After the morning downpour, it was a day for throwing darts to the greens of Ravinia Green Country Club in Riverwoods, and Andy Mickelson and Dakun Chang threw them best of all.
Playing on opposite sides of the course in the windless late afternoon, both Mickelson and Chang scored 6-under-par 66s in the opening round of the 69th Illinois Open.
They thus displaced Illinois sophomore Brendan O’Reilly of Hinsdale, whose 5-under 67 was the best of the morning wave and earned him the lead for three hours. Second-year professional Kyle Kochevar of Glen Ellyn and Marquette junior Matt Murlick of Winnetka matched O’Reilly’s effort late in the day.
Mickelson’s approach game was on the mark all day, but especially on No. 8, the 195-yard par-3, where he stuck a 6-iron six inches from the cup, the par-4 15th, where he dropped a 120-yard pitching wedge a foot from the pin, and the par-4 16th, where he had to punch out from trees and then holed a 55-yard pitch for a birdie.
“I was pretty focused for some reason,” said Mickelson, a professional at Mistwood Golf Club who lives in Lockport. “I’m really happy. This is as good as it gets for me. My wedge game’s one of my stronger suits.”
Minutes later, Chang came in with his matching 66.
“I had a good game plan coming in,” said Chang, an assistant at Twin Orchard. “Irons off the tees, score on the par 3s. I just tried to keep it in the fairway.”
He birdied three of the four short holes and two par-5s as well, along with the par-4 fourth.
“The greens were soft,” Chang said.
Mickelson and Chang are two strokes ahead of a sixsome including Kurt Slattery, Doug Bauman, Brandon Holtz and Brian Bullington, all of whom, like O’Reilly, have stories to tell. Among the highlights:
• O’Reilly is entering his sophomore year at Illinois, where he crashed the lineup as a freshman on several occasions, and recently took third at the Magnolia Amateur and eighth in the Western Junior.
• Slattery, an assistant at Pinnacle Golf Course near Rock Island, made it into the John Deere Classic last year with an eagle-eagle finish, but was disqualified from last year’s Illinois Open when officials saw he was using a push cart rather than taking a cart or using a caddie. He’d like to make up for that faux pas.
• Bauman is 61 and bidding to become the oldest winner by about a decade, but also the low Bauman, as Greg, one of the sons of the longtime Biltmore pro, is also in the field.
• Holtz was the low professional last year and ended up $13,886 richer, tying for second behind winner Patrick Flavin.
Amateur Drew Pershing of downstate Washington and Daniel Hudson of Western Springs were the leading players at The Glen Club, also 4-under through 14 and 12 holes respectively, before the thunderstorm-delayed play stopped for the day.
Right behind them are notables including longtime campaigner Gary March, whose 3-under 69 featured a half-dozen birdies but also a double-bogey, and Ricky Palonis, whose 2-under 70 was one of several at that level but who is fortunate to be alive, much less playing golf.
Defending champion Patrick Flavin began his professional career with a 2-under 70.
All of the above played Ravinia Green, a shorter and tighter course than the more brawny Glen Club, where Wednesday’s final round will be contested. The low player of those finishing at The Glen Club, where play was delayed for 2 hours 25 minutes compared to the 1:45 at Ravinia Green, is Shaun McElroy, at 2-under 70, tied for 15th overall. The halves of the field switch courses for the second round.
O’Reilly’s single-bogey round was punctuated by six birdies, including a 40-foot putt to open the day on No. 1.
“Now I’ve got momentum,” O’Reilly said of that eye-opener. “Now I’m into the round.”
He stayed in it, and was 4-under after a birdie on No. 10. He made up for a bogey on the short par-4 No. 12, where he hit his tee shot out of bounds and escaped with only a 5, with birdies on the 16th and 17th to get to 5-under.
Slattery birdied the first two holes, gave those back immediately with bogeys on the third and fourth holes, then birdied Nos. 6, 7, where he considered himself fortunate to not hit his tee ball out of bounds, and converted a 30-footer for a birdie, 11 and 15 with nary a miscue to score his 68.
“I was driving it really well today,” Slattery said. “No special, just really solid. I could have shot 65, or 70.”
Holtz, if might be recalled, sells football equipment to youth groups year-round from his Bloomington office, and the Illinois Open comes in his busy season. But he carved out time to fire a 68 to start his bid to win the trophy along with the big check.
“This is very much a target golf course, and I like to rip it,” Holtz said. “You have to think out there. At The Glen Club, you can whale on it.”
Merlick’s 67 was bogey-free and featured a quartet of birdies on his opening nine, including a 40-footer on No. 12, and one, from eight feet, in the gloaming on No. 9 to end the day.
“I know going in that this course, I needed to attack, so I came out guns blazing and made a lot of birdies,” Merlick said. “It was so soft even my 7-irons would spin back a little bit.”
Bauman called his 68 “My best round in the last seven or eight Opens,” and it was built on the strength of an inward 4-under 32, including a chip-in eagle 3 on the par-5 11th and birdies on the 12th and 18th holes.
“It’s nice to put up a good score,” Bauman said. “I’m playing better the last couple years. Having four kids play golf, it keeps me swinging hard.”
Then there’s Palonis, who starred in high school golf at Lincoln-Way Central and was starting a pro career when he was severely injured in an auto accident.
“My blood pressure was 18,” Palonis recalled. “I was on the way out.”
The recovery was arduous, but is complete, including a spinal fusion that kept him off the course for nine months. That operation worked, and Palonis is looking for sponsorship for his winter destination: the South African Tour, for which he qualified in the spring.
Given all that, 2-under 70 to open his title quest was a delight.
“I see life from a different lens now,” Palonis said. “This is definitely a bonus, no question.”
Notable: Tuesday’s order of business is to finish the first round at The Glen Club, after which those players will go to Ravinia Green for the second round, while Monday’s Ravinia Green contingent will tackle The Glen Club, weather permitting. ... The field at Ravinia Green averaged 74.70 strokes on the 6,870-yard course, while the preliminary average at the 7,101-yard Glen Club was 77.06.