Stan Mikita's 16-year-old grandson qualifies for Illinois Open
Mention the name Stan Mikita and old-time Blackhawks fans will immediately recall visions of the beloved Hall of Fame center zipping up and down the ice at Chicago Stadium.
Many of those fans also know Mikita's post-retirement life centered around another sport: Golf.
Not only did he work at Kemper Lakes Golf Club from 1979 to 1986, he also played in the Illinois Open and introduced all four of his kids to the game.
Mikita truly adored the sport. He took great pride in watching daughter Jane become an accomplished player at Hinsdale Central, and was overjoyed when she captured the Chicago Women's District Golf Association championship in 2001.
Now, almost two years after Mikita passed away at 78, another incredible chapter is being written -- this time by his 16-year-old grandson, Billy Gneiser.
The middle child of Jane and Scott Gneiser, Billy fired a 2-over-par 72 at Willow Crest Golf Club in Oak Brook last Wednesday, then survived a two-hole playoff to qualify for the Illinois Open.
The junior-to-be at Hinsdale South will tee it up with 155 others Monday at White Eagle Golf Club, a 7,194-yard course in Naperville. After two rounds, the field will be cut to 50 players plus ties, and anyone within 10 strokes of the lead.
Jane said Billy has been golfing "since he was basically 1 -- I kid you not."
"The kids started playing around the house," Jane said. "They would pretend the pavement around the cul-de-sac was water and hit from one side of the street to the other. Then my neighbor had this garage sale and they were selling flags. They gave them to the kids, and they would put the flags out and make their own holes."
Billy, who also played hockey with the Chicago Bruins U-15 Central States team last season, was on the Hinsdale South varsity squad as a sophomore last year and finished 15th in the Class 2A state tournament. Now, he will be the youngest participant at this year's Illinois Open after a heart-pounding day at Willow Crest, a par-70 course that features plenty of long, daunting holes.
There were 16 openings at this qualifier, and 11 players shot 71 or better to advance. Billy, meanwhile, was one of 10 who went to a playoff after shooting 72.
Asked which shots he looks back on with gratitude, Billy recalled a short-sided bunker shot on the 409-yard fourth hole, and a chip from 25 yards away on No. 7 after his drive ended up in a "bad spot" down the right side of the short par 4.
"My bunker shot saved me a couple of strokes right there because bunkers can be tricky to judge at Willow Crest," said Billy, who stuck his shot to two feet.
After a 1-under 34 on the front, Billy shot 38 on the back and found himself in a playoff with nine other competitors on the first tee 30 minutes later.
Billy wasn't at all nervous on his first playoff tee shot, but it was a different story altogether after he reached the green and hovered over what would normally be a benign 18-inch par putt.
"My heart was pounding on that," Billy said.
Three of the 10 playoff participants bogeyed or double bogeyed the first hole, meaning seven golfers advanced to the second hole. After Billy carded another par, a rules official approached the group and told them he had good news: Word came in that a player at a previous qualifying event had withdrawn, meaning six Willow Crest playoff participants would advance. Since one of the seven on that second hole carded a bogey, the remaining six -- including Billy -- were in.
"Everybody else on the (third) tee was confused and I was the same because we didn't know what was going on," Billy said. "But after he said that everybody is in, I just couldn't believe it. My caddie was going nuts as well and that got me hyped up."
Billy added that he knows his grandfather would be extremely proud of his accomplishment, but even more so that he had the courage to put himself out there to give it a try at such a young age.
"My dad would never want them feeling pressure playing any sport they played," Jane said.
And while we often say loved ones are there with us in spirit, Jane has no doubt that was the case Wednesday.
"I'm a believer in that stuff when somebody passes away," Jane said. "My dad would be very proud. He loved the game of golf and enjoyed bringing the kids to the golf course, and hitting balls and teaching them the game.
"When my dad passed away, they always say to look for signs. That day we saw a sign at my mom's house, and that was a butterfly.
"So, Billy was on the 15th hole, and as they were walking to the green, there was a monarch butterfly flying around the green and I'm like: 'Oh my God. That's our sign that Stan's watching and he's guiding Billy.' "