LPGA’s T of C turned into the `Annika Show’

LAKE NONA, FL. – Annika Sorenstam didn’t win on Sunday but – as the only woman in a 50-player group of celebrities that included famous sport stars like Roger Clemens, Greg Maddux, Brian Urlacher, Jeremy Roenick, John Smoltz, Sterling Sharp and Tom Glavin, the 51-year old golf legend did just fine. No doubt she was the star of the show at the first event of the LPGA season

She beat all of those big names in her group at the LPGA Tournament of Champions, but lost the celebrity title to Derek Lowe – a major-league pitcher for 17 seasons.  He earned $100,000 by winning their one-hole playoff after Sorenstam forced extra holes with a clutch par on the last hole of regulation play.

“To play against Annika Sorenstam, how many people can say that – and in a playoff and prevail?’’ said Lowe.  “She’s a special person.  She means a lot to Lake Nona (the host club) and to all of golf.’’

Sorenstam, who won 17 tournaments on the LPGA tour before taking 13 years off from golf competition, is still tinkering with a comeback.

“I won’t play next week.  It’s the PGA (Merchandise) Show (in Orlando), and we have a fun week coming up,’’ she said.  “We have a busy week with meetings with sponsors.’’

“Next week’’ is also the LPGA’s first full-field event of 2022 – the Gainbridge Championship in Boca Raton, FL. She’ll leave that one up to Danielle Kang, who took a three-shot victory in the LPGA portion of the Tournament of Champions on Sunday, and her rivals of the previous four days – Mexico’s Gaby Lopez, Canadian Brooke Henderson and the Korda sisters – Nelly and Jessica.

Kang shot a 68 Sunday on the same 6,617-yard layout that the men played on.  She finished at 16-under-par for 72 holes and earned $225,000.

“I shot 4-under on a cold day and 3-under yesterday – probably the best I’ve ever played in the cold,’’ she said.  Last year Kang lost the Tournament of Champions title to Korda’s sister Jessica in a playoff at Tranquilo, another course in the Orlando area.

Kang, a 29-year old Californian, won for the sixth time on the LPGA tour but her biggest win was her first. She won the 2017 KPMG Women’s PGA Championship, one of the circuit’s majors, at Olympia Fields.

As good as Kang was, the star of the show was Sorenstam, who was paired with the top LPGA players throughout the four rounds.  The women’s competition was at stroke play, the celebs played in Modified Stableford point system.

“I’m not sure what I expected, but I’m super pleased with the great pairings I had all week,’’ said Sorenstam.  “If this tournament was played at any other course I probably wouldn’t be playing, but this is why I came here in the first place.  The support is fantastic, I love this golf course and I’m a proud member for sure.’’











Q-School is sure to bring a dramatic ending to golf’s 2019 season

The year’s biggest golf championships are over. Now comes the hard part.

There’s another side to professional golf that contrasts sharply with what your see on television screen. It’s called Q-School, and it’s the main path to get to most every one of golf’s pro tours. Some lucky ones have gotten to a pro tour without going to Q-School – but not many. Win a lot of money fast or win a tournament right after turning pro and you could get a tour spot but few – very few – have been able to do that over the years.

For the men, there’s no Q-School for the PGA School anymore. The young hopefuls begin their quest for a tour card at the Korn Ferry (formerly Web.com) Tour Q-School. It’s the best path to the PGA Tour, but first you’ve got to earn your berth on it through three stages of qualifying school. It’s a bit complicated on how it all works.

As of this printing Arlington Heights’ Doug Ghim was trying to play his way onto the PGA Tour via the Korn Ferry Tour Playoffs. He finished in the top 75 on the Korn Ferry money list and that got him into the three-tournament playoff series. The top 25 in those playoffs get PGA cards for 2019-20, and Ghim came through when it counted the most, finishing in 23rd place to earn his PGA Tour card for the 2019-20 season.

Ghim was one of the lucky ones. What happened to two other Chicago area players who competed on the Korn Ferry Tour this season was painful – excruciatingly painful. Lake Forest’s Brad Hopfinger and Deerfield’s Vince India just missed a spot in the Korn Ferry Playoffs. Hopfinger was No. 79 and India No. 85 on the season point/money list.

For India his life changed in a heartbeat. The 2018 Illinois Open champion got hot in the last regular season tournament in Portland, leading after two rounds and contending well into the back nine. He just needed a par on the final hole to get into the Korn Ferry Playoffs, which would have assured him at least a return to that circuit next year and a top 25 finish would make him a PGA Tour player.

Instead, India made double bogey on the last hole. It dropped him out of the Korn Ferry Playoffs and left him with two stages of Q-School just to play on the circuit again.

Hopfinger and India were college teammates at Iowa and toiled on the Web.com/Korn Ferry circuit for several seasons just looking for the break that would change their lives. The possibility is still there, so is the pressure.

Northbrook’s Nick Hardy, meanwhile, is just starting that challenge. Hardy couldn’t have done much more as an amateur. He was a mainstay on great teams at Illinois for four years. He earned coveted Sweet Six berths in three Western Amateurs. He qualified for multiple U.S. Opens, made the cut in several PGA and Korn Ferry Tour events after landing sponsor exemptions and set a scoring record in winning an Illinois State Amateur.

Still, when Q-School came a few months after his collegiate eligibility expired at Illinois, Hardy wasn’t quite ready.

“In the first stage I was 20-under, but in the second I missed by two shots and made bogey on the last two holes,’’ said Hardy. “I was that close.’’

So one of the greatest amateurs to come out of the Chicago ranks in years was left scouring for tournaments in between practice sessions at the Merit Club, in Libertyville, in his first year as a professional.

“I put myself in a tough situation without a place to play,’’ he said, “but I learned a lot. That’s what I wanted to do – play Monday qualifiers and see what I could do. It’s really not easy. I made a few but didn’t do any good in those tournaments. Still there were a lot of positives.’’

Hardy qualified for the U.S. Open again. He won mini-tour event in Oklahoma, which paid $20,000, and he was runner-up in the Illinois Open.

“I had my moments, but there are some things in my game that I need to address,’’ he said. “It’s just one-two things that I need to address to play with the best in the world.’’

