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Golf: Talented field set for Louisiana Open – Former Cajun Golfer Mike Heinen in field

Talented field set for Louisiana Open

BROUSSARD – Acadiana’s top professional sports event marks its 17th annual renewal this week when the Chitimacha Louisiana Open golf tournament returns to Le Triomphe Country Club.

And this year, despite a conflict with the PGA Tour’s Zurich Classic of New Orleans, the Open will have a talented and familiar field gunning for the largest purse in tournament history – $525,000, with a $94,500 check going to the champion.

"We can’t do anything about the schedule and we can’t do anything about the weather," said Open executive director Danny Jones. "But everything we can control, we’re going to do to put on a great tournament and raise money for our charities."

The four-round Nationwide Tour event begins Thursday morning over the 7,079-yard par-71 Le Triomphe layout, and the most former champions in at least a decade will be chasing the top prize. Veteran PGA and Nationwide Tour pro Skip Kendall returns to defend the title he won in a playoff over 2001 Open champion Paul Claxton last March.

In addition to Kendall and Claxton, former winners Paul Stankowski (1996), Jimmy Walker (2004) and Ryan Hietala (2005) are in the 130-player field that will expand to 144 after Monday’s qualifying rounds.

In addition to over 200 players competing for seven field spots at both The Wetlands and Squirrel Run, Monday’s tournament activities include the Dwight Andrus Insurance Pro-Am at 10 a.m. The course is reserved for tournament player practice rounds on Tuesday, and a pair of pro-ams – the AT&T Pro-Am at 8 a.m. and the Cal Chlor Pro-Am at 1:15 p.m. – are slated for Wednesday prior to championship play beginning at approximately 7:30 a.m. Thursday.

The field will be cut to the top 60 players and ties following Friday’s second round, and the final two rounds will involve players positioning themselves for shares in the record purse.

The Open is traditionally the Nationwide Tour’s first U.S. stop, this year following early-season events in Panama, Mexico, New Zealand and Australia. Three of this year’s tournament winners so far – Scott Dunlap (Panama), Darron Stiles (New Zealand) and Ewan Porter (Australia) – are in this week’s field.

Those three and Mexico Open winner Jarrod Lyle have a leg up on finishing in "The 25," the top 25 total money winners on the 30-tournament tour this year. That group earns PGA Tour cards for the 2009 season.

It’s a number all too familiar to Kendall, who snapped a string of 384 PGA and Nationwide Tour events without a victory with last year’s third-hole playoff victory and a $90,000 winning check. Kendall came excruciatingly close to returning to the "big" tour after finishing 26th on the money list.

The odds are against Kendall, though, as well as all five previous winners in the field. No player in the 18-year history of the Tour has ever defended a title, and only three players in Tour history – Ryan Howison in the Lakeland Classic (1997 and 1999), Chris Smith in the Dakota Dunes Open (1995 and 1997) and Hunter Haas in the Knoxville Open (2004 and 2006) – have ever won more than once in any single tournament.

That could open the door for a lengthy list of players with local ties. In addition to Hietala, who was a Lafayette resident when he took a surprising win in 2005, the field includes a favorite son in Kris Cox. The former ESA standout and Oklahoma State All-American was an emotional runner-up in 1999 and will be making his 12th appearance in the Open after splitting time between the PGA and Nationwide Tours over the past decade.

Rayne native, former UL All-American and current Lake Charles resident Mike Heinen, winner of the 1994 Shell Houston Open, is also in the field and is also a former runner-up. Heinen lost to Steven Alker in a playoff in 2002.

Acadian-by-marriage and U.S. Ryder Cup player Chris Riley, former UL standout and Lake Charles resident Greg Sonnier, and Le Triomphe host pro David Church also claimed spots in the field. Church won the Gulf States PGA’s closed qualifying tournament held at Le Triomphe to earn a slot.

Since the tournament is the first on U.S. soil this year, the field figures to be among the strongest of the Nationwide Tour season even though the PGA Tour’s stop in New Orleans – Louisiana’s only other major-tour event – hits on the same weekend. And, because of its first-up status, PGA Tour commissioner Tim Finchem will be in town Tuesday to meet with the players and discuss issues relating to each tour.

Daily Advertiser, March 23, 2008