Len Ziehm On Golf

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.

Now it’s time to look ahead to big events at Medinah, Whistling Straits

Is there a more beautiful par-3 anywhere than No. 7 at Whistling Straits?

Usually columns for the final issue of a season are used for look-backs at the high (and sometimes – low) points of the goings-on in the previous spring and summer months. This year I’ve coaxed Chicagoland Golf publisher Val Russell into indulging my preference to move in another direction.

Rather than looking back at the Chicago golf season of 2018 I’m going to look ahead – to two events in particular. Sometimes anticipation turns out more exciting than the event itself. I doubt that’ll happen this time but upcoming events at Medinah and Whistling Straits merit attention well in advance.

Once the last putt drops in the BMW Championship at Aronimink in the Philadelphia area, on Sept. 9, Medinah will go on the clock as the site for the FedEx Cup Playoff tournament in 2019.

And, once the last putt drops in the Ryder Cup matches at LeGolf National in France on Sept. 30, Whistling Straits will be on the clock as the host for the 2020 matches in Wisconsin.

Given the Chicago golf tournament calendar of the last three years, a look-back column might sound bittersweet. There won’t be any U.S. Opens, NCAA Championships, major events on the LPGA Tour or PGA Tour Champions or an inaugural U.S. Senior Women’s Open to captivate enthusiasm during the cold-weather months as there has been in the recent past. In fact, none of those biggies are scheduled in the Chicago area in the foreseeable future.

There won’t be a Western Amateur in the area for the next two years, either, and the Web.com Tour’s Rust-Oleum Championship appears unlikely to return at this point.

Sounds like a downer? Well, that doesn’t have to be the case. The 2019 BMW Championship and 2020 Ryder Cup are big-time, historical attractions on world-renowned courses and they’re not all that far in the future.

Medinah last hosted a big event in 2012, when the Ryder Cup was played on its famed No. 3 course, and the American side went down to a crushing defeat with a disastrous showing in the singles matches on the final day. This time Medinah will be in play for the first BMW Championship played in August – it had been a September attraction until the PGA Tour revamped its schedule for 2019 – and there’s some uncertainty about the event’s future as well. The tourney’s sponsorship agreement concludes after the tournament at Medinah, and the Western Golf Association hasn’t announced sites for the event after 2019.

The Ryder Cup made its appearance at Whistling Straits two years before the main event.

As for the Ryder Cup at Whistling Straits, a tournament two years down the road may seem too far off to think about now, but that shouldn’t be the case. The staff at Whistling Straits is well into the planning stages, based on our visit to Kohler, Wis., last month. Kohler is just a two-hour drive, so it’s pretty much a home game for Chicago golfers. They turned out in droves for the three PGA Championships, two U.S. Women’s Opens and one U.S. Senior Open played there.

There is also one most notable difference between the Whistling Straits Ryder Cup and those in the recent past. Whistling Straits is the first public course to host the event since South Carolina’s Kiawah Island welcomed the matches in 1991. That means that all golfers will have the opportunity to play the course that hosts the Ryder Cup – something that hasn’t happened in a long time. It should mean big business in Kohler, both leading into and immediately after the Ryder Cup comes to town.

Kohler’s pro shops and gift shops are already stocked with merchandise bearing the logo of the 2020 Ryder Cup. The Ryder Cup itself was brought by as part of a nation-wide tour on Aug. 22 and more preview events will be held during and immediately after this year’s matches in Paris.

Director of golf Mike O’Reilly has no doubts Whistling Straits will be ready for its first Ryder Cup.

“It’s not like the Ryder Cup is our first rodeo – just our first Ryder rodeo,’’ said Mike O’Reilly, director of golf operations at both Whistling Straits and Blackwolf Run. He grew up in Darien and went to Downers South High School prior to beginning a 10-year run in Kohler as head golf professional in 2013. In addition to his present role with the Kohler courses O’Reilly is also on the executive committee for the 2020 Ryder Cup.

“The planning process for the Ryder Cup is similar to our PGA Championships, but everything is amplified,’’ said O’