Dunlap native Jeff Ott pulled away on the final day of competition for a four-stroke victory
33rd Illinois State Senior Amateur Championship Sept. 9-11 • Westmoreland Country Club (Wilmette)
Day Three: Wednesday, Sept. 11
OTT'S WINDING ROAD CULMINATES WITH STATE SENIOR CROWN
WILMETTE, Ill. - It's approximately 170 miles from Jeff Ott's hometown of Dunlap, just north of Peoria, to Westmoreland Country Club in Wilmette. Ott's journey to hoisting the Earl R. Liff Trophy as champion of the 33rd Illinois State Senior Amateur Championship was much longer than that, however.
The youngest of five boys, Ott's first competitive phase was baseball, playing collegiately at the University of Iowa before ascending to the Double-A level of the New York Yankees system, where he was managed by Bucky Dent. After that, it was competitive travel slow pitch softball until the age of 48, when Ott's “body didn't want to play softball anymore.”
Then, the now 57-year-old Ott turned to golf, improving his game until becoming skilled enough to compete in his first marquee event – the 2017 Illinois State Senior Amateur Championship at Senica's Oak Ridge, where he finished T16. He also made the cut in the 2018 iteration before having to withdraw in advance of the final round to attend the funeral of his wife's uncle.
His winding road culminated Wednesday at Westmoreland, where he entered the final round tied atop the leaderboard with Andrew Gabelman (Barrington / Butler National) before firing a 3-over 75 to pull away for a four-stroke victory at even par for the championship.
“I've got great support – good friends here that were rooting for me,” said an emotional Ott, fighting back tears following his victory. “I just wanted to come out and I felt like, even if I didn't win, if I played well, I would have been very happy with what happened today.
“As fate would have it, here I am,” Ott added. “I'm just trying to soak it in.”
Ott and Gabelman fought toe-to-toe throughout the entirety of the championship. Gabelman held a one-stroke advantage following the opening round on Monday, besting Ott's 69 with a 68, before Ott drew even with a 72 in the second round on Tuesday.
Ott got off to an inauspicious start in the decisive round on Wednesday, bogeying the first three holes and falling two strokes behind Gabelman out of the gate. Admittedly unfamiliar with competing in the final group of a high-profile golf event, Ott had early struggles with the slick Westmoreland greens, but maintained a positive disposition to right the ship.
“The greens were firmer and faster today, and I feel like the scores were an indication of the fact that it affected everybody out there,” Ott said following a final round in which the field scoring average was 79.4. “I just tried to stay patient knowing that there was a lot of golf to play and that I really wasn't hitting bad shots. I just had to fine tune it a little bit.”
Following another bogey on No. 7, Ott began to make his move with a birdie on the 481-yard par-5 eighth. After a Gabelman bogey on No. 9 brought the pair even again, another red number came for Ott on the 505-yard par-5 11th, giving him his first lead of the day. Despite having the ability to go for the green in two, Ott analyzed the risk-reward machinations on each hole and opted for the conservative approach.
“I laid up into good positions,” Ott said of his par-5 birdies. “I was relying on the wedge game today.”
The lead increased to three strokes on the par-4 12th, where he countered Gabelman's double bogey with a par. Ott gave two of those strokes back with bogeys on Nos. 13 and 14, before righting the ship and grabbing a three-stroke lead with an 8-foot birdie putt on the 397-yard par-4 16th.
“The last four or five holes, I felt like I rolled it pretty good, but didn't get anything out of it,” Ott said. “I tried to just trust that if I kept putting good rolls on it, one would drop. I was fortunate for that one to go in.”
Gabelman ended up in second, four shots behind Ott at 4 over. David Feder (Lincolnshire / Conway Farms GC) finished third at 6 over, while defending champion Tim Sheppard (East Peoria / Pekin Park District), who Ott considers a close friend, placed fourth at 7 over.
“He's a great player,” Ott said of Sheppard. “I've always looked up to him and he's the bar, he sets it.”
Tom Kearfott (El Paso / El Paso GC), the 2017 champion, rounded out the top five. The top 20 and ties all earned exemptions into the 2020 Illinois State Senior Amateur Championship.
The 2019 CDGA Championship schedule will conclude with the 4th CDGA Senior Amateur Four-Ball Championship, Sept. 23-26 at Calumet Country Club.
Day Two: Tuesday, Sept. 10
OTT, GABELMAN SHARE LEAD FOLLOWING PENULTIMATE DAY
WILMETTE, Ill. - Jeff Ott (Dunlap / Coyote Creek) stepped to the tee of Westmoreland Country Club's sixth hole, the 15th of his second round in the 33rd Illinois State Senior Amateur Championship, needing a spark. What was only a one-stroke deficit to Andrew Gabelman (Barrington / Butler National) entering the day had ballooned to six.
The brawny 57-year-old initially considered laying up with a 3-wood before fearlessly switching to driver, a decision that was rewarded with an eagle and eventually a share of the lead with Gabelman heading in to Wednesday's final round.
“I thought, ‘Well, I'll just take a shot at teeing it up a little higher and let the wind help,' ” Ott said of his decision-making process. “I got a real good kick when it landed. I thought it was going to kick right, but it actually came back left and trickled up, gave me a good downhill 15-foot look at it. It was a tough little but, barely good get it started, but it trickled in.”