The primary one, Hardy believes, is wedge play. His college coach, Mike Small, went through the same process as a young player and he gave Hardy some good counseling.

“Coach told me you can’t just try harder in golf,’’ said Hardy. “Golf is like baseball. You give your full effort but that one thing – step back, be softer – I’m fighting that every day. That’s just who I am. Every golfer has their things about them. You give your best effort but – just by playing harder – doesn’t get it done.’’

Now older and wiser, Hardy is ready to try again.

“I believe in myself. I’m not worried about the competition,’’ said Hardy. “I’m just worried about myself.’’

Bolingbrook’s David Cooke, who won the Illinois Open for the second time last month, is another facing a playing dilemma but his is different than Hardy’s. Cooke has full playing privileges on the European PGA Challenge Tour, a stepping stone to the European PGA Tour. That’s the path that current world No. 1 Brooks Koepka took to get where he’s at now.

Cooke isn’t sure that’s what he wants to do. Last year he could have played a full schedule on the Challenge Tour but didn’t. Recently married and backed by a sponsorship agreement with Wilson, Cooke is preparing for a return to the European Q-School in November.

Other options include the PGA Latinoamerica circuit. Highwood’s Patrick Flavin, the 2017 Illinois State Amateur and Illinois Open champion, and Wheaton’s Tee-K Kelly, a two-time Illinois State Amateur winner, have done well there while awaiting their chance at Q-School. Hardy said those tours are an option.

“Hopefully I’ll get my (Korn Ferry) card this fall, but all options are open. My plan for this fall is to play full-time on the Korn Ferry Tour next year. I’m very optimistic.’’

The finals of the Korn Ferry qualifying school are Dec. 12-15 at a site that hasn’t been announced.

Coaching change triggers excitement for NIU men’s golf team

I hate writing season-ending columns, mainly because – for me – the golf season never ends. One season just blends into another.

This time, though, there are some subjects that need to be addressed – one big one in particular. Northern Illinois University has a new men’s golf coach, and this hiring could reverberate throughout the college golf world.

John Carlson was hired after the Huskies’ season ended. Tom Porten had been the NIU coach the last 10 seasons and Carlson will retain Porten’s assistant, Andrew Frame, as the “associate head coach.’’

Carlson has been at Minnesota since 2010. He was head coach through 2017 and director of golf the last two seasons. The Gophers’ shining moment under Carlson came at the Big Ten Championships in 2014 when they took the title and became the only school other than Illinois to rule the Big Ten since 2009.

The NIU teams will continue to use Rich Harvest Farms, in Sugar Grove, as their home course and RHF owner and NIU alum Jerry Rich, who was involved in the interviewing process for the new coach, gave his blessing to Carlson. Rich called him “ideal’’ for the job.

Carlson in turn voiced his appreciation for “the opportunity to develop champion student athletes using the world class facility at Rich Harvest Farms.’’

The Huskies will open the 2019-20 season at the Badger Invitational and that’ll be a homecoming of sorts for Carlson. He was a four-year letterman on the Wisconsin golf team.

Carlson has two returnees who are coming off successful summer seasons. Senior-to-be Jordan Less won the 100th playing of the Chicago District Amateur and sophomore-to-be Tommy Dunsire teamed up with his brother Scott to win the Chicago District Amateur Four-Ball title.

A FEW OTHER things need to be addressed before we close the curtain on 2019.

First, Medinah Country Club needs a defender for the way its No. 3 course was treated by the PGA Tour stars at last month’s BMW Championship. They found the course easy pickings, and no club member anywhere likes to have his course viewed that way. In Medinah’s case, the weather conditions were ideal for scoring and – let’s face it – the players are that good.

I like the comment from champion Justin Thomas on that subject: “It doesn’t matter what course it is. You give us soft, good greens and soft fairways and we’re going to tear it apart. It’s just how it is.’’ I like his bluntness.

Second, a longstanding appraisal of courses in golf-rich Michigan has Arcadia Bluffs and Forest Dunes generally standing head and shoulders above the others. Now that I’ve played them both I can weigh in on that matter. Arcadia has beautiful views on the water and eye-catching mounding throughout, but I’m not so sure it’s the best course in Michigan. I’m not sure Forest Dunes is, either. There’s just too many good courses in that state to concede anything to those two.

Third, it’s good that the Western Golf Association and BMW came to a last-minute agreement on a contract extension to host the FedEx Cup Playoff event. Still, a lot of questions still need answers. Where will the event be held after Olympia Fields hosts in 2020? Will the rotation of sites in and out of the Chicago area be reinstated? (For the record, I hope not).

Fourth, the Illinois PGA is going to have a tough time finding an alternate course for the Illinois Open that stands up to Ridgemoor, this year’s choice. The Chicago layout, which is rich in history, was the best-received alternate layout for the finals since the IPGA expanded the field and went to the two-course format for the finals.

Fifth, scheduling-scheduling-scheduling. Just once I’d like to see a season schedule without any notable tournament conflicts in 2020. This year there was just one – the Illinois Women’s Open and Women’s Western Amateur were played at virtually the same time. It can’t be that hard to put them on different dates.

Sixth, I’m reluctant to delve too deeply into the Oct. 18 Illinois Golf Hall of Fame inductions, since I’m blessed to be involved in them. However, I must express my regret that one of my fellow inductees, the late, great Carol Mann, won’t be with us. Carol was inducted into the World Golf Hall of Fame years ago but still wanted to be similarly honored in her home state. I know, because she told me in one of her last visits. Carol announced the players during the KPMG Women’s PGA Championship when it was played at her former home club, Olympia Fields, in 2017.

Seventh, there’s another big event that’s close to my heart coming up the week before the Hall of Fame inductions. It’s the Senior LPGA Championship, which will be played at not-so-far-away French Lick Resort in Indiana. There were no big championships for senior women until this classy resort stepped forward. First came The Legends Championship, a major that grew into the Senior LPGA Championship. Along with both came the establishment of the Legends Hall of Fame, which is housed at the West Baden Springs Hotel on the outskirts of French Lick. Then came television coverage of the big tournament, albeit on weekdays in the fall. The U.S. Golf Association eventually created a U.S. Senior Women’s Open, but these women who did so much for the growth of the game deserve much more.

