Match-play qualifying Stevens Point CC

2020 Match-Play qualifying got underway Tuesday at Stevens Point CC. 

Door County, Wisconsin Dells and Wisconsin's famous Northwoods won't be the only popular destinations for visitors with Illinois license plates this summer.

Add Wisconsin State Golf Association events to the list.

The competitive golf season is less than one week old and already the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic has been seen atop the leaderboard. Two of the four qualifiers for the WSGA State Match-Play Championship were won by Illinois golfers who have taken advantage of a 20-year-old WSGA rule to fill their competitive void created by the Chicago District Golf Association's decision to cancel many of its events into late July, most notably the CDGA Amateur Championship in late June and the Illinois State Amateur in July.

The WSGA has allowed out-of-state golfers to compete in its events since the early 2000s when the late Eric Reno, an Evans Scholar and former University of Wisconsin golfer who grew up in Menominee, Mich., but played most of his golf across the border, lobbied the WSGA to change its rules and allow out-of-state golfers to compete in WSGA events. Those rules stipulate that golfers who pay the fee to join the WSGA, and agree not to compete in the corresponding championship in their home state, can tee it up in WSGA championships.

"There's not a ton," said Bill Linneman, director of rules and competitions for the WSGA. "Several of the good players are looking for a place to play. Our policy has always been non-resident members must agree to not to participate in another state's major amateur championship. Illinois won't be having any of its majors this year so these kids really have no place to play."

It may have looked odd for former Kansas University golfer Andrew Price, 38, a Lake Bluff, Ill., resident, to win Wednesday's match-play qualifier at Morningstar Golfers Club in Waukesha. However, he does play to a +5.4 handicap out of Maplecrest Country Club near Kenosha.

Likewise, Eli Myers  turned heads when the high school sophomore-to-be from Northbook, Ill., shot 4-under-par 68 on the Links Course at the Golf Courses of Lawsonia in Green Lake to to edge Queens University of Charlotte (N.C.) golfer Brock Hlinak of Kaukauna and UW-Parkside golfer Steven Sanicki of Menomonee Falls by one shot to win Wednesday's qualifier there. Myers, the No. 1-ranked Illinois golfer in the Class of 2023 according to the American Junior Golf Association, sports a +1.8 handicap at Spring Valley GC in Salem.

In all, 10 of the 42 qualifiers from this week's four match-play qualifiers were from Illinois. There is one more qualifier next week at Reedsburg CC where just two of the 46 entrants are from out of state.

Linneman said a record 345 golfers will have competed in qualifying for the WSGA State Match-Play, which will be held June 22-25 at The Club at Strawberry Creek in Kenosha with a new format featuring 16 four-player pods competing in two days of round-robin matches. The winners of each pod will be advance to the 16-player, bracketed "knockout" portion of the four-day event.

"It would be kind of crazy to change our policy mid-stream; rules are supposed to be written before the whole process starts," Linneman said, noting that defending Wisconsin State Amateur champion Hunter Eichhorn — a Marquette University golfer from Carney, Mich. — was one of six golfers from out of state in the 2019 State Am. "And there are plenty of (other) examples in the past. Is this a strange year? For sure. Would this normally happen? You and I both know the answer is no.

"I've never met a good golfer who didn't like to play the best competition possible. If you were paying attention to those qualifying scores, you look at all four sites, and if I'm not mistaken, the highest score it took to qualify was 74. I would argue that we're getting really strong fields. Now are some of the kids from Illinois? Yes. But it's not like they were given an exemption; they earned their way in."

Already last winter, Linneman was prepared for brisk out-of-state interest in the Wisconsin State Amateur, which will be played next month at the legendary Milwaukee CC.

"We knew that was going to happen; it's quite an unbelievable opportunity," said Linneman, who said the WSGA will "do our best to police" the portion of the policy that stipulates golfers crossing the border to play in WSGA championships cannot return to their home state and play in the corresponding championship there.

"We certainly rely on the golfers' integrity to tell us the truth. If they played in ours and then went and played in another state's (championship), is there anything you can do under the rules? I don't think so. ... And Illinois is not a concern this year because they're all canceled."

In the meantime, Linneman said the first week of WSGA competition in a COVID-19 pandemic went off without a hitch.

Geoff Pirkl, the assistant director of rules and competition, was tasked with making sure pool noodles in the bottom of each cup were a uniform 2½ inches below the lip of the cup, allowing putts to be holed per definition in the Rules of Golf. Golfers were not allowed to remove the flagstick.

There were no bunker rakes as golfers were allowed to play preferred lies in the sand traps. Golfers were allowed to lift, clean and place their golf ball within a club length of any lie in a bunker, not just those that came to rest in an un-raked footprint. 

"This is a year we all want to get through as best we can and say 'Wow, hopefully this is a once-in-a-lifetime experience,' " said Linneman, who said the WSGA has refunded more than $250,000 in entry fees for canceled events, most notably the WSGA State Four-Ball Championship and all 21 stops on the WSGA Senior Tour.

"I think everyone who played in (events this week) or worked at them felt very normal," Linneman said. "It felt very much pre-2020. It really did."

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