Ott carded an even-par 72 on the afternoon to leave him at 3-under for the championship, tied with Gabelman, who notched a 1-over 73. Gabelman was 3-under for the day and 6-under overall through 12 holes before strengthening winds led to three bogeys coming in.
“The greens got a little bit crustier, so you had to be a little bit more precise,” Gabelman explained. “I'd like to have a couple of wedges back on those last three or four holes. It was a good test. You had to control your ball. The wind was different.”
The low round of the day belonged to defending champion Tim Sheppard (East Peoria / Pekin Park District), who bounced back from an opening-round 74 on Monday with a 2-under 70 on Tuesday. The long-hitter's increased familiarity with the unique challenges presented by Westmoreland's plentiful fairway bunkers paid dividends in the second round.
“The sightlines here are different from anything I've ever played,” Sheppard said. “You've got bunkers staggered every 20 yards, so hitting it down the middle doesn't necessarily work. I struggled yesterday…a little better today.”
Sheppard enters Wednesday's final round in fourth place at even par overall, with 2017 Illinois State Senior Amateur champion Tom Kearfott (El Paso / El Paso GC) in third following rounds of 72 and 71. Tom Fox (Palos Heights / Beverly CC) rounds out the top five at 2-over after vaulting up the leaderboard with a 1-under 71 on Tuesday.
Low Super Senior honors were awarded to Tommy Robinson (Grayslake / Deerfield GC), as the 66-year-old is T6 at 3-over following rounds of 75 and 72.
In total, 35 players survived the 36-hole cut, which came at 12-over par. Play in Wednesday's final round will begin at 7:30 a.m., with the final grouping of Gabelman, Ott and Kearfott teeing off at 9:20 a.m.
Day One: Monday, Sept. 9
GABELMAN FIRES 4-UNDER 68 TO SIT ATOP ILLINOIS STATE SENIOR AMATEUR LEADERBOARD
WILMETTE, Ill. - It's been close to 30 years since Andrew Gabelman (Barrington / Butler National) last played Westmoreland Country Club. The course, with its strategically-placed fairway bunkers and undulating greens, may have looked a bit different to the 60-year-old since then.
But that didn't matter on Monday.
Gabelman carded a 4-under par 68 at the Wilmette track to take the lead following the first round of the 33rd Illinois State Senior Amateur Championship. He notched four birdies and an eagle, to just two bogeys and sits one shot clear of Jeff Ott (Dunlap / Coyote Creek) heading into Tuesday's second round. Gabelman and Ott were the only two players in the 87-man field to finish in red numbers by day's end.
“My mindset was yellow light all day,” said Gabelman. “I hadn't played out here in 30 years, so I just tried to hit fairways, keep it out of the bunkers. I hit every green until the 18th.”
Gabelman made the turn at 4 under, thanks to birdies on Nos. 5 and 9, and an eagle on the par-5 8th, aided by a drive that positioned him with an approach he was able to be aggressive with.
“I had a perfect yardage,” said Gabelman. “I was 200 to the middle. I told myself on the par 5s that I'm not going to go unless I have a good yardage, so it's just a stock 5-iron for me and it worked out fine.”
On the back nine, Gabelman finished with bogeys on No. 10, following a three-putt, and No. 18, in which he missed the green in the right-side bunker. In his first appearance in the event, and coming off a hand injury that kept him off the course until last year, Gabelman will continue to look at the positives from his lack of experience at Westmoreland.
“Sometimes that's to your benefit, just plot it along from A to B,” said Gabelman.
In his third appearance in the event, Ott carded five red numbers to just two bogeys. The 57-year-old was able to keep the ball in play off the tee, and with no three-putts on the day, maximized his scoring opportunities.
“You've got to roll the ball well out here, the greens are so fast, the undulations,” said Ott. “Get yourself in the correct spots on the green to be aggressive on the putts. It's a great event, I'm excited to be here, and I feel good about where I am with my game.”
The entire field will play 18 more holes on Tuesday, with tee times beginning at 8 a.m. The low 35 and ties will advance to Wednesday's 18-hole final round. A low super senior, age 65 and older, will be crowned following play on Tuesday.
STATE'S ELITE SENIORS TO CONVERGE ON WESTMORELAND
LEMONT, Ill. - The best amateur golfers in Illinois age 55 and up are slated to duke it out at Westmoreland Country Club, Sept. 9-11, in the 33rd Illinois State Senior Amateur Championship.
The entire 87-golfer field will play 18 holes of stroke play on both Monday, Sept. 9 and Tuesday, Sept. 10. The field will then be cut to the low 35 and ties for an 18-hole finale on Wednesday, Sept. 11.
The Earl R. Liff Trophy is awarded to the victor of the event, which was first contested at Pine Meadow Golf Course in 1987 and won by Fritz Franz.
ABOUT THE FIELD
A total of 207 individuals registered for the event, which was open to Illinois residents age 55 and up with an official USGA Handicap Index® of 10.4 or below. The field for Westmoreland was determined through 25 exemptions and three qualifiers held across the state in August, from which 62 players advanced.
Championship Information The Illinois State Senior Amateur Championship, conducted annually by the Chicago District Golf Association, was first held in 1987. The Championship is open to Illinois residents age 55 and older. It is a 54-hole event, with the entire field playing 36 holes over the course of two days and the low 35 and ties playing the final 18 on the third day. The winner of the Championship is the recipient of the Earl R. Liff Trophy, which was claimed by Tim Sheppard in 2018.