Horsfield lives up to billing, humbles Knollwood

Writing from Lake Forest, Illinois

Tuesday, August 2, 2016

Put 10 threes on your scorecard and you’ve had a fine day.

World No. 2 amateur Sam Horsfield did that on Tuesday and tied the course record at the leafy Knollwood Club in the first qualifying round of the 114th Western Amateur.

Horsfield, a lad from Birmingham, England who is entering his sophomore year at Florida after an all-America freshman campaign, used those threes – and nary a deuce – to post an 8-under-par 63 take the lead by three strokes entering Wednesday’s second round.

Eric Ricard, entering his senior year at Louisiana State, is second after his 5-under 66. Vincent Whaley of Georgia Tech and Won Jun Lee of South Korea is third at 4-under 67, followed by Arlington Heights native Doug Ghim of Texas and Michael Perras of Houston.

The object is to simply make the Sweet Sixteen for match play, which begins Friday after 72 holes of qualifying in three days. Thursday’s 36-hole grind will involve only the low 44 and those tied from the field of 156.

Horsfield’s 63, which matched the course record posted by Max Scodro a few years ago, also equaled Ghim’s score at Beverly two years ago for the lowest known single round in Western Amateur qualifying.

Normally a par 72 for the members, Knollwood is a par 71 this week, the sixth hole adjusted to a par 4 even at 504 yards. That made little matter to Horsfield, who made a 4 on the hole anyway. He had gone out in 5-under 31 on the back nine, including birdies on five of his last six holes, then birdied the par-4 first to stand 6-under through 10, and added birdies on the fifth and eighth holes to go with scintillating par saves on the seventh and ninth to finish with a bogey-free 63.

“I felt like I had been close for a while and to kind of put it together and shoot a good score felt really good,” Horsfield said. “All the right things clicked, and it was fun.”

It usually is when you hit 12 fairways, 17 greens and make almost everything you look at, including a six-footer to save par on the seventh.

“I hit it the best I’ve hit it in a while,” Horsfield said. “When you do that, youu will have some birdie opportunities. I hit three or four shots inside of two feet. That takes some of the stress off.”

Around Knollwood

Andrew Price of Lake Bluff, who won the CDGA Amateur last month, opened with 2-over 73. Todd Mitchell of Bloomington, whom Price defeated, scored 2-under 69, the best tally of the few mid-amateurs in the field, good for a tie for seventh. ... With a 1-under 70, Northbrook’s Nick Hardy won the laurel for low Illinois team member, beating Dylan Meyer (71) . Ohio State grad Tim “Tee-K” Kelly scored 3-over 74. ... Defender Dawson Armstrong, whose up-and-down for birdie on the par-5 eighth was among the better shots of the day, but blew up on the back nine for 5-over 36-40–76. ... A country and western singer / guitar player brought in for the player party started his post-round warbling promptly at 6 p.m., even though players were still finishing on both nines, including the nearby ninth green. “It’s now the Country and Western Amateur,” said one wag.

Tim Cronin


Sainz sets records in winning Illinois Open

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


Sainz alive entering final round of Illinois Open

Writing from St. Charles, Illinois

Tuesday, July 26, 2016

Carlos Sainz Jr. went so low on Tuesday at Royal Fox Country Club, he didn’t know how low.

“I think it’s 10 (under),” he said after scoring 6-under-par 65 in the second round of the 67th Illinois Open.

He was even better. Sainz’ aggregate of 132 equals 11-under and leads 2014 champion Brad Hopfinger and Tour hopeful Christian Heavens by four strokes entering the final 18 holes at Royal Fox.

Sainz, who registers from just up the road in Elgin, has been on the PGA Tour and hopes to get back there. He earned his Tour card for last year, but only made $124,115, good for 213th in the Tour standings. That didn’t earn the return he yearns for.

“It’s the same game out there, but they’re really good,” Sainz said. “It gave me a taste. I really want to get back there.”

