Joe Thompson’s earliest memory of the UI Open came as a 7-year-old in 1963 watching Cy Vaughn III walk away with one of the area’s most prestigious golf trophies.
“I knew it was a big deal because his dad had won it and that was the first father-son duo to ever win it,” Thompson said.
The next year’s tournament left an even larger impression on Thompson, who walked the course as he watched his dad, Richard, win the first of his two championships.
“Seeing your dad win something, that really meant something to me,” Thompson said.
It meant so much that Thompson carved out his own golf career. The 60th UI Open will begin Saturday at the Orange and Blue Course in Savoy, and Thompson will tee it up in the event for the 44th time.
A four-time champion of the event (1979, 1982, 1986, 1998), Thompson holds the UI Open in high regard when it comes to the Triple Crown of area golf tournaments (Twin City, Naughtin Open).
“It means a lot, it really does,” said Thompson, a two-time Naughtin winner. “It’s where I’ve played the majority of the golf in my life. The Twin City, for most people, would probably be the bigger event, but I think in our family it had about equal stature.”
The Thompsons are one of the first families of golf in the area. Richard Thompson was a two-time winner of the UI Open, and he won a Naughtin championship. Joe’s brother John won a Naughtin and a Twin City. Younger brother Jim, who passed away in December after a battle with cancer, won three Twin City titles and two Naughtin championships.
Considered the best of the Thompson bunch, Jim was never able to hoist the UI Open trophy, finishing runner-up three times before embarking on a professional career.
“He was just pretty unlucky,” Joe Thompson said of his brother. “He lost a playoff; he lost a couple times by 1 stroke to good players. He had the second-best hand three times. He was a true gentleman and played as a true gentleman.”
Five days after this year’s UI Open champion is crowned, the Orange and Blue Course will host the first Jim Thompson Memorial Golf Outing on June 21, with all proceeds from the event being donated to the Parkland golf program, where Jim was inducted into the school’s Athletic Hall of Fame earlier this year.
“It’s a good feeling knowing someone in our family made a difference in somebody’s life outside the family. Parkland organized this, they wanted to be involved and they thought something of Jim and wanted to do something in his honor. It’s special,” Thompson said.
Last fall, with Jim’s condition worsening, Orange and Blue Course director of golf Mike Wallner put together a spur-of-the-moment golf outing to raise funds for Jim’s treatment. The event drew 288 players in less than a week. Another 150 folks showed up for lunch.
“That one actually surprised me. Jim was a big part of this community, but that was something that happened last minute and the 11th hour,” Joe Thompson said. “Today with Facebook and Twitter and so many different ways to connect with people makes it easier. The response to that was overwhelming.”
As recently as last year, Jim Thompson collected scorecards at the UI Open, posting scores.
“I knew Jim real well from being out at the UI Course for a long time and before that Urbana Country Club,” 2012 UI Open champion David Deschler said. “He was always a real nice guy. It’s horrible that he’s no longer with us.”
Deschler, who will try to defend his title this weekend, won the 1999 Twin City title but felt a sense of relief when he finally won a UI Open championship last season.
“It really meant a lot to me to win that last year,” said the 35-year-old Deschler, who has been playing in the event since his prep days at Urbana Uni High. “I still have people come up to me now a year later and say, ‘That’s pretty cool that you won that tournament,’ or ‘Good job.’ ”
The UI Open is still a big deal in the area and to Joe Thompson, even though he’s not playing at a championship level these days.
“I like to see the next wave of players excel because you want something that meant something to you mean something to someone else who comes behind you,” he said. “These guys are talented, great all-around players, and they care about the sport. They’re taking it to another level.”
Three to watch
Here are three players to keep an eye on at this week’s UI Open, which begins Saturday in Savoy:
David Deschler — Defending champion could get on a roll now that monkey is off his back
Tim Hoss Jr. — Four-time champion looking for first title since 2009
Seth Trolia — Bradley Brave is feeling good coming off win last week at Naughtin Open