending champion Jim Billiter (Merit Club) fashioned a 3-over 75. ... Oak Park head professional Frank Bruno dunked his approach on the par-4 16th from the fairway for a deuce. ... The field averaged 78.007 strokes. ... It was old-fashioned golf, with no motor carts allowed players because of the heavy rain from the previous week-plus. The soggy conditions prompted tournament director Robert Duke to invoke lift, clean and place for the fairways and closely-mown areas. ... Superintendent Sam MacKenzie and his tireless staff have dealt with 10 inches of rain, which caused the banks of Butterfield Creek to overflow on occasion. The club’s schedule of member championships is now written in pencil, the courses have been closed so often.

Tim Cronin


Bryan, Marino lead soggy Deere

Writing from Silvis, Illinois

Friday, August 12, 2016 

Here is the secret to playing well on a day when you’re not sure when you’ll play.

Get up before the rooster and be at TPC Deere Run at 5 a.m.

Eat breakfast and practice until the 7 a.m. start is postponed.

Go back to the hotel, take a nap.

Eat breakfast again.

Finally get on the tee, shoot 6-under-par 65 and jump into contention in the 46th John Deere Classic.

That worked for Steve Marino on Friday. He’s at 11-under-par 131 going into Saturday’s third round.

That’s a stroke off the overnight lead concocted by Wesley Bryan, whose 66-64 combination for 12-under 130 was the best of those who had finished, which is to say, half the field. Thanks to overnight downpours on top of Thursday’s deluge, only a few groups in the afternoon half of the field had even teed off Friday evening before play was halted at 7:53 p.m. The marquee group of Zach Johnson, Brian Harman and Steve Stricker, with five JDC titles between them, was standing on the first tee when yet another shower hit the waterlogged course, which had already taken 2.17 inches of rain since late Thursday night. They will commence the second round at 7 a.m. sharp.

Close to 110 players need to complete the second round before the cut is made and the field is repaired for the third round, which should begin early in the afternoon. Thirty-nine haven’t even started. At this point, it seems unlikely the third round, expected to be played under the same “lift, clean and place” conditions as the second round, can be finished before nightfall.

Marino joked that he hadn’t seen an interview room in quite a while, but he played as if he owned Deere Run, interview room and all, on Friday, with seven birdies on his scorecard against one bogey. A long search for consistency may be paying off.

“I’ve really been struggling with my ball-striking all year,” Marino said. “I’ve been putting well and chipping well. It’s really the only thing that’s saved me.

“It’s nice to kind of see it come around and play really well.”

Marino was 3-under on each side of Deere Run.

“There were times when I could have got frustrated out there because the first nine holes I shot 3-under but could have shot 6- or 7-under,” Marino said. “Missed a lot of putts. Some good things happened near the end.”

Birdies on Nos. 7 and 8 and an up-and-down on the ninth, his last hole, “kind of saved the round,” Marino said.

Bryan, the recent graduate of the tour, is playing like a veteran Tourist. His bogey-free 64 included an outward 31 on the back nine. He credited use of “lift, clean and place”  for the low number.

“We were able to fire at a lot more flags with the ball in our hand,” Bryan said. “And scores are going to continue to go low.”

Bryan played 25 1/2 holes, having stopped Thursday night with his ball on the 11th green. He made 10 birdies in his last 22 holes on Friday, but, again sounding like a veteran, especially of the Deere, felt 12-under was nowhere near the number he needed to hold the trophy on – it is to be hoped – Sunday night.

“I feel if you double that (12-under total) I’ll be right in the thick of things,” Bryan said. “Nos. 18 and 9, they’re really tough holes on any golf course. There’s some stumbling blocks out there, but for the most part its a lot of wedges and good, soft bent greens. Scores are going to continue to go low and hopefully I can keep making some birdies.”

With the jumbling of pairings, it’s difficult to say the leaders are the leaders. But at the moment, first round co-leader Tom Gillis, who lost to Jordan Spieth in a playoff last year, is third at 10-under 132 after a adding a 68 to an opening 64. Kyle Stanley is fourth at 9-under 133, with five players at 8-under: Morgan Hoffman, first round co-leader Andrew Loupe, Ben Martin and Hudson Swafford are in at 134, with Kelly Kraft 8-under after 15 holes. Sang Kung (7-under 135) and Jon Rahm (7-under through 15, and 5-under on the day) are tied for 10th, but then there’s the whole group yet to begin, including Zach Johnson, 6-under in the first round and a clear favorite.

“A lot of golf to be played,” said Loupe, who made an 8-footer to start his day and added a 70 to his opening 64.

A lot of golf.

Around Deere Run

Before Friday night’s shower, the course had taken about 3.20 inches of rain from late morning on Thursday. The weekend forecast is good. ... CBS-TV will have live coverage from 2-5 p.m. Saturday and Sunday. There’s no early-round weekend coverage on Golf Channel because of its Olympics coverage. ... 

Tim Cronin

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