Eric Lilleboe Defends Starting Monday in Turtle Creek Casino Michigan Open
Turtle Creek Casino & Hotel partners with Michigan Section PGA to present largest purse ever in 103rd edition of the state championship on The Bear at Grand Traverse Resort and Spa, Aug. 31 – Sept. 3
ACME – When defending champion Eric Lilleboe first heard that next week’s Turtle Creek Casino Michigan Open Championship would feature the largest purse in history he thought the obvious.
“I won a year too quick,” he said and laughed.
“No really, I’m excited that the purse got bumped up and that the Michigan PGA landed a great sponsor for the championship. It is just that much more to play for, but I would be there no matter what. You are trying to win your state Open and I know that is special. The purse is an added bonus, and it is great for golf in our state that Turtle Creek sees value in doing this.”
A field of 156 top Michigan golfers will play for the championship’s largest purse in its storied history – $115,000 – starting Monday on The Bear course at Grand Traverse Resort and Spa.
The 72-hole, four-day, championship was originally scheduled in its traditional date slots in June but postponed due to the uncertainty generated by COVID-19. Nine qualifier tournaments were also rescheduled and just one remains – a last chance three-spot qualifier Saturday at Traverse City Golf & Country Club.
Justin Phillips, tournament director for the Michigan Section PGA, said this 103rd edition of the Michigan Open is one of good fortune across the board.
“We feel very fortunate just to be able to have the championship,” he said. “Back in March we were not sure this was going to happen and now we’re excited that we have the great increased purse and probably the best field we’ve had in a long time. To get this rescheduled and make it work was a big undertaking on the part of Grand Traverse Resort and Spa and Turtle Creek Casino & Hotel. We are pretty fortunate to be where we are at and have all of this come together.”
The sponsorship agreement was reached with Turtle Creek Casino & Hotel and announced in March. Turtle Creek Casino & Hotel and Grand Traverse Resort and Spa are owned and operated by the Grand Traverse Band of Ottawa and Chippewa Indians. The resort, which has three golf courses, is hosting the championship for the 31st time and this will be the 28th time it is contested on The Bear, a celebrated Jack Nicklaus design.
Last year, Lilleboe, an Okemos resident, was declared the winner of the 102nd Michigan Open after the final round was rained out. He had a five-shot lead keyed by a 7-under 65 in the third round to put him at 13-under. Barrett Kelpin of Kalamazoo, a PGA Tour Latinoamerica player and the 2012 Michigan Open champion, finished second at 8-under.
“I’m so glad to be able to defend,” Lilleboe said. “Tournaments all over the place called it quits. All of us in Michigan are appreciative of the Michigan PGA’s time and effort to reschedule everything and that Turtle Creek stayed in it to be the sponsor.”
Lilleboe, like all touring professionals, has played in fewer tournaments this year. He recently returned from a 19-day trip to play in tournaments, including two on the Dakotas Tour. He has PGA Tour Canada – MacKenzie status from 2019, but that entire season was cancelled. He missed Korn Ferry Tour status last year by one shot.
“On the Dakotas Tour the last few weeks I finished tied for 13th in one and fifth in the other, and in the second one in Fargo I was two shots back with one round to go,” he said. “I was right there and that’s what you play for – a chance to win or at least to put yourself in position to win. I didn’t close it out that week, but I know my game is good enough to compete and good enough to win right now.”
The Bear, and the weather for the week, will have an impact on the tournament, Lilleboe said.
“It was wet and soft last year, but this year if it is dry and fast it will play more the way it was designed to be played,” he said. “If the wind is up and it’s rolling firm and fast it’s one of the hardest courses in Michigan.”
Lilleboe is one of 15 past champions in the field, including many who won titles on The Bear.
Scott Hebert of Traverse City Golf & Country Club won his record-tying six Michigan Open titles on The Bear between 1997 and 2006. Steve Brady, the director of golf at Oakland Hills Country Club, won his three Michigan Open titles at The Bear (1991, ’92 and ’96). Jeff Roth of Boyne Golf Academy was the 1998 and 2004 champion at The Bear. Bob Ackerman of Ackerman Golf Academy has two titles, and his second was in 2003 at The Bear.
Others back as Bear/Open champions are Tim Matthews of Scotts (1986), Barry Redmond of Chelsea (1989), Andy Ruthkoski of Muskegon (2007) and 2018 champion Jake Kneen of White Lake.
Rounding out the group of former winners in the field are professionals Randy Hutchison of Traverse City (2011), Barrett Kelpin of Kalamazoo (2012), Tom Werkmeister of Grandville (2013), Jeff Cuzzort of Grosse Ile (2015), Jeff Bronkema of Wayland (2016) and Matt Thompson of Hillsdale (2017).
The elite field also includes Ben Cook of Caledonia and Yankee Springs Golf Course who earlier this month won the Michigan PGA Professional Championship, most of the state’s top mini-tour players including Donnie Trosper of Canton, who made it through pre-tournament qualifying to play in two PGA Tour events earlier this summer, as well as many top amateur players.
The Michigan Open was first played in 1916 and won by Leo Diegel, who also played in the inaugural Ryder Cup matches and the first Masters Tournament in Augusta, Ga. Other notables with their names listed on the Michigan Open’s James Standish Jr. Trophy include Walter Hagen, Chuck Kocsis, six-time Michigan Open winner Al Watrous, Walter Burkemo and Dave Hill.
ABOUT GRAND TRAVERSE RESORT & CASINOS: Owned and operated by the Grand Traverse Band of Ottawa and Chippewa Indians, Grand Traverse Resort & Casinos offers world-class gaming, golf, dining, and spa amenities in the northwest corner of Michigan’s lower peninsula. The premier properties include Grand Traverse Resort and Spa, Turtle Creek Casino & Hotel, and Leelanau Sands Casino & Lodge, along with EDC ventures Turtle Creek Market, Eagletown Market, and more. For more information, visit www.gtbindians.com, www.turtlecreekcasino.com, www.grandtraverseresort.com.