SPRINGFIELD, Ill. — For the second time in three years, Tee-K Kelly hit the back nine of the final round trailing the leader at the Illinois State Amateur Championship. As he did in Rockford two years ago, Kelly found a way to win, albeit in much more dramatic fashion at the 85th Illinois State Amateur Championship at Panther Creek Country Club. Three pars in the aggregate playoff was enough to top Conor Dore and make Kelly the first two-time winner of the State Am since Bloomington’s Todd Mitchell went back-to-back in 2002 and 2003.
“(This win) means a lot to me, because I know not many people can call themselves the State Amateur champion, and even fewer people can call themselves a multiple winner of the State Am,” Kelly said after becoming the 15th player in history to win the Illinois State Amateur Championship multiple times. “Golf in Illinois and amateur golf in Illinois means a lot to me. Myself and all the kids I have grown up with, my generation of players, are really strong in Illinois. In the era we are in right now, it means a lot to win it twice.”
Kelly, playing in the next-to-last group, trailed by two strokes with six holes to play, but a 12-foot birdie on the par-4 13th put him in position to make a charge. Dore, a Chicago native and recent Whitney Young graduate, who had held at least a share of the lead since the end of the second round, pushed the lead back to two shots with a birdie on the 15th.
Within a matter of moments, Kelly carded a birdie at the 17th, while Dore bogeyed the 16th to put the players in a tie at 10-under. Then, after a wayward teeshot at the 17th led to another Dore bogey, Kelly suddenly found himself on the 18th green with an 8-foot par putt that would have won him the Championship. When Kelly pushed the putt past the hole, his bogey opened the door for Dore, who narrowly missed a 30-foot birdie putt to win.
“Unfortunately I three-putted the last hole, but it was a tough two-putt,” Kelly said of the final regulation hole. “I wasn’t too down on myself about it, I knew with how well I was playing if I had three more holes, I could make one or two birdies. I had two good looks, they just didn’t fall.”
In the playoff, after trading pars at the 16th hole, Dore again found trouble off the tee at 17 heading into the woods, but fought back for a challenging bogey, while Kelly two-putted for a par to take a one stroke advantage heading to the final hole. While Kelly reached the green in regulation, sticking his approach to 6 feet, Dore found the greenside bunker. After Dore two-putted for bogey, Kelly two-putted for par to win the three-hole aggregate playoff by two strokes.
“It shows a lot about me as a player this week to come here as a former champion and still be able to win and validate my first victory,” Kelly added. “I’m very pleased with this one.”
Despite the disappointing end to the Championship, the 18-year old Dore, who is headed to Southern Illinois University-Edwardsville to play golf this fall, was proud of his week.
“I knew I needed to play solid golf and I’d have a chance to win,” Dore said. “I didn’t have my best game this week, but I was up there, so I know I can go out there and win when I’m not at my best.”
Earlier in the day on Thursday, another past champion, Naperville’s Raymond Knoll provided the drama, carding an 8-under par 63 to set the men’s course record at Panther Creek. The rising junior at the University of Iowa birdied five holes on the front side to go out in 31, then carded an albatross on the par-5 15th, holing his second with a 3-wood from 270 yards. Sitting at 9-under par heading to the 18th, and with the course’s all-time record—a 61 by Hee-Won Han in 2008 during the LPGA’s State Farm Classic—in sight, Knoll bogeyed the 18th. Despite the bogey, his sensational final round moved him from 20th place after three rounds to a T6 finish in defense of his 2014 title.
“I’m able to look at this round and take a lot of positives from it knowing I played pretty well at the end of the week,” Knoll said following the round. “After my practice round, I thought you could really go low here and after going 71, 72, 75, I thought I really let one go here because I hadn’t got in the 60s and there’s a lot of birdies out there.”
2014 runner-up Nick Hardy finished one shot back in third place following a final round 65, with his fellow University of Illinois teammate and CDGA Amateur winner Alex Burge finishing three shots back in fourth. Recent University of Wisconsin graduate Jack Watson finished fifth, his third-consecutive top-5 finish in the state’s most prestigious amateur golf event.
The low 21 players (20 and ties) earned exemptions into the 86th Illinois State Amateur Championship, to be played next July at St. Charles Country Club.
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