Eighth, and I’m promoting this – I admit it. The International Network of Golf is a unique group in that it brings the media together with the golf industry. It’s different than the other industry groups and has a very special event coming up from May 31-June 3, 2020. It’ll be the 30th anniversary of the ING Spring Conference, and it’ll be held in Valley Forge, Pa. My friends in all phases of the golf industry could benefit by attending and should put it on their calendars.

And finally, to bear out my contention that the golf season is long from being over, check out the tournament schedules of the Illinois PGA and Chicago District on their websites. The IPGA is busy with tournaments through Oct. 21 and the CDGA will go strong until Oct. 7. Also note that the Illinois Women’s Golf Association will celebrate the 50th anniversary of its Senior Championship Sept. 10-12 and it’ll be in the Chicago area this time — at Bolingbrook Golf club.

JDC was a success, now comes the BMW Championship at Medinah

One down, and one big one to go. And then what? We’re all about to enter a period of transition.

Illinois is blessed with two PGA Tour events, but they couldn’t be more different.

The John Deere Classic has had a variety of names since its founding in 1971. It’s played two hours west of Chicago with a full field of 156 players. The BMW Championship has a richer history if you accept its beginnings with the Western Open of 1899. There was only one title change, when the Western was dropped from the title and the tournament was converted into a 70-player FedEx Cup Playoff event in 2007.

The John Deere Classic is entrenched in one city and one golf course, TPC Deere Run in Silvis. Prior to that it was played at only two other venues – Crow Valley and Oakwood, both in the Quad Cities area. The BMW Championship has been a roving event since its first playing in 2007. As the Western Open it was played all over the country until the Western Golf Association created a Chicago rotation in 1962.

While the John Deere Classic purse was a hefty $6 million for its playing the week before the British Open, the BMW will be much more lucrative for the players who qualify for it. Just the purse is $9,250,000 and the number of players competing in the no-cut event is less than half the number who teed off at TPC Deere Run.

And, after the BMW is played at Medinah from Aug. 15-18, the scenario will change for good. The question is, how much?

BMW’s sponsorship of the tournament ends after this year. The Western Golf Association has been looking for a replacement for 2020 and has lined up a quality course for next year’s event – history-rich Olympia Fields, a good followup to Medinah.

First, a look back at a most successful John Deere Classic. Clair Peterson, the tournament director since 2003, didn’t get one of his stronger fields this year but – as usual – that didn’t really matter.

“We love it when celebrity players are here, but the schedule for us – if you put the celebrity players aside — this is the perfect spot for us,’’ said Peterson. “The fall didn’t work for us. We’ve hit for the cycle. We’ve been opposite the British Open, the Ryder Cup, the President’s Cup – and we’re still here.’’

And happy to be there – in the summer, free from the sports distractions of the fall such as all levels of football.

The PGA Tour schedule was significantly revised for this year to get the biggest events away from the start of the National Football League season. Not all tournaments benefitted.

“For events that depend on celebrity golfers the schedule is more important,’’ said Peterson, “but we were going to have a heckuva show with a community that supports it on a golf course that usually has a real exciting finish and produces a great champion. That’s a priority. You talk about changing dates. Where are you going to move it to? It can’t be before May 31 (because of iffy weather), and it can’t go later.’’

The BMW has a date change this year, since the FedEx Playoffs were moved from September to August, but the field wasn’t affected. It’ll still be the top 70 on the FedEx point list on the week of the event. Having Medinah as the site certainly doesn’t hurt, either. The club wouldn’t want an annual event, but thrives on hosting golf’s biggies. The last biggie played there was arguably the biggest of them all – the Ryder Cup in 2012.

Medinah has hosted bigger events than the BMW Championship. In addition to the Ryder Cup it has hosted three U.S. Opens and two PGA Championships. But it has been seven years since the club’s famed No. 3 course welcomed spectator golf. Golf fans will turn out in droves, and 30 players will move on to the season-ending Tour Championship in Atlanta.

After that, what’s ahead for Illinois’ two big PGA events?

For the John Deere the big question is what’s in store for a milestone staging in 2020. That’ll be the tournament’s 50th anniversary. It requires something special.

“We’re writing a book,’’ said Peterson, obviously reluctant to go any further than that.

Craig DeVrieze, the veteran Quad Cities golf scribe, has been working on a history of the tournament for the last two years and it’s certain to be a good read. The tournament wasn’t always the smooth operation that it is now.

“You can’t believe the stuff that happened before John Deere took over,’’ said Peterson. “There were guys who took out mortgages on their houses to keep it going.’’

At one point a press conference had been called reportedly to announce the tournament’s demise. It was cancelled at the last minute, a good thing for all involved. John Deere has been an ideal sponsor since 1999 and TPC Deere Run an ideal venue since 2000.

As for the future of what is now the BMW Championship, obviously there’ll be a name change. I’m hoping that it might be called the Western Open again. That title was much too good to lose. A rotation among Chicago courses would be a good thing, too. Taking the tournament out of town every other year hurt in terms of consistency for Chicago golf fans. The move from Fourth of July dates to the fall didn’t help, either.

Chicago had a great thing going golf-wise before it accepted playoff status. I’m not so sure it needs to maintain it under its next sponsor, no matter what the title of the tournament is. Whatever happens to the tournament, the news of it may well be the biggest of the fall/winter golf announcements. Only time will tell.

Wilson, Tour Edge are benefitting from the success of their players

If ever there was a time for Chicago’s two major golf equipment companies to celebrate, this is it.

The biggest reason was Gary Woodland’s victory in the U.S. Open. Woodland signed with Wilson less than a year ago, and player endorsements do bring attention to product lines. Wilson, long based in River Grove and now headquartered in Chicago, may be the bigger beneficiary from recent player success – but is certainly not the only one.

Batavia-based Tour Edge got the good vibes started. President David Glod decided to jump into the player endorsement mode big-time about two years ago, and it’s paid off. He has focused largely – but not entirely – on players on PGA Tour Champions with Scott McCarron doing the best.

