The Illinois Valley Men’s Golf Championship is back, but its a little bit different.

Instead of taking place at two different courses on two consecutive Sundays, co-directors Mason Kimberly and Patrick Goy have moved this year’s tournament to a one weekend, two-day event as the first round will be Saturday at the Mendota Golf Club and the second round will be played Sunday at Senica’s Oak Ridge Golf Club in La Salle.

“I think the big part of having more golfers was condensing it to one weekend instead of the traditional two Sunday tournament,” Kimberly said. “After we have been running it for four years, I felt that with the Sunday-Sunday format, we missed out on a lot of people being able to play because they can’t commit to two straight weekends.

“With it being one weekend, I currently have 136 golfers signed up. Last year we ended with 112. It’s going to be the largest field since the days it was referred to as the NewsTribune (Area Wide Men’s Golf) tournament (from 1949 to 2008). Since it began in 1949 it had always been ran on two Sundays. Patrick and I are focused on what we can do to make the tournament bigger and better.”

Previous champs are back

Baley Lehr was victorious last season as his two-round 136 bested Chris Coleman (140) and Jesse Cavanaugh and Josh Gass, who both shot 141s.

Knowing the competition is strong, Lehr has played all summer to make sure his game is solid heading into Saturday.

“For the most part, I have the same game, but I think I’m a little more consistent this summer,” Lehr said. “I got a new driver and I think it has tightened up my drives, which has always been a really good part of my game or the worst part of my game. That’s the streakiest part of my game. Besides that, I feel pretty solid with everything else. For the most part, my driver has been pretty good this summer. I feel pretty confident going into this weekend.

“We have a lot of good golfers in the area. There is a list of at least 15 guys who can contend and win. For me, it’s just a matter of me coming in and playing my game. Hopefully, that’s enough. If I can play to my full potential, I think I have a shot of winning.”

Last weekend, Lehr tied for fifth at the Joliet Amateur Championship, which featured 120 championship class golfers.

Lehr said there is usually 180 golfers, but due to rain causing course restoration and the Pine Hills Invitational also running last weekend, there were less top golfers to play.

Still, the competition was a good warmup for the Illinois Valley Men’s Golf Championship.

“Tournament golf and regular golf are two different things,” Lehr said. “I don’t know what the reason is, but I feel like I’m a pretty good tournament golfer. I don’t know if I focus more. It’s always good to get repetition before any tournament. The best way to get repetition is to play in different tournaments.

“It is a different feeling of stepping to the tee in a tournament than in a regular round of golf. I would absolutely say it’s a confidence booster and it gets me more into the feel for tournament play.”

Although Cavanaugh and Gass took third and fourth, respectively, a summer ago, both of them are previous winners.

Cavanaugh won in 2017 and Gass won in 2016. Mendota native Randy Polisch, who has won twice including in 2015, is also a contender.

“I’m playing well going into the weekend. Last year, I think I hit three balls out of bounds in the first round. I got myself too far back,” said Cavanaugh, who is from Ottawa. “I had a good second round, which kind of snuck me into the back door. I’m driving it a lot straighter than I have in the past. For me, it’s all about the putter. If I putt well, I’ll score well.

“I haven’t played Mendota in a few years, so I’m going to go out this week and play a practice round. I’ll play Oak Ridge on Friday. I haven’t played there in two years. Josh is playing well. Baley is playing well. I think I’m playing with Jeremy DeBernardi (who was tied for fifth with a 143 last year) in the first round. Most of the top players are playing well, so it should be a fun tournament.”

Possible first-time winners

Kimberly and the field know Lehr, Cavanaugh, Gass, DeBernardi and a few other guys are always favorites to win.

But, with the new format and the level of golf played around the Illinois Valley, there is always the chance of a new winner.

“The great thing about this tournament is that you can have a dark horse shoot a good round on Saturday and not have to worry about waiting an entire week for the second round,” Kimberly said. “You get to keep that momentum. I think the one weekend tournament will bring a lot more contenders into play other than the top four or five you’d normally expect to win it.”

Kimberly added Mendota native Jon Prescott is a long ball hitter, will be at his home course on Saturday and plays Oak Ridge well.

Prescott finished sixth in 2017.

Recent prep players add youth

Another change in the last few years to the IV championship has been the amount of prep players or recent graduates participating.

Putnam County graduate Caleb Dzierczynski — the 2017 NT Boys Golfer of the Year — and PC seniors Ian Roach, who earned the honor last season, and Ben Cyr will play in championship class.

The A class also has some familiar names in St. Bede graduate John Potthoff and Nathan Potthoff, who will be a junior, Princeton graduates Colby Robbins and Ian Legner and Bureau Valley graduates Colton Novotny and Spencer Marquez.

“There are a lot young guys in A Class. There are a lot of the best high school golfers — and even some college guys — in the area in the division,” Kimberly said. “I think the tournament as a whole — championship through C class — is definitely younger, which is what we like to see. That’s how you grow a tournament.”

Senior Class added

The IV Championship will now feature five divisions as a senior class for golfers older than 60 has been added to the championship, A, B and C classes.

Brandon LaChance can be reached at 220-6995, or sports@newstrib.com. Follow him on Twitter @NT_LaChance.

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