Mac McClear (Chicago District Golf Association photo)
entered the 91st Illinois State Amateur Championship at Westmoreland Country Club with a mindset that had been years in the making.
The 21-year-old rising senior at the University of Iowa, who earlier in the week called the state’s preeminent amateur competition one he’s “wanted to win for a long time, since growing up,” entered the 2022 iteration with battle scars. He missed the cut in his debut in 2017 as a 16-year-old and lost in a playoff in 2021 at Mistwood Golf Club.
Rather than let these trials and tribulations define his state am legacy, McClear used them to become stronger mentally and physically. This transformation ultimately led to him hoisting the Louis L. Emmerson Trophy on Thursday.
“It’s certainly special,” McClear said after finishing the 72-hole tournament -5 overall, three shots clear of runner-up Tommy Kuhl
. “It’s something I’ve wanted to do for a long time, so to finally get it done is a pretty good feeling.”
Had it not been for the lessons gained from his self-proclaimed “long journey,” McClear may have come up short again. His triumph was as tenuous as a wire-to-wire victory can be, with his enhanced fortitude required at multiple stages during Thursday’s 36-hole finale.
All was well following the first 18 holes, as McClear felt “in full control” following a third-round 68. The score matched Kuhl’s as the best in the morning and extended his four-shot second-round lead to five heading to the final 18.
Nine holes later, he was tied with Kuhl and only two shots ahead of Parker Wisdom (Bloomington) with nine holes remaining. McClear went out in 40, carding four bogeys on a stretch of holes that challenged him all week, while Kuhl turned in 35 to erase the deficit.
“Things got off the rails a little there,” McClear admitted.
Where an inexperienced or less confident player may have wilted, McClear thrived. Buoyed by his tournament mantra of “focus on what’s in front of you,” McClear responded with a stretch of holes he called “the best golf I played all tournament.” Birdies on Nos. 11, 14 and 15, combined with Kuhl bogeys on Nos. 10, 12 and 13, extended McClear’s lead to six strokes heading to the 16th tee.
Of course, no lifelong dream is worth attaining if it’s easy. Back in the driver’s seat, a perfect storm befell McClear on the 418-yard par-4 16th. A thinned drive into one of Westmoreland’s vexing fairway bunkers. A second shot hit the lip and came back to his feet. A pulled approach. A chunked wedge. When all was said and done, it was a triple-bogey seven for McClear on a hole that Kuhl birdied, trimming the seemingly insurmountable advantage to two with two holes to play.
Perhaps the 16-year-old or 2021 versions of McClear would have viewed yet another setback as a sign that this particular enduring quest wasn’t meant to be. Not the forged-by-failure model, though.
“I could’ve been really rattled by that triple,” McClear admitted. “No. 17 is probably the toughest hole (it played as the third hardest for the week). That was definitely one where I needed to have my full attention and my full focus, which is what I was able to do.”
An up-and-down for par on No. 17 kept the lead at two. From the 18th tee box, McClear saw Kuhl double bogey the finisher, making for a comfortable walk up the finisher.
“At that point I knew – as long as I didn’t make another triple or something – that I was probably going to get it done,” McClear quipped. “No. 18 was a pretty nice walk there knowing that I had a little bit to work with.”
"I hung in there at the end,” said Kuhl, who ultimately finished three shots back of McClear at -2 overall. “I gave myself a chance at the last. Tried to get aggressive, but came up a little short. I did my best.”
The second-place finish is a career-best for the rising fifth-year senior at Illinois, who has now placed in the top 20 all four times he has played in the state am.
“I wanted this tournament,” said an emotional Kuhl. “It was one of my goals, but I got beat by the better player this week.”
McClear and Kuhl were the only players to finish in red numbers for the championship, as gusty winds and vexing greens challenged the elite field all week. The quintet of Timmy Crawford (Arlington Heights), William Marshall (Elburn), Benjamin Sluzas (Lockport), Nick Tenuta (Mt. Prospect) and Wisdom finished tied for third at even par.
The top 20 and ties all earned exemptions into the 92nd Illinois State Amateur Championship, slated to be contested at Bloomington Country Club in 2023. Up next on the CDGA’s slate of championships is the 7th CDGA Amateur Four-Ball Championship, Aug. 8-10 at Ridgemoor Country Club in Chicago.