McCarron won the Mitsubishi Electric Championship in April, the Insperity Invitational in May and the Mastercard Japan Championship in June. The victory in Japan was McCarron’s fifth victory using Tour Edge’s Exotic clubs in the last two years.

At the time of this printing players using Exotic clubs were first or second in the previous 37 PGA Tour Champions events and McCarron was the 50-and-over circuit’s top money-winner with $1,766,221. In fact, he was a whopping $831,052 ahead of his nearest rival.

McCarron wears the Tour Edge logo on his sleeve and that’ll be prominent as he battles for the coveted Charles Schwab Cup during the rest of the 2019 season.

“We’re having a blast watching the meteoric play of (McCarron),’’ said Glod. “Scotty has brought us a new level of exposure and awareness, as have all of the other players who have put Tour Edge clubs into play on PGA Tour Champions.’’

The rest of the 2019 Tour Edge staff hasn’t been bad either. Tom Lehman has won twice on PGA Tour Champions. Duffy Waldorf has 17 top-25 finishes and Tom Petrovic has been a runner-up five times. Bart Bryant and Scott Dunlap also have notched a win on the 50-and-over circuit using Exotics clubs.

And then there’s Phyllis Meti. She showed that Exotics aren’t just for men, winning her third Women’s World Long Drive title and hitting the longest drive ever by a woman – 405 yards.

Tour Edge has just begun announcing its newest product lines. They are sure to draw attention thanks to the performances of McCarron and his colleagues on PGA Tour Champions.

As good as all that is, none matches the profile boost that Woodland provided Wilson with his win at Pebble Beach in the 119th U.S. Open. Tim Clarke, who heads Wilson’s golf division, added Woodland to the company’s player ambassador staff last winter and Woodland delivered big time.

“We couldn’t have a better story for our brand,’’ said Clarke. “It was unbelievable.’’

Kevin Streelman, who had been Wilson’s top gun on the PGA Tour though he didn’t qualify for the U.S. Open, agreed via Twitter.

“I’m so happy for Gary and his entire family,’’ said Streelman. “I’m proud of the classiest company and the best-looking clubs in the business. I’m proud to be an ambassador and member of the team.’’

Back in golf’s good old days Wilson’s clubs were played by numerous champions. Woodland used Wilson’s irons and 5-wood and donned the company’s hat and glove en route to his dramatic victory.

“It was a pretty strong endorsement that our equipment works,’’ said Clarke. “ We still have had more major champions playing our clubs than any other company.’’

Wilson was founded in 1914 and its products also are used in football, basketball, tennis, baseball, volleyball and soccer. For now, though, the sport in the company’s spotlight is golf – and that’s not for the first time.

Woodland won the 62nd major title playing Wilson clubs. The first Wilson player to do that was Gene Sarazen in 1931.

“That was pretty much the starting point. It started the movement for companies to start signing players,’’ said Clarke.

Woodland, who grew up in Kansas and turned pro in 2007, began testing Wilson clubs in Naples, FL., in late 2018. Prior to that he had three wins on the PGA Tour – the Transitions Championship in 2011, the Reno-Tahoe Open in 2013 and the Waste Management Phoenix Open in 2018 – so he was no slouch.

He played Wilson clubs for the first time competitively at Tiger Woods’ Hero World Challenge in the Bahamas in November, where he tied for eighth place in that limited field event. His connection to Wilson and its clubs became official shortly after that.

Woodland’s first event of 2019 was the Sentry Tournament of Champions in Hawait in January. He tied for second there and had three other top-10s before winning the U.S. Open. A $2.2 million payday there boosted his career winnings to $25.2 million.

One of the world’s oldest club manufacturers, Wilson has been making clubs for champions for decades. Others using Wilson clubs when they won a big one included Sam Snead, Arnold Palmer, Billy Casper, Nick Faldo, Ben Crenshaw and Padraig Harrington.

It’s commonplace that major championship winners receive bonuses from their equipment companies, and Clarke said that’d be the case with Woodland – though Clarke was coy about what that reward will be.

“It’s complicated,’’ said Clarke, “but everything has a price and obviously there’ll be a reward. I was 100 percent sure that he’d win a major when we signed him, and I even thought that it would be this year. We believe that elite athletes drive consumer awareness.’’

Streelman has won twice in his solid career on the PGA Tour. Other Wilson players on the circuit are Brendan Steele, Troy Merritt and Ricky Barnes.

Is the 1-iron coming back? This Chicago company thinks so

I’ve been reluctant to write about golf equipment, feeling that should be left to experts on new technology or championship level players. Occasionally, though, I make an exception, and this is one of those times.

Joe Jung, a Chicago guy, is a big reason for that. I met Jung at last month’s International Network of Golf’s Spring Conference in Sebring, FL

While Chicago’s major golf equipment manufacturers Wilson and Tour Edge were also represented, the Demo Day portion of that annual four-day event produced an excellent opportunity to get acquainted with more unusual products. Golf always has plenty of those, but Jung has done the unthinkable. He’s co-founder of a company that is bringing back the 1-iron.

Remember the old saying, “Only God can hit a 1-iron.?’ I believed it, but Jung disagrees – even though the manufacturers of that club are almost nonexistent.

“It’s only us,’’ said Jung, who grew up in the Rogers Park section of Chicago and now lives in Lindenhurst. His company, New Ground Golf, was established last year in Lombard.

Jung started as a caddie at North Shore Country Club in the 1970s. He played college golf at Northeastern Illinois, then managed a Strictly Golf retail store in the Chicago area. Later on he held jobs with – among others — club manufacturers Callaway and MacGregor as well as Zero Friction and Volvik.

His partners in New Ground Golf include Lon Varchetto, who spent more than two decades at the long-time Chicago club manufacturer Northwestern.

One-irons haven’t been much of a factor in golf since the 1980s, much to Jung’s chagrin.

“A lot of us, those of us with steep swings, were disappointed when hybrids came out and long irons went away,’’ said Jung. “We have iron swings. You can’t get steep with a hybrid because the hybrid will go right under the ball and the ball goes straight up in the air.’’

New Ground doesn’t manufacturer just 1-irons. It also produces 2- and 3-irons.