First, he’d like to annex the first prize from the $100,000 purse. After his sterling approach game on Tuesday, he’s the man to beat.

Take his final hole, the par-4 ninth, for example. He had about 110 yards left after a big drive, and fired his pitch right at the hole. It landed three inches from the cup and bounced back over it before settling 12 feet away. Alas, a spike mark prevented an eighth birdie of the day. He settled for seven, against a single bogey, and the 65 that stands one off the competitive course record set by Marty Schiene in the second round of the 2001 Illinois Open.

“I hit some good iron shots today,” Sainz said. “I stayed patient. With soft greens you can go at the pins. You can hit your shot a little hard and it still holds.”

Sainz considered his best hole the par-5 14th, where a big drive and a 4-iron placed him in the fringe 18 feet from the pin. He barely missed the eagle attempt and settled for a birdie, the first of seven birdies in 11 holes. And it could have been better.

“Realistically, I was a couple shots better,” Sainz said.

The rest of the field gives thanks he wasn’t perfect. Hopfinger, a Chicagoan, and Heavens, from downstate Fairview Heights, have their work cut out, and the threesome at 6-under 137, Mistwood Golf Club assistant Andy Mickelson and amateurs Nick Hardy and Branden Mounce, would have to climb over that duo to get at Sainz.

“I was happy to get 70 with my swing today,” said Heavens, who opened with a 66 at Royal Hawk, among his best rounds since switching putters three times immediately after catching a case of the yips during U.S. Open sectional qualifying. “Golf is so much about confidence. Winning this would show me I’m doing things right.”

Hopfinger was nearly as hot as Sainz for a time, with six birdies in 11 holes, but had a pair of bogeys early in his round and another at his final hold to card a second straight 68.

Mounce, from downstate El Paso and entering his sophomore year at Bradley, fired a 2-under 69 with a double-bogey on his card. Primed for the state championship following appearances in the CDGA Amateur, Waterloo Open and Illinois Amateur, Mounce finished with a flourish, hitting an approach on the peninsula green 18th to 80 feet and two-putting from there.

“It’s about keeping the ball in play,” Mounce said. “If you do that, every hole is a birdie hole.”

Mounce made the cut in the Illinois Amateur at St. Charles Country Club and finished at even par, only 28 shots behind winner Hardy, with whom he’ll be grouped in the final round.

“I don’t think I could have come up with 28 shots (to save ground) over there,” he said, marveling at Hardy’s exploit.

Lurking six strokes back is Tommy Kuhl, a 16-year-old from downstate Morton whose total of 5-under 138, built on Tuesday’s 67 on Royal Fox, demonstrates the talent of this prodigy. He would be the youngest winner of the Illinois Open if magic happens on Wednesday.

“I honestly have no clue what to think if that happens,” Kuhl said. “It would be big for my resume.”

Kuhl is a cool customer for 16. At 3-under for the day after a birdie on his 10th hole, he didn’t let a bogey on his 11th, the par-5 second, disturb him. Instead, he answered with a birdie on the third and another on the par-5 sixth, a smooth ride to his 4-under 67.

“I hit it average, a lot of fairways,” Kuhl said. “I had a lot of makable birdie putts.”

His most dramatic was a 30-footer on the 12th hole, his first birdie of the day. Otherwise, he was closer to the hole, not surprising given he believes the strength of his game is his wedges and short irons.

Kuhl, already verbally committed to Illinois – older brother Pete, who also made the cut, enters Wisconsin this fall – won the state elementary school title in eighth grade and the IHSA Class 2A crown as a freshman at Morton High, which won the team title. He advanced to match play in this year’s U.S. Junior Amateur before falling to world No. 1 junior Joaquin Niemann of Chile, 7 and 5, in the first round. So he’s felt pressure before.

Would it be different against a field of adults, many of them seasoned pros?

“I don’t think so,” Kuhl said. “I like the pressure.”

Kuhl will be grouped with his future boss, Illinois coach Mike Small, whose 68 moved him up the chart on Tuesday, and Lombard’s Kurtis Luedtke, who scored 70.

