The Illinois PGA Championship
A century of champions
by Tim Cronin for the Illinois PGA
The Illinois PGA Championship, the annual battle for the Illinois Section crown, is older than it appears.
Look at the Willie Marshall Trophy, the original bauble that sits proudly in the Section’s office at the Glen Club, and the first winner on it is no less than Jock Hutchison, the champion in 1923.
He was the first winner of the trophy, but he wasn’t the first Illinois PGA winner.
That honor is held by Eddie Loos, the professional at Lake Shore Country Club, who scored 1-over-par 145 and beat Hutchison, the sage of Glen View Club, by a stroke at Westmoreland Country Club on Sept. 15, 1922.
Eddie’s name isn’t on the trophy because there was no trophy in 1922. It wasn’t around yet.
That means this year’s championship, which begins Monday on the devilish South Course of Olympia Fields Country Club, is the 95th in an unbroken line going back to 1922 under the Illinois PGA name.
An argument could be made that the three-day imbroglio is really the 98th for the section’s pros. This is the Illinois PGA’s centennial year, with the original name of the section was the Middle States PGA Section, one of the seven originals of the PGA of America, headquartered in Chicago and covering a swath of land from Ontario to the Gulf Coast. In late 1921, the boundaries were reworked, with the others splitting off. Middle States was renamed Illinois.
The original reason for section championships was to send the leaders to the PGA Championship. They were held three times in the Middle States era – 1916, when George Simpson won at Glen View Club, 1919, when Bob MacDonald won at Oak Park Country Club, and 1920, when Laurie Ayton won at Westmoreland, and Loos was the runner-up. With no PGA in 1917 and 1918, there was no need for the sections to tee it up, and in 1921, curiously, the PGA decided that defending champion Hutchison would be joined by the top 31 finishers in the U.S. Open.
Because of the travel involved, few professionals outside of Illinois, and especially the Chicago area played in the three Middle States Section Championships. Most all the usual suspects from 1920 were back at Westmoreland in 1922, when the Illinois appellation was first applied.
All of this was ignored in June of 1923, when the Section decided at the annual meeting that Willie Marshall, the longtime Onwentsia Club professional who had died the previous spring, should be remembered with a trophy for the section championship. It was bought, Hutchison’s name was the first engraved on it, and nobody looked back, not even Loos, who took the title in 1924, giving him two wins and two runner-up spots when 1920 is included.
(There was another odd complication. Hutchison and Loos didn’t actually win the tournaments they played in in 1923 and 1924. The IPGA Championship was played as a subset of the Illinois Open, which was won by Joe Kirkwood in 1923 and Leo Diegel in 1924. Hutchison and Loos were second in each case.)
In 1925, the championship was again conducted separately, and has been since. Hutchison won that one, the second of his three titles, that trio of crowns beginning a trend. Of the first 94 playings – 97 including the Middle States years – 12 players have dominated, winning three or more times, for a total of 51 championships.
Hutchison was the first three-time winner, followed quickly by Al Espinosa (1926-27-30). In 1929, James Foulis Jr. won the first of his four, and was the first player to capture the championship in three different decades when he beat Johnny Revolta in a playoff at Glen Flora Country Club in 1943.
Revolta, the raven-haired stylist from Evanston Golf Club, took dominance to a different realm. He would win the section title six times, beginning with a run of three straight in 1936. He’d capture his last title in 1947, beating Ky Laffoon, who was a runner-up four times before grabbing his single victory in 1950.
The next multiple winners to come along were fast friends. Errie Ball (1949-55-65) and Bill Ogden (1953-57-60-71-72) also combined for five runner-up placings. You could count on one or the other to be in the hunt though the mid-1960s, with Ogden’s 1970s surge the stuff of legends.
By then Tony Holguin (1954-62-70) had also won three, and Bob Zender would be the next, controversially. He won three straight starting in 1976 while playing the PGA Tour, and won his last two starts by a combined 14 strokes. Some club pros wanted him banned from section play, but that storm blew over, only to return when Rick Dalpos won in 1990 and 1991 while a tourist. Since that, touring pros have been barred from the IPGA Championship.
Gary Groh was a Tour veteran comfortably settled at Bob O’Link when he won the first of his four titles in 1983. The most impressive might have been his last, in 2002, when he beat defending champion Mike Small in a three-hole playoff at Kemper Lakes Golf Course. Groh was 57 at the time.
Jim Sobb and Steve Benson are also three-time winners – and twice runners-up – but Small, head coach of Illinois’ men’s team, trumped everyone when he came back from that playoff defeat to win eight straight titles from 2003 to 2010, doing so by anywhere from one to 11 strokes. He’s since added titles in 2013 and 2014 for a total of 11, winning by a total of 45 strokes while playing the 33 rounds at 84-under-par. His low round in 2010, a 63 on Olympia Fields’ South Course featuring six birdies and an eagle, set the competitive course record.
Small’s total of 13-under 200 at Olympia South that year, and his 16-under 200 at Stonewall Orchard Golf Course in 2014, are the low aggregates for the Illinois PGA Championship. But the low round in championship history is owned by Bob Harris. The meteor from Sunset Ridge Country Club scalded Arlington Country Club with a 9-under 62 in the second round of the 1959 contest to beat Tony Holguin by two strokes.
Close calls abound in the Illinois PGA Championship, and some have been heartbreakers. Mike Harrigan, who finished solo second or shared it five times, might have the topper. In 1979, the first year the tournament was played at Kemper Lakes, he stood on the 18th tee in the final round as the leader, even after bogeys on the 15th, 16th and 17th holes. He made a 9 on the par-4 finishing hole and finished in a tie for third, four strokes behind winner Emil Esposito. Kemper impresario Jim Kemper was so impressed by Esposito’s steady play, he hired him as Kepmer Lakes’ head pro.
Great shots have also figured in the outcome. Perhaps the greatest was Steve Benson’s timely 6-iron ace on the 171-yard 17th at Kemper Lakes in 1994. It lifted him to a one-stroke victory over Jim Estes and the last of his three titles.
Nobody’s won by more than the 11-stroke margin Small crafted in 2010, but more than half the time, the margin of victory is two strokes or less, including 11 playoffs – the one way Small hasn’t won.
There’s always something new in the Illinois PGA Championship. For an old staple, it’s looking quite young.