MEDINAH, Ill. – Three holes into the round, and Jim Billiter’s three-stroke overnight lead in the 93rd Illinois PGA Championship was gone.
“Thank God I birdied No. 3 or it would have been a different story,” Billiter said after holding off Matt Slowinski by two strokes and fast-closing Travis Johns by three on Medinah Country Club’s Course One to capture his first section title and second state major of the year.
Billiter, from Libertyville’s Merit Club, scored 1-under 70 for a total of 9-under-par 204 to capture the Jim Kemper Cup and the $10,000 first prize. He played the last 11 holes in 3-under-par after going 2-over on the first seven holes.
That birdie on the par-4 third, created via a chip to one inch, broke the instant tie Slowinski forged with a pair of birdies and Billiter going out 5-5, the latter a bogey. And Slowinski bogeying the third, fourth and fifth provided separation as well.
It was anything but smooth sailing for Billiter, who survived a case of the hooks, including the tee shots on the 10th, 11th and 12th holes.
“I had no business making par,” Billiter said.
He did on all three occasions, twice thanks to remarkable recoveries from some of Medinah’s thousands of trees, and with both Slowinski – 4-under on the last six holes – and Johns, who like Slowinski closed in 3-under 32, putting pressure on, par saves were key. Billiter one-putted the first five holes on the back, including birdies on the 13th and 14th, and then parred in.
“I didn’t think I could ever win this one,” Billiter said. “I’m more a match-play guy.”
He won the Illinois PGA Match Play title at Kemper Lakes on a raw day in May. Capturing the Illinois PGA Championship in the same year puts him in company with eight other players, seven of whom are in the Illinois Golf Hall of Fame.
“I never thought I could win one major, much less two,” Billiter said.
As the only player to score under par all three days, Slowinski did his best to disrupt Billiter’s glory. For him the killer was a bogey created by a bad chip on the par-4 11th. He birdied the next three holes and the 17th to finish with 69 for 206, but Billiter wouldn’t crack.
“I was happy with the way I played today,” Slowinski said. “I tried to make it interesting. It was going to be hard to catch Jim. When he hit bad shots, he was making nice pars, and on his good holes, he made birdies. He didn’t really let anyone get close.
“On the 11th, Jim saved par and we (he and Steve Orrick) both made bogey.”
Orrick, the 2012 champion, started the day four strokes behind but never put a string of birdies together and scored 1-over 72 to finish fourth at 3-under 210.
Slowinski’s last chance to make a move came on the 14th, when he rolled in a curling 30-footer for birdie. Billiter rolled in an 8-footer on top of him.
Johns, one of Medinah’s teaching pros, started the day six strokes behind, and was still four back at the turn. Then he birdied the 10th, 11th, 13th and 15th holes to climb within two strokes. But just as quickly, a three-putt bogey at the 16th knocked him out of contention, and when Slowinski birdied the par-5 17th, Johns was shuffled back to third even with a 67 for 207.
Defending champion Mike Small’s 1-under 70 lifted him to a tie for seventh at 2-over 215.