Meinhart delivers late to come up with third title

Meinhart delivers late to come up with third title

SAVOY — From the tee box, Derek Meinhart stared off at the 18th green.

He painted a picture in his head.

The crack of the pitching wedge striking the ball. The high-arching shot thumping down on the green within striking distance of the hole.

Then, seconds later, Meinhart, who was protecting a one-stroke lead on the 36th and final hole of the 65th UI Open at the University of Illinois Orange Course, executed the shot in real life on Sunday. He flushed a pitching wedge on the 142-yard par 3, as the ball rolled about 10 feet from the cup.

Minutes later, Meinhart rolled in the putt for birdie and acknowledged the crowd that was gathered behind the 18th green with a nod.

Still, minutes later, Meinhart shook hands with University of Illinois Director of Golf Mike Wallner, who handed the Mattoon native the championship trophy.

Meinhart became a three-time champion of the UI Open on Sunday, collecting a two-shot victory over David Keenan by finishing at 7-under 137 for the two-day tournament.

"I feel like in previous years I should have gotten a few more of these titles," said Meinhart, who successfully defended his triumph from the previous year. "So it's always nice to add one to the win column. ... I have lost it twice on 18. But I really felt comfortable over the ball (on the tee box at 18)."

Sunday's final championship flight group lived up to its billing.

The trio of five-time champion Tim Hoss Jr., Meinhart and Keenan — the 2016 winner — played to an audience as golf carts dotted the last few holes.

Meinhart and Keenan, a former Salt Fork and Parkland star who was The News-Gazette's 2009 All-Area Boys' Golfer of the Year, had their parents on hand. Parkland men's golf coach Corbin Sebens joined in to watch the festivities.

What all of those onlookers saw was how unflappable Meinhart was down the stretch.

From the rough to the left of the 14th fairway and with a tree between him and the green, Meinhart struck a low-flighted ball that skipped to within a few feet. He holed the ensuing putt for birdie. Meinhart drained another birdie putt on 16 after watching Keenan make birdie moments earlier.

"I had a lot of great shots but I really got nothing out of it," Meinhart said. "I had a little opening (on 14), and I wasn't sure if I was going to be able to get it to go on there. But it came out just the way I wanted and rolled up there to three feet. I thought it was big momentum for me."

After envisioning before Sunday's first tee shot that a 69 would get the job done, Meinhart did one better, bagging five birdies en route to a final-round 68.

Keenan applied plenty of pressure, though, with birdies on four of the final seven holes, including one after a well-struck 4 iron to five feet on the 219-yard, par 3 15th hole.

"I knew there were birdies out there," said Keenan, who climbed to within one shot of Meinhart after the latter bogeyed the par-5 17th.

With a pitching wedge in hand on the final tee, Keenan took aim but his ball rolled out further than he would have liked.

Meinhart, who struck the last of the final group's tee shots on 18, knocked it closer and finished with a birdie. Keenan fired a 3-under 69 on Sunday, thanks to six birdies, while Hoss carded an even-par 72 over the final 18 holes to finish fifth overall.

Keenan couldn't help but think what might have been afterward.

"It was kind of a squirrely day," Keenan said. "I wasn't really feeling great. I left a few out there on the front (nine). I was too far back. That's tournament golf for you."

Sunday belonged to Meinhart whose wife, son and daughter drove up from Mattoon to celebrate.

Meinhart wouldn't have wanted to spend Father's Day any other way.

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