GRAYSLAKE | It had been a long time since a club professional from downstate Illinois won the Illinois PGA Championship.
Say, 60 years. Mike Sipula, owner of Pine Hills Golf Course in Ottawa, captured the title back in 1952. And in the first 89 years, he was the only club pro from outside the Chicago area – not counting Champaign-based University of Illinois head coach Mike Small, who need not deal with selling shirts, giving lessons, and running the member-member – to break through.
Sipula’s name now has neighborly company on the Jim Kemper Cup. Steve Orrick, head pro at the Country Club of Decatur since 2007, overcame a four-stroke deficit Wednesday to collect the title, the trophy, the $11,000 first prize and the plaudits of his peers.
The key was simple. Orrick hit almost every fairway and made almost every putt he looked at on the way to a 7-under-par 65 at Stonewall Orchard Golf Club, an Arthur Hills design that presents vexing problems for those who don’t hit the fairway.
Except for Orrick, that is. A rare missed fairway created a sidehill lie on the par-4 11th hole, and Orrick still bounced his approach shot off the flagstick with a 6-iron from 184 yards for a tap-in birdie.
When it’s your day, it’s your day.
“It’s been a while since I actually felt comfortable over the ball,” said Orrick, crediting his comfort to a lesson from Bloomington golf guru Ken Jacobs a fortnight back. “That made a huge difference. All three days I felt really good.”
His total of 9-under-par 207 earned him a five-stroke victory over Curtis Malm of Aurora, the leader entering the final round. Malm bogeyed three of his first five holes, then gave away the fruits of birdies on the seventh and eighth with a double-bogey on the watery, par-3 ninth.
That dropped him a stroke behind Orrick at the turn, and with Orrick carding 5-under 31 on the back, finishing things off with a 12-foot birdie at the par-5 18th, there was no catching up.
“I knew (Orrick) was going to shoot something good, 68, 67, something like that,” Malm said. “I knew if I got in the 60s I had a pretty good chance of winning.”
Instead, he shot 75.
“What are you gonna do?” Malm asked.
Orrick, 35, won the Illinois PGA’s Players Championship, a 36-hole joust at Eagle Ridge, in 2008 and 2009. But this one had gotten away from him on Medinah Country Club’s No. 1 Course four years ago, when he chased Small down the stretch, and lost even though Small double-bogeyed the last hole. And in the wake of Orrick this time around: Small, who followed rounds of 70 and 71 – good for 3-under 141 and three in arrears of Malm entering the final fray – with a sour 75 for even-par 216 and fourth place. David Pagelow of DeKalb was third, at 215.
For Orrick, the close call at Medinah was something to file away in the motivation department. For a pro, winning the section championship brings with it not only a decent check, but added respect among your peers.
“I did think about it and drew a little bit out of it, but I didn’t think too much about it,” Orrick said of 2008. “Today, I did not have a number in mind. I knew Curtis was playing well after shooting 66 the second day. My thought was, just keep feeling good over the ball, and hopefully the putter would get hot. It did.”
Orrick said this was his biggest career victory, and only a narrow miss for a spot in the PGA Championship at a previous PGA club pro championship was as memorable. Next June, he’ll be able to chase that dream again, along with 10 other Illinois pros.
Among them are Small, who has a lifetime exemption as a past champion in the club pro (formally the PGA National Professional Championship), veteran Jim Sobb and Malm.
For Malm, the final round was bittersweet. Second place wasn’t to his liking, but qualifying for the club pro for the first time was.
“Ultimately, my goal was to get to Oregon, and we’ll do that,” Malm said. Next year’s PPNC is at Sunriver Resort in central Oregon.
Simon Allan, Jordan Schroeder, Dan Olsen and Chad Callan survived a five-for-four playoff for the last spots, with Rich Dukelow of Orland Park the odd man out.
Entering the final round, Bryn Mawr assistant Katie Dick was in the running for a top-10 finish and thus a spot in the club pro. After rounds of 76 and 70 for a 36-hole total of 2-over 146, she stumbled to an 81 and missed the playoff by seven strokes. Dick also made the cut for the final round two years ago at Olympia Fields.
Orrick’s five-stroke margin was impressive, but not close to the record. Small won by 11 strokes in 2010, when Travis Johns finished second. This time, he was tied for fifth, 10 strokes behind Orrick. … Pagelow’s final-round 67 was only the third round under 70 in the tournament. … Stonewall Orchard, a public course, will continue to host the Illinois PGA every three years thanks to a deal made Aug. 27. It returns in 2015 and 2018. The next two playings are at private clubs of note: Olympia Fields and Medinah. The latter will be the first outside tournament played on Medinah’s No. 1 Course after a remodeling that will begin the day after the conclusion of the Ryder Cup.