Around the Open

The cut fell at 2-over-par 145, moving 52 players (38 pros and 14 amateurs) to the final round. Among those making it on the number: defending champion David Cooke. ... Sainz needs to shoot 66 on Wednesday for 198, which would be an Illinois Open record. ... The sneaky good rounds of the day were the 67s authored by amateurs Tae Wan Lee at Royal Hawk and Drew Shepherd at Royal Fox. Lee came home in 5-under 30 after an even-par front nine at the Hawk. Conversely, Shepherd went out in 4-under 31 at the Fox and had a double-bogey at the 16th sully his scorecard. ... The flip of the halves of the field between Royal Fox and Royal Hawk told as much about the quality of the field as it did the difficulty of the courses. Tuesday’s group at Royal Fox averaged 73.42, nearly five strokes less than Monday’s half on the course. That group played Royal Hawk and averaged 78.57 on Tuesday, which was 4.07 strokes higher than those who played there Monday. ... The purse is $100,000 for the first time since 2003.

Tim Cronin


It's Carroll and Heavens after one round of 67th Illinois Open

Writing from St. Charles

Monday, July 25, 2016 

Brian Carroll arrived at Royal Hawk Country Club at 6:30 a.m. Monday, fully six hours ahead of his tee time.

When you’re opening the golf shop and the 67th Illinois Open is being played outside the shop door, it’s something you have to do.

Carroll was still fresh when he arrived at the first tee, scoring 6-under-par 66 to tie for the lead with Christian Heavens of downstate Fairview Heights, whose score was crafted in the morning.

Both will play at Royal Fox Country Club on Tuesday, as the two halves of the 254-player field switch courses in the second round. Wednesday’s final round for the low 50 and ties, or anyone within 10 strokes of the lead, is at Royal Fox.

Carroll and Heavens hold a one-stroke lead on a quartet of challengers, including amateur Nick Hardy, who overwhelmed the field in winning the Illinois Amateur last week at St. Charles Country Club. Hardy shares third place with 2013 runner-up Carlos Sainz Jr., Brandon Holtz and Andy Mickelson, a two-time winner on the national club professional scene.

All of the above played at par-72 Royal Hawk, the easier of the two courses. Royal Fox, a par-71 layout, yielded only one under-par score, a 69 by amateur Zach Burry. Across the two courses, 34 players broke par and another 11 were at par.

For Carroll, who knows Royal Hawk intimately, it was a case of following his plan.

“I know how to play this course, but I’d only played it twice this year before last week,” Carroll said. “I knew the angles I wanted to take, had my game plan.”

He also received a bonus, a birdie on the first hole via a 12-foot putt.

“I never really birdie the first hole, because I lay up short to avoid the trouble,” Carroll said.

A birdie on the second followed, but converting a 5-foot putt for eagle on the fifth hole moved him to 4-under, and even a bogey on the sixth didn’t hurt much. Four more birdies in six holes, the longest putt from 15 feet on the par-4 seventh, placed him 7-under with the last six holes, the toughest part of Royal Hawk, to negotiate. Aside from a 6 on the par-5 13th, it was all pars for a 66.
“You never know when this is going to happen,” Carroll said. “I’ve played a lot of average rounds in section stroke plays, sloppy, too many bogeys.”

Heavens reset the Effingham Country Club course record at 64 in winning the qualifier by eight strokes. A First Tee of the Gateway alumna who went to Georgetown College, earning NAIA all-America honors, and turned pro four years ago, the 27-year-old has been looking for his big break, even competing in the Big Break series on Golf Channel.

This season, Heavens has won twice on mini-tours and wangled an invitation to the Trophee Hassan II tournament on the European Tour, where he missed the cut. He was 37th in last year’s Illinois Open.

Heavens’ round opened with an eagle on Royal Hawk’s par-5 10th and closed with five birdies in the last six holes on the front nine.