“They’re all very easy to hit and affordable,’’ said Jung. “The whole idea is to have clubs you can hit high or low, out of bunkers. You don’t have clubs like that anymore.’’

Maybe Jung is right. Maybe the time is right for the 1-iron to make a comeback. As always, it’ll be the recreational players like you and me who will determine whether such a club works or not.

Jung wasn’t the only Chicago guy to show off his wares at the ING event. An old friend, Angelo Papadourakis., was there with the new Sacks Parente putter line. Angelo’s a Merit Club member who had invented the Swing Smart, a club attachment that intrigued me a few years back.

While he remains involved with Swing Smart, Papadourakis’ putter line is much different. He is executive vice president of sales for Sacks Parente Golf, based in San Pablo Camarillo, Calif.

“I started a consulting business in golf technology and those guys told me they were bringing some technology to putting,’’ said Papadourakis.

Steve Sacks had been with Wright Putters, Rich Parente with Old Hickory and Callaway and Parente’s son Gene runs Golf Laboratories, which performs tests on the clubs of many manufacturers.

The key to the new Sacks Parente putters is their balance point.

“We’re coming out with mallets and blades, and all have ultra low balance points,’’ said Papadourakis. “So, when you putt with one, the putter always wants to get square and release. You don’t have to fight it or steer it. It feels different, very unique. It has a really nice feeling.’’

These putters don’t come cheap, though. The starting price point is $600.

“Because of the metals we use, it’s premium product,’’ said Papadourakis. “We call it a performance tool.’’

Choose a Sacks Parente putter with a carbon fiber shaft, and that means an upgrade. The price goes up to $900. The top-of-the-line Tour Head model, which is milled in Texas, is $1,200.

One other product on display, the Golf Skate Caddie, had a Chicago connection. Ken Koldenhoven, the president for the company with exclusive rights to sales in the U.S. and the Bahamas, grew up in Orland Park and attended Carl Sandburg High School. While the bulk of his family still lives in the Orland Park area, Koldenhoven now resides in West Palm Beach, FL.

The Skate Caddie also merits attention, and that was particularly evident after the PGA of America allowed John Daly to use a traditional power cart in this year’s Senior PGA Championship. Using a Skate Caddie would have been a better option than the standard power cart, Koldenhoven believes.

“With a Skate Caddie he’d be able to stand and see what’s going on,’’ Koldenhoven said. “They’d also be good for officials to use because they’d be up higher and could see more.’’

The Skate Caddie is one of the latest modes of on-course transportation. There were two previous versions before the present one was introduced.

“The others had a motor in the front and a motor in the back,’’ said Koldenhoven. “We moved both to the back to free up the steering motion in front. That makes it a whole lot easier to steer.’’

That’s in sharp contrast to the GolfBoards, which have made inroads at many Chicago area clubs as well as nation-wide. I tried a GolfBoard and found it fun, but – perhaps because I was never much into skiing – needed more time to learn how to use it. Koldenhoven has no issue with GolfBoards.

“They’re safe, too. We’re both safe,’’ he said. “We’re both all about making golf a better game.’’

While we gravitated to the Chicago products there were a couple other interesting ones. The Putting Arc is an elaborate set of training aids designed to encourage better performance on the greens. Its product line has items ranging from $7.95 to $79.95.Dave Hamilton, the president and co-inventor, is from Shannon, Miss.

And then there was the 4YardsMore golf tee. It’s produced by Greenkeepers, Inc., of Philadelphia and is billed as “the first and only tee proven in both robotic and field tests to improve distance.’’

I tried that tee and had trouble finding those extra four yards, but then again that could be just me. All the products were worth a try, but making a purchase? That’s another matter.

Illinois Women’s Open milestone comes with a change in format

The Illinois Women’s Open will celebrate its 25th anniversary this year, a testament to the dedication owner Jim McWethy and his staff at Mistwood Golf Club in Romeoville have made to the event.

When none of the Chicago golf organizations were willing to create a big event for the area’s top women players the late Phil Kosin stepped forward. He created the IWO, which was played for its first four years at Odyssey in Tinley Park. Then Mistwood took over and has run it since Kosin’s passing following a battle with cancer in 2009.

Illinois has the second-biggest women’s state open, trailing only Michigan, and this year’s IWO will undergo a format change.

A three-day 54-hole competition in the past, it’ll be spread over three days again but with a major change. The first day will be a pro-am, the second will be 36 holes for the entire field. Then the field will be cut to approximately the low 40 percent and ties. Survivors will decide the title in the final 18-hole round.

Mistwood was slow in announcing the dates for the tournament and made a change shortly after its first announcement. The event is July 15-17, which creates the lone notable schedule conflict of this Chicago golf season.

Conflicting with the IWO is the Women’s Western Amateur, which was played at Mistwood last year and will be played at Royal Melbourne, in Long Grove, this time. Long one of the nation’s top tournaments for women amateurs, it’ll run from July 15-20 and the Western Golf Association will take over the running of the event. In the past the Women’s Western Am had been conducted by the Women’s Western Golf Association with some help from the WGA.

While the two top women events of the Chicago season will conflict, they’ll also have competition for attention from the Illinois State Amateur, which will return to Cantigny, in Wheaton, from July 16-18.

While this one week of conflicts isn’t ideal, at least it’s a big improvement over last year when the inaugural U.S. Senior Women’s Open at Chicago Golf Club, in Wheaton, and Constellation Senior Players Championship – a major for players on PGA Tour Champions – at Exmoor Country Club, in Highland Park, were played on the same July dates as was the PGA Tour’s popular John Deere Classic in downstate Silvis, IL.

The Women’s Western Amateur was also connected to a less significant but still unfortunate schedule conflict last June. Scheduled at River Forest Country Club, in Elmhurst, it was played opposite the KPMG Women’s PGA Championship at Kemper Lakes in Kildeer. The Women’s PGA event is one of the five majors on the Ladies PGA Tour.

GOOD NEWS: Erin Hills, the Wisconsin course that staged a successful U.S. Open in 2017, didn’t have to wait long to be tapped for more big events by the U.S. Golf Association.

