May 20, 2016

ST. CHARLES – 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.

Notable: 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.