Sainz and Mickelson also eagled the 10th in their 67s, while Holtz started uncommonly quickly. He was 5-under after five holes thanks to eagles on the second and fifth and a birdie on the par-4 fourth. Holtz’s eagle on the second was set up by driving the green on the 291-yard hole, and was one of three 3s on the hole.

Sainz is scrambling for places to play after losing his PGA Tour card last year. He’s played in one Web.com tournament and missed the cut.

Mickelson won the PGA Assistant Championship at PGA Golf Club in Florida last year, captured the TaylorMade National Championship at Pebble Beach, Calif., in March, and took an Illinois Section Monday tournament at Bowes Creek recently. Monday, he shrugged off a first-hole bogey at Royal Hawk and went 6-under the rest of the way to finish at 5-under 67. Like Sainz, he eagled the par-5 10th, smacking a 188-yard 6-iron to four feet.

“That really got me going,” Mickelson said. “I found something on swing thoughts about three weeks ago and have been riding that momentum.”

Hardy also bogeyed the first, then added six birdies. The Illinois junior has a chance to duplicate David Ogrin’s feat, accomplished in 1980, of winning the Illinois Open and Illinois Amateur in the same year. Nobody else has done it.

The great majority of the low scores were recorded at Royal Hawk, with Burry proving the exception. His 2-under 69 on par-71 Royal Fox was about nine strokes lower than the field average for the course on Monday. Burry, with three birdies offset by one bogey, plays easier Royal Hawk today. The field at par-72 Royal Hawk averaged about 74.4 strokes on Monday, while those at Royal Fox, generally the less known half of the field, averaged about 78.1, with no hole playing under par.

At both courses, keeping the ball in play is critical. For example, strict course management paid off for Bryce Emory of Aurora, who scored 68 at Royal Hawk.

“I hit one driver, on the fifth tee, and the rest irons,” Emory said. “I did a good job keeping it in play.”

Kurtis Luedtke’s 68 at Royal Hawk was achieved in similar fashion.

“This course is about managing your miss,” Luedtke said. “So it was mostly hybrid off the tee, and driver only four times.”

Luedtke’s greater feat was in playing. This is the Lombard resident’s first tournament since rupturing an Achilles tendon in January.

“Actually it could be a blessing in disguise,” Luedtke said. “I’ve been able to work on my fundamentals.”

It paid off. He and Heavens led the field with seven birdies.

Around the Open

Defending champion David Cooke of Bolingbrook opened with a 1-under 71 at Royal Hawk and is tied for 24th. Brad Hopfinger, the winner in 2014, was among the crowd scoring 4-under 68 at Royal Hawk and is tied for seventh. ... Andrew Godfrey of Homewood was humming along at 3-under until he double-bogeyed the last. He had two eagles, on the fifth and seventh holes, and no bogeys. ... Bears cornerback Kyle Fuller, in on a sponsor exemption, scored 27-over 89 at Royal Hawk and is next-to-last among the 250 who completed 18 holes. ... Vince India, last year’s runner-up, withdrew to play in this week’s Web.com tournament in Hayward, Calif.

– Tim Cronin


Reid steals show as U.S. rallies

Writing from Gurnee, Illinois

Friday, July 22, 2016

One-on-two generally doesn’t work.

Statistically, it didn’t work for England’s Mel Reid on Friday at the Merit Club. Forced to play alone when teammate Charley Hull took ill, Reid lost 1 up to Japan’s Haru Nomura and Mika Miyazato.

But emotionally, dramatically, and every other way, Reid was the winner. She was saluted by the gallery, lauded by teammates Holly Clyburn and Jodi Ewart Shadoff – whose tie with Ai Suzuki and Ayaka Watanabe gained England a critical point – and essentially was the queen of the second day’s play in the 2nd International Crown.

Reid was a one-woman team with Hull sidelined, and more than hung in there. Standing 2 down after all holes, she won the par-4 12th hole with a birdie, then eagled the par-4 13th by holing out a three-quarter wedge from 70 yards, squaring the match. That brought forth a roar from a gallery that was already rooting for her.