The USGA has awarded Erin Hills the 2022 Mid-Amateur Championship as well as the 2025 U.S. Women’s Open. As was the case in Erin’s debut on the national stage, the course will share the Mid-Am event with nearby Blue Mound. They were the sites of the 2011 U.S. Amateur.

“Very exciting,’’ said Rich Tock, PGA professional at Erin Hills. “These things don’t happen overnight. This was in discussion for six months.’’

Erin Hills is but an hour’s drive from Chicago’s northern suburbs.

Erin Hills has added a 6,200-square foot putting course, called The Drumlin, since last season and Tock said consideration is being given to reducing the No. 1 hole from a par-5 to a par-4. The course was one of the few par-72 layouts to host a U.S. Open in 2017. It’d be a par-71 if the opening hole is altered.

RULES: Never felt it was my place to comment on the rules of golf. It’s not my place to make those rules. I just try to play according to them.

However – I feel compelled to state my feelings on two of the recent rules changes that have gone into effect this year.

I love the fact that you can leave the flagstick in when putting. That has speeded up our rounds considerably. And, I hate the rule requiring that you take a knee-high drop instead of from shoulder length.

The drop rule is just silly. Enough said.

NICKLAUS VS. WOODS: This is going to be a hot topic for years to come on a variety of fronts. Here’s my take on it.

Regarding the last Masters, where Woods’ long-awaited comeback reached epic proportions. Contrary to the widespread hyperbole nation-wide about it being the greatest Masters ever, I still give that nod to the 1986 version when Jack Nicklaus won his record sixth title at age 46. That made him the tournament’s oldest winner.

Maybe it’s a generational thing, but Woods’ latest Masters win didn’t compare with the electricity generated by Nicklaus’ back nine charge in 1986. That was spectacular.

Now, looking into the future. For years I felt Woods had no chance of catching Nicklaus’ record for most victories in major championships. He needs three to tie and four to pass the Golden Bear and I suspect he’ll do it.

This will be a big year in determining that, though. This May’s PGA is at New York’s Bethpage Black, and Woods has already won there. And, the U.S. Open in June is at Pebble Beach, another place where Woods has won. If he can take care of business at either or both of those places Nicklaus’ record will go from being a possibility to a probability.

ROAD WARRIORS: Could there be a better tour for a young person to learn about the world than the PGA’s Latinoamerica circuit? I’m envious of Patrick Flavin, Kyle Kochevaar and Tee-K Kelly, the local players who are competing on it now.

One of the 2019 qualifying tournaments was in Brazil (Flavin and Kelly finished one-two, in case you missed it). The first tournament was in Panama, the second in Argentina and the third in Chile.

In May the stops are in the Dominican Republic, Jamaica and Mexico. Such an experience might be more worthwhile in the long-term than starting out on the Web.com Tour. Just saying.

ANWA has taken women’s golf to a new level

The inaugural Augusta National Women’s Amateur was staged a few days before the Masters tournament and partially on the same course the male stars played their first major championship of 2019. It turned out to be one of those rare golf competitions where the determination of the champion wasn’t the most important thing – not by a long shot.

A couple of collegians soon to become touring pros, Jennifer Kupcho and Maria Fassi, put on a captivating duel going head-to-head in the final pairing before Kupcho won. That was all well and good, and so was the obvious friendship and sportsmanship that both strived to present for the big on-site galleries and national television audience.

This was more about the big picture. Bottom line, you’ve got to like what’s been going on for a while now in the women’s game.

For the third straight year the top women players had a new high profile event to build on. In 2017 it was the Senior LPGA Championship at Indiana’s French Lick Resort. In 2018 it was the U.S. Senior Women’s Open at Chicago Golf Club in Wheaton. And now, in 2019 in was the tournament recognized as simply the ANWA.

The ANWA had far fewer players than its two predecessors but it had also more hoopla and far bigger galleries. The post-round awards ceremony was very Masters-like, too. Augusta National’s membership certainly knows how to stage – and market – a big golf event. The two professional events, put on by the LPGA and U.S. Golf Association, didn’t come close.

“Just walking up the fairway with so many people is a feeling like no other,’’ said Kupcho. “This tournament showed how good we are. It exceeded my expectations, and it was the most organized tournament I’ve ever played in. The women’s game will come up stronger because of it.’’

Saturday’s gallery marched four deep on both sides of the fairways when Kupcho and Fassi were wrapping up their daylong duel for the title.

Kupcho, the reigning NCAA champion and No. 1 in the World Amateur Golf Rankings, took control thanks to a torrid stretch on holes 13 through 16. She played them in eagle-par-birdie-birdie and added another bird with a 25-footer to conclude the tournament. That’s as strong a performance on Augusta’s Amen Corner stretch as most any male star has produced over the years.

The tourney started with 72 invited players, and 25 countries were represented. Augusta National was set up at 6,365 yards for the ANWA. The men played it at 7,475 yards in the Masters .

Fred Ridley, the Augusta National president who announced the creation of the first women’s competition at storied Augusta National at the 2018 Masters, saw nothing but positives from the first staging.

“Focusing on women’s accomplishments in general, not just in golf and sports, is good for society,’’ he said. It’s good for everybody’’

The final round started with ceremonial tee shots from four of the greats of women’s golf—Se Ri Pak, Lorena Ochoa, Nancy Lopez and Annika Sorenstam. They had the same good vibes that Ridley had.

“When they announced it last year I had chills wishing I could be an amateur again so I could come and play,’’ said Lopez.

“It was so exciting to see the players after their rounds, their smiles all up to their ears,’’ said Sorenstam. “They can’t stop smiling and it’s a dream come true. I’m so happy for them.’’

There were three players with Illinois connections in the starting 72. They didn’t perform well, but they all felt good about being in the historic first field of this big event. Illinois’ Tristyn Nowlin, Northwestern’s Stephanie Lao and Missouri’s Jessica Yuen, from Bolingbrook, didn’t survive the 36-hole cut.

The trio battled for two rounds at Champions Retreat, the site for the first two rounds in the town of Evans on the outskirts of Augusta., and they did get to play a practice round a day later at Augusta National.

