Mac McClear (Chicago District Golf Association Photo)
BLOOMINGTON, Ill. - Roller coasters aren't for everyone. Count Mac McClear of Hinsdale, Ill., among those who aren't big fans.
That's what made his second-straight Illinois State Amateur Championship so enjoyable.
The University of Iowa rising senior surged to the lead with a blistering start to his fourth round Thursday afternoon at Bloomington Country Club and went on cruise control from there, turning a one-shot deficit into a five-stroke win in the 92nd iteration of the state's preeminent amateur event. McClear carded a bogey-free 7-under 63, the low round of the tournament, to finish five shots clear of home club hopeful T.J. Barger of Bloomington, Ill., at 11-under overall.
This was in stark contrast to McClear's triumph last year at Westmoreland Country Club in which he nearly lost a five-shot final-round lead thanks to a 77.
"This one was much less stressful," McClear said told the Chicago District Golf Association. "Last year was a total roller coaster, which was fun but also not fun at the same time.
"This year, I felt really comfortable throughout the whole day and cruised there through the end."
McClear entered the tournament saddled with the expectation that comes with the status of defending champion, which admittedly made the event's early stages uncomfortable. McClear's play was steady, but unspectacular, as he opened with rounds of 69 and 68 in comparison to his competitors' 64s and 65s.
He entered Thursday's 36-hole finale four strokes behind leader (and former high school teammate at Hinsdale Central) Joshua Kirkham. Halfway into Thursday's marathon, the deficit had been trimmed to one, except McClear was now chasing Barger following his blistering 64.
McClear remained in second for all of two holes of the final round, as he carded birdies on Nos. 1 and 2 to leapfrog Barger. Finally grasping the consistency with his driver and approach shots that had been eluding him for three rounds, McClear blitzed Bloomington's front nine, notching five birdies and noting that it "could have been eight," maligning three near misses on the greens.
"I went in with the same gameplan that I had the rest of the rounds, but I was finally able to execute the shots," McClear told the CDGA.
"It could've been a really special start, but I was still happy with the 5-under through eight (holes), and then I just cruised in."
Barger couldn't recapture the magic of his third-round 64, turning at 1-under for the round and three shots back of McClear.
"Mac played pretty well," Barger said. "I was following the leaderboard going to the back nine, so I knew I had to make birdies, but nothing was falling."
As Barger shot an even-par 35 coming in, McClear managed the course, and his lead, to perfection. He simultaneously played smart and aggressively, attacking the sub-400-yard 17th and 18th holes en route to punctuating birdies on both.
"No matter what you're doing, you have to stick to your gameplan," McClear said. "If you're playing the first round, your strategy should be the same as the last hole, no matter if you're winning by one, two, or three."
Set to embark on his final season at Iowa this fall, it's a strong possibility that the two-time Big Ten champ turns professional rather than go for the first three-peat in event history. If this is the case, Thursday marks a triumphant conclusion to a State Am career that began in 2017 when McClear was just 16.
"When I was younger, I always aspired to win this tournament," McClear said. "All the good players of Illinois have won this tournament. Back then, I knew my game wasn't good enough to win then, but I knew if I put in the work and kept doing what I was doing, I would be able to do it in the future."
McClear's future continues to be one that looks to go nowhere but up. A steady climb. No sudden dips. Just how McClear prefers it.
McClear and Barger were two of just five players to finish in red numbers for the Championship. Tyler Isenhart of Geneva, Ill., came in solo third at 3-under, while Mason Minkel of Pekin, Ill., and Marcus Smith of Rockford, Ill., tied for fourth at 1 under.