Emil Esposito vividly recalls the 1966 Illinois Open, but then how could he forget it? The popular long-time Chicago club professional won the title on the same course that will co-host the tournament this year.
Esposito, now in his 50th season as a golf professional, would win the Illinois Open again in 1974 and capture the Illinois PGA Championship in 1979.
“Those were good years,” he said, “and Briarwood was the start. You could put our section of guys against any in the country back then. We had a lot of great pros in our section.”
Among them was Jack Fleck, who shocked the golf world when he beat Ben Hogan in a playoff for the U.S. Open championship at Olympic Club in San Francisco in 1955. Fleck came into the 1966 Illinois Open as the defending champion.
His title defense wasn’t to be, however. Esposito recalls Fleck dealing with unusually cold weather by bundling up in a wool hat and overcoat and conditions weren’t ideal for any player in the field. Esposito’s winning score was 7-over-par 220 for the 54 holes.
In the last round Esposito was paired with Tony Holguin, a PGA TOUR player and club pro at Midlothian Country Club, which was an ideal pairing.
“We were like brothers,” said Esposito. “On the 10th tee I topped my drive and it went about 100 yards. Tony told me to just take it easy and keep making pars.” That was good advice, but Esposito still needed to beat Don Stickney in a playoff before he could claim the title.
Esposito was 28 when he won at Briarwood and still fostering hopes of playing on the PGA Tour. While working at Salt Creek in Wood Dale for his brother Lou, Emil played the circuit part time in 1966, 1967 and 1968. Finally, after another frustrating miss in a PGA Tour qualifying event, he had enough. He drove straight home from Florida non-stop.
“I couldn’t take it anymore. Wild horses couldn’t get me out there,” he recalled, but there was still plenty of golf – even tournament golf – in his future.
Esposito met his wife Theresa at the 1960 Milwaukee Open. She was working for a local radio station, and he had made a hole-in-one in the pro-am. They married later that year and have had a unique family link ever since. Emil, Theresa and
Theresa’s sister Veronica all celebrate their birthdays on November 25.
After giving the PGA Tour a solid shot Esposito has been all about family life and club jobs. Emil and Theresa have two children — son Greg and daughter Tina – and have long been Mount Prospect residents.
Esposito landed a head a pro’s job at Brookwood Country Club in 1968 and stayed there until 1976. While on that job he won his second Illinois Open title at Rolling Green, in Arlington Heights, in 1974 in a duel with Hubby Habjan, the long-time pro at Onwentsia in Lake Forest. That win got Esposito into the Western Open at Medinah, and he led that tournament briefly after going 3-under-par in his first eight holes and played all 72 holes of the event.
Esposito departed Brookwood after an ownership change and settled at Mount Prospect from 1976 to 1985. While there he claimed the Illinois PGA Championship in 1979, a win that qualified for the 1979 PGA Championship at Oakland Hills, in Michigan.
To get ready for that big moment he wangled an invitation to the Kemper Open, where he played a practice round with Seve Ballesteros and Jose Maria Olazabal. That practice round, in which the three players were followed by a gallery estimated at 3,000, was fun. The tournament rounds not so much. Esposito shot two 87s.
Eventually Esposito left Mount Prospect for the recently opened Kemper Lakes in Kildeer in 1985. That coveted position came down to Esposito and then-Exmoor assistant and now teaching guru for the touring pros Hank Haney. It didn’t hurt that Esposito had won his Illinois PGA Championship at Kemper in 1979 – the first in a 24-year run that Kemper hosted the tournament. Esposito and Kemper Lakes made for a good fit.
“That was a dream job for me,” said Esposito. “I’d work from 6:30 a.m. to 7:30 p.m. and couldn’t wait to get back to work. I really enjoyed that job.”
Kemper hosted the 1989 PGA Championship while Esposito was there and the Ameritech Senior Open was an annual stop for a while. Esposito teed it up with the touring pros in some of those events before opting for part-time work in 2003.
Now 79, Esposito has touched more golfers through his teaching than he can count. He’s done it at a variety of locations, but most recently at The Glen Club in Glenview.
“I don’t know how many people I’ve taught, but it was a big number,” he said. “I teach basic fundamentals. I enjoy teaching. It’s been wonderful. I’ve had a great, great career. I have no qualms about anything.”
And he is rich in memories, with Briarwood high on his list. Esposito is sure to be on hand when the 68th Illinois Open bounces between the Deerfield private club and The Glen Club from August 7-9.