Then she birdied the par-3 14th to match Miyazato’s bird, and a thought crept into her head.

“Hey, I’ve got a chance here,” Reid thought.

She knew the holes were running out, and some were in her favor.

“I knew they were going to birdie (par-5) 16. They finished birdie-birdie-birdie. I finished birdie-par-birdie. There’s nothing you can really do. If you lose to a birdie, it’s fine.”

Hull said in a statement she was “gutted” from not being able to play. Her asthma kicked up beginning Thursday night after dinner, and, combined with a fever, caught her hard upon waking up Friday.

“I really wanted to join my partner Mel at some point during the match, but at the advice of the medical team, the best thing to do was to rest and get healthy for my team for tomorrow,” Hull said.

England leads Group A with five points to the four each of Thailand and Japan, and the three of the United States.

The Americans got on the board solidly, making up for Thursday’s shutout. Cristie Kerr and Leix Thompson overwhelmed Ariya Jutanugarn and Pornanong Phatlum, winning 4 and 3 on the strength of playing 13-under best-ball golf in 15 holes. They birdied every hole except the third and 13th, a phenomenal performance even when the Merit Club was set up for low scores. The ball still had to reach the green and the putts on greens that are smooth but hardly tabletop flat had to find the cup. Time after time, Kerr or Thompson did just that.

The U.S. was on the verge of a sweep until Moriya Jutanugarn and Porani Chutichai whittled away a two-hole deficit to draw with Americans Stacy Lewis and Gerina Piller. Chutichai’s birdie putt on the 17th made the difference. Lewis had a good look at birdie at the last, but edged the cup after lipping out a chip shot on the 17th.

“With the law of averages, they have to start going in eventually,” Lewis said.

Maybe, maybe not. But the Americans stayed with the same pairings as Thursday, when there were blanked by Thailand, drawing on their successful use at last year’s Solheim Cup as the reason.

“If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it,” said Piller, invoking Bert Lance.

The birdie binge of Kerr and Thompson didn’t translate to a big lead. They didn’t go 2-up until the sixth hole, when both birdied the par 4 while Phatlum and Ariya Jutanugarn failed to do so. Their win, closed out by Thompson’s 25-foot birdie from the fringe on the par-4 15th, was huge.

“I think we need to at least make three points (on Saturday) to guarantee a playoff spot or something like that, and we know what we have to do,” Kerr said. “It’s a hard format, and when you make it to Sunday, there’s a lot more points available in the singles.

“That’s what we’ve got to do. We’ve got to make it to Sunday.”

That’s what the U.S. quartet didn’t do in the inaugural playing two years ago. And if the U.S. earns three points against Japan on Saturday for a total of six, they would leap over Japan, which would have five points, but could end up in third and into the sudden-death playoff, if England and Thailand split. Only a Saturday sweep by the U.S., moving them to seven points, guarantees them at least second place and a berth in Sunday’s finals.

In Group B, Taiwan split with South Korea and continues to lead with six points to Korea’s four. Australia and China are tied for third with three points each. The Australian duo of Minjee Lee and Su Oh won the last hole, via Lee’s birdie, to halve their match with China’s Shanshan Feng and Xi Yu Lin, assuring them of a 3-1 margin in points after Karrie Webb and Rebecca Artis beat Jing Yan and Simin Feng, who is not related to Shanshan Feng.

Around the Crown

Saturday’s play begins at 10:30 a.m., with the playoff between the two third-place teams for the final spot in Sunday’s singles coming immediately after the last match ends. ... Sunday’s singles start at 11 a.m. ... Galleries jumped on Friday, and while no figure was announced, the total was probably close to 4,000. One Merit Club official said the total in South Korea two years from now could exceed 100,000 for the week, given the popularity of the Korean players in their homeland and the chance to win an international competition on home turf. 

Tim Cronin

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