Champions Retreat, a private club that has one nine designed by Arnold Palmer and the other by Jack Nicklaus, was the warmup site for this ground-breaking tourney.

Nowlin, an Illini junior, tied for 52nd and was 9-over-par for the tournament and six shots shy of the cut line. Lau, in her final season at Northwestern, tied for 69th and Yuen tied for 71st. Neither Lau nor Yuen could break 80 in the second round but they took the setback in stride.
“I have to keep in mind that it was special to be part of something historic and play a small part in it,’’ said Lao, who will enter the professional ranks after Northwestern’s season is over. She looked on the ANWA as a good learning experience.

“I just try to look at it on a micro level and a macro level,’’ she said. “On the macro level I have to remember the big picture. On the micro-level, it’s still golf at the end of the day. I’m just trying to hone my skills and enjoy it as long as I can.’’

Nowlin got in her first competition of 2019 at Champions Retreat. She had been recovering from February wrist surgery until being cleared to play two weeks earlier.

“I was very glad to be back in competition,’’ she said

Like Nowlin, Yuen had battled a wrist injury and received her ANWA invitation only a week before the competition began. She was a late invitee after another player withdrew because of injury.

“I wasn’t fully aware of this tournament until I got there,’’ said Yuen. “It was huge, bigger than the U.S. Amateur.’’

At first, though, she wasn’t sure she should go because her game was struggling

“I’m glad I got the phone call,’’ she said after getting a taste of what the event was all about. “I earned my way in, and my coach said I had to go. Playing there was great. I was so honored to be there.’’

Chicago golf scene will be different now that four amateur stars have turned pro

In the early 1980s the Chicago amateur ranks were dominated by a fabulous foursome, David Ogrin, Gary Pinns, Gary Hallberg and Jerry Vidovic. Toss in Lance Ten Broeck and Roy Biancalana, who were slightly younger than that group, and you had what I consider the Golden Years of Chicago amateur golf.

Ogrin, Hallberg and Ten Broeck were winners on the PGA Tour. Pinns and Biancalana played on that circuit and Vidovic won a national title – the U.S. Amateur Public Links. It’ll be tough to top that group.

The last few years, however, produced a Fabulous Foursome, too, in Doug Ghim, Nick Hardy, Patrick Flavin and Tee-K Kelly. You could also mix in the slightly older Vince India and Brad Hopfinger, too. Those two are among the select nine players with wins in both the Illinois State Amateur and Illinois Open and are now past the rookie stage on the Web.com Tour.

Ghim, Hardy, Flavin and Kelly all had their moments as amateurs and are new to the pro game. It’ll be interesting to see how their careers play out, but – suffice it to say for now – they’ll be missed around the local tournament scene this season.

Who was the best as an amateur? That’s hard to say. Ghim ventured to the University of Texas and basically limited his Chicago play to the Western Amateur. Kelly won the Illinois State Amateur twice and was runner-up another time.

Hardy had the best single tournament performance with his record 28-under-par over 54 holes to capture the 2016 Illinois State Amateur and he was always a factor in the Western Amateur and Illinois Open. Flavin had the best single season when – in 2017 — he became the first player in 37 years to win both the Illinois State Amateur and Illinois Open in the same year.

So, what happens now?

Ghim moved to Las Vegas and finished a solid third in the final stage of Web.com Tour qualifying. India, the reigning Illinois Open champion, regained his Web.com Tour card with a 12th place finish in his return to Q-School. They’ll be easy to follow, since they have a tour with almost weekly tournaments to play in. Both made the cut in the first one of 2019, in the Bahamas.

Kelly already won on the PGA’s Latinoamerica circuit – a whopping seven-shot victory in 2017 — and will be able to compete there again. His challenge will be to elevate his game to another level, and another tour.

For good friends Hardy and Flavin, it’s a little different. They established residences in Scottsdale, Ariz., during winter that are 10 minutes apart. In April, or whenever the Chicago weather permits it, they’ll return to the area and practice at the Merit Club in Libertyville. Finding tournaments might be a challenge, as neither has status on any tour yet.

Flavin survived only the pre-qualifying stage of Web.com Tour qualifying. He had better luck after moving to Scottsdale in November, finishing seventh and second in two mini-tour events with a missed cut in an event in Mexico in between.

“My game feels good, and I love being out here,’’ said Flavin, who is living with a college teammate from Miami of Ohio until his return to Chicago.

Flavin didn’t get the big tournament exposure that Hardy did as a member of the University of Illinois’ powerhouse teams, so he’s taking a different approach to his first season as a pro.

“I’ll go into the Latinoamerica Q-School, then the Canadian Tour Q-School,’’ he said. “That’ll give me the most kicks of the can, and if I finish well on the money lists I can move up to the Web.com. Playing a schedule like that really suits my game.“

The Latinoamerica Q-School will be a special experience. The competition will be held in Brazil, on the same course that hosted the last Olympics golf tournament.

Hardy, who made the cut in two U.S. Opens as an amateur and earned paychecks on both the PGA and Web.com circuits last year after getting into events on sponsor’s exemptions, did enter the Monday qualifier for the Waste Management Phoenix Open on the PGA Tour. Other than that he wasn’t sure where he’d be playing immediately after returning to the U.S. following a winter visit to Australia.

“My schedule is tough to plan,’’ he said. “I have to earn my way into tournaments. I’ll play in a lot of Monday qualifiers and try to earn my status that way.’’

Hardy made it through the first stage of Web.com Tour qualifying but came up two strokes short in the second stage. Players who reach the third and final stage have at least limited status on the circuit.

“Q-School was a great learning experience, though I didn’t play my best,’’ said Hardy, “Now I’ll take what I learned as an amateur and at Illinois. I feel great about my game.’’

On the women’s front Chicago will have a changing of the guard on the Ladies PGA Tour. For nearly three decades the only Chicago player on the premier women’s circuit was Nicole Jeray. With Jeray, 48, taking a teaching job at Mistwood in Romeoville, the lone Chicago representative on the LPGA circuit will be Winnetka’s Elizabeth Szokol, and she has the credentials to do quite well.

