|Wednesday, September 11, 2019 - |
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.