BEACH PARK, Ill. – August 15, 2023 – Mother nature caused all kinds of problems for the Illinois PGA and its Section Championship, but once the Championship officially got underway at Thunderhawk Golf Club, it did not disappoint. Inclement weather caused the first round of the Nadler Golf Cars Illinois PGA Professional Championship to be cancelled, forcing the event to be reduced from a 54-hole Championship to a 36-hole Championship. More rain overnight and into Tuesday morning left the course unplayable and the Illinois PGA was forced to delay Tuesday’s round and modified the round to a 1:30 p.m. shotgun start.
Tuesday’s delay did the trick, as the sun began to shine, and the course became playable once again. Thirteen-time Champion, Mike Small (University of Illinois) leads the way at the Nadler Golf Cars Illinois PGA Professional Championship after a 6-under-par 66.
“It was a good day,” said Small. “I made seven birdies and one bogey. I birdied my first hole and played solid throughout the round and finished with birdies on my last three holes.”
No stranger to fast starts at the Illinois PGA Professional Championship, Small birdied two of his first four holes and quickly found himself in contention. The top of the leaderboard was crowded all day, but Small was able to create some separation on his last nine holes. He finished the day with birdies on four of his last six holes, including three in a row on his final three holes. Already the winningest player in the history of this event, Small is looking to add another victory to his decorated resume.
“There’s a lot of low scores bunched up at the top. You just have to go out and try and make birdies,” said Small. “The course is soft, and the greens are slow and comfortable after all the weather we got. So, you don’t have to worry about too much you just have to go knock down some pins.”
Previous Champions, Andy Mickelson (Mistwood Golf Club), and Jim Billiter (Ivanhoe Club) are tied for second place after matching 5-under-par 67s in round one and trail Small by one stroke.
Mickelson, who won the 2021 Nadler Golf Cars Illinois PGA Professional Championship, carded a bogey-free round on Tuesday and was at the top of the leaderboard for most of the round. Birdies on 11, 14, and 15 got Mickelson to 3-under-par and gave him the early lead. He added two more birdies but was tracked down by Small at the end of the round.
“I just kind of hung in there,” said Mickelson. “It wasn’t my best ball-striking round. I wish it was a round some of my high school kids could’ve seen because it was a really scrappy round but I had a lot of decent looks. I’m looking forward to tomorrow because I feel like I have a lot better golf in the tank.”
A victory for Mickelson would make him just the 20th player to win this event multiple times.
“I’m super comfortable in this situation,” said Mickelson. “I don’t get too high or low in these situations. I just need to stay patient and make sure I’m doing the little things correctly and not get too far ahead of myself. I just need to stay patient and take it one shot at a time.”
Billiter, the 2015 Champion, was even par through his first five holes but played his last nine holes 4-under-par. Billiter got back to red numbers with a birdie on the par-4 first hole and added birdies on holes five and seven. Sitting a couple of shots behind the leaders, Billiter birdied his final two holes to get into a tie for second place with Mickelson.
“I was playing really well yesterday so I’m glad I kept that going into today,” said Billiter. “I ended up birdieing some holes that I shouldn’t have like holes four and five. I played aggressively on holes seven and 11, which gave me some more birdie looks. It’s just nice to do what I’m supposed to do and not make too many mistakes.”
A victory for Billiter would make him just the fifth Illinois PGA Professional to win the Illinois PGA Professional Championship and Illinois PGA Match Play Championship multiple times.
“I have to do better than I’ve been doing the past couple of years finishing tournaments,” said Billiter. “I have to play the best I can tomorrow to go out there and try to beat Andy (Mickelson) and Coach (Mike Small).”
Chris French (Aldeen Golf Club), and Jeff Kellen (Butler National Golf Club) round out the top five after opening rounds of 4-under-par 68. French carded a bogey-free round with four birdies including two on his last four holes.
“I didn’t do anything special out there today,” said French. “I birdied some of the par-5s and made a good par putt on nine to finish my round and kept it in play all day. I didn’t make too many putts today so it could have been a couple lower, but overall, I’m pretty happy with my first round.”
Kellen’s round was a little more interesting. He bogeyed his first three holes and was 3-over-par through his first nine holes. Kellen found his stride down the stretch as he finished the round 7-under-par in the last eight holes with an eagle on the seventh hole and five birdies in a row on holes eight through 12.
“I got off to a horrendous start,” said Kellen. “I bogeyed my first three out of the gates and hit it into the penalty area on 18 to start that hole. I managed to get up and down from 100 yards to save par there and gave myself a little pep talk and starting on seven things just went my way. I eagled the seventh hole and then drove the green on eight and it was off to the races.”
Matthew Rion (Briarwood Golf Club), and Brian Carroll (The Hawk Country Club) are tied for sixth place after 3-under-par 69s. Rion started the day 2-under-par through his first four holes. A double bogey on the par-3 17th hole seemed to throw Rion off his game shortly. He was 1-over-par with five holes to play when he drove the green on the par-4 eighth hole and made an eagle. Rion proceeded to birdie holes 10, 11, and 12 to close out his round at 3-under-par.
Carroll, the defending Champion of this event, had a similar round as Rion. He started off 3-over-par through his first three holes but fought his way back throughout the round. He birdied the 16th hole to get his round started and had a nice stretch on holes one through three in which he was 4-under-par with an eagle on the second hole and found himself 2-under-par. An eagle on the seventh hole capped off the round for Carroll who was the only player to eagle two holes in the first round.
Cameron Beeler (Oak Park Country Club), Steve Orrick, Jr. (Bloomington Country Club), and Kyle Donovan (Oak Park Country Club) round out the top 10 with 2-under-par 70s.
The top nine finishers at the Nadler Golf Cars Illinois PGA Professional Championship will qualify for the 2024 PGA Professional Championship. These spots do not include Mike Small or Chris French, who are already exempt for the 2024 PGA Professional Championship. The final round of the Illinois PGA Professional Championship will be played tomorrow at Thunderhawk Golf Club. Tee times will begin at 8:00 a.m. with the leaders teeing off at 1:00 p.m.
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The Illinois Section of the PGA of America is a professional organization serving the men and women golf professionals in northern and central Illinois who are the recognized experts in growing, teaching and managing the game of golf. The Illinois PGA is responsible for the administration of competitive golf tournaments, educational opportunities, support programs and growth of the game initiatives. With over 840 members and associates, the Illinois PGA is one of the 41 regional Sections that comprise the PGA of America. The Illinois PGA Foundation focuses its community efforts on promoting the goodwill and growth of the game with an emphasis on activities that benefit youth. Foundation initiatives include: GolfWorks Illinois, Youth-based Scholarship Funds and the Illinois Golf Hall of Fame. For more information about the Illinois PGA and the Illinois PGA Foundation, please visit www.ipga.com and join us on Facebook, Twitter or Instagram.
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Illinois PGA Communications