Szokol, who will be an LPGA rookie in 2019, earned her place on the circuit by finishing fourth on the Symetra Tour money list in 2018. Her second season on the LPGA’s developmental tour was a solid one after she was sidelined for eight weeks by knee surgery in January.

She won the IOA Invitational in May – her second start of the season – and tied for third in the season-ending Symetra Tour Championship. In between Szokol had four more top-10 finishes en route to earning $76,612 in her 20 tournament appearances. She’s expected to make her LPGA debut overseas in February. The LPGA has four tournaments – in Australia, Thailand and Singapore – before holding its first event in the U.S. at Phoenix in March.

Jeray, meanwhile, isn’t done competing. She earned a place in one of the LPGA majors — the KPMG Women’s PGA Championship — with a strong showing in last year’s LPGA Teaching & Club Professionals National Championship and is especially focused on winning the Illinois Women’s Open for the third time on the course where she now works.

Already the IWO champion in 1998 and 2003, she hopes to become the first player to win the tournament in three decades.

GolfVisions’ promotions are a big reason for the Chicago Golf Show’s success

Back in 2010 Tim Miles Sr. made a bold promotional move. He offered a free round to all Chicago Golf Show visitors at all of the courses that his company, Mundelein-based GolfVisions, was managing.

Looking back, Tom Corcoran – owner of the 35-year old show since 1997 — still calls Miles’ move “the wildly greatest promotion we’ve had.’’ That’s saying a lot, because Chicago has the oldest consumer golf show in the nation.

Miles, GolfVisions president and chief executive officer, liked the results, too. He has continued the program every year since then. The free golf enticement has been a popular feature with the show’s 15,000 to 20,000 annual visitors.

Those attending this year’s 36th annual show, running Feb. 22-24 at the Stephens Convention Center in Rosemont, will be offered a free greens fee at one of 15 courses under GolfVisions’ care, and that free round will cover the cost of a ticket to the show. With Miles getting more players to his courses, it’s a win-win situation for all concerned and this year the offering is even more special.

GolfVisions took over the management of Lake Bluff Golf Club on Jan. 1. That was a major step in a series of developments that very likely saved one of the best public facilities in the Chicago area from being shut down.

The course, owned by the Lake Bluff Park District, was having financial problems and Park District officials admitted that some basic improvements were long overdue. The threat of closing after the 2018 season was a real one. The Park District wanted $260,000 raised in the final half of 2018 and/or committed in 2019 to approve its opening for this year.

That triggered the creation of the Lake Bluff Community Golf Association, a group of about 50 concerned citizens who wanted to keep the course going.

Six members united to hold a golf marathon that raised $27,000. Then the group organized a 50th anniversary celebration for the course last August that drew 144 players and 250 dinner guests. It boosted the money raised to basically the year-end total — $126,000.

“We raised a big chunk of the money on that one night,’’ said Mike Galeski, one of the association leaders who has held prominent leadership roles in the staging of both a PGA Tour Champions event at North Shore Country Club, in Glencoe and the LPGA’s UL International Crown at Merit Club, in Libertyville.

The amount raised in 2018 was a start, and the course will open this year.

“It demonstrated community support,’’ said Galeski. “The Park District figured there must be enough interest to keep it.’’

The influx of new money led almost immediately to the start of work on the clubhouse.

“That building had not been touched in decades,’’ said Galeski, “and it is highly visible to people.’’

Billy Casper Golf had been managing the course. Its contract expired on Nov. 30. Shortly thereafter GolfVisions got involved. Eventually Miles and the Park District negotiated a five-year lease agreement that additionally has two five-year options. Lake Bluff has been saved – at least for the immediate future – and Chicago Golf Show visitors might be able to get a free round on the course. Those who do will see what a gem this layout is. They’ll want to return. At least that’s my prediction, and Miles is hopeful.

“It’s certainly an interesting deal, but it’s not a slam dunk,’’ said Miles. “It’ll be challenging, but a lot of fun.’’

Regardless of what the future holds, the re-opening of Lake Bluff is a feel-good story and anything of that nature is a big boost for golfers going into 2019. GolfVisions was founded in 2001, and Miles’ perspective on 2018 presents a most sobering reflection of the sport both here and beyond.

“It was a horrible year,’’ he said. “We had the worst year I’ve ever seen in Chicago in 2018, and it wasn’t just Chicago. It was also from an industry standpoint. Play was anywhere from 10 to 18 percent down. We had a record year for the number of playable days. There were 35 fewer playable days than in 2017. Everybody wanted to see that year gone — and it’s gone.’’

That’s a good thing. With the end of 2018 has come the beginning of 2019, and there’s plenty of optimism for the months ahead.

“We’ll continue the fund-raising issue for future improvements,’’ promised Galeski. “Our players have demonstrated that they want to keep participating in events.’’

Lake Bluff is a par-72 track that plays at 6,589 yards from the tips with a slope of 124 and rating of 71.3. A parkland-style layout, it features mature trees with water coming into play on several holes.

“It’s a nice course – easy to walk and easy to ride,’’ said Miles. “It’s a course people should be wanting to play.’’

GolfVision operates other courses in that category, some of which – Bittersweet in Gurnee, Bonnie Brook in Waukegan and Midlane in Wadsorth – are in close proximity to Lake Bluff.

Other public 18-holers in the GolfVisions portfolio are Broken Arrow, in Lockport; Chapel Hill, in Johnsburg; Foxford Hills, in Cary; Oak Grove, in Harvard; Settler’s Hill, in Batavia; Tanna Farms, in Geneva; and Village Green, in Mundelein.

GolfVisions also operates three nine-holers in Illinois – Deer Valley in Big Rock, Greenshire in Waukegan and HeatherRidge in Gurnee – as well as a private club, 18-hole Danville Country Club. The firm’s portfolio also includes courses in Indiana, Michigan and Florida.

As always, this year’s Chicago Golf Show isn’t just about wangling a free round from GolfVisions. There’ll be about 300 exhibitors, which include local course operators, equipment manufacturers and travel destinations. The latter includes Indiana’s French Lick Resort, the show’s presenting sponsor.

The Illinois PGA, Chicago District Golf Association, Western Golf Association and Illinois Junior Golf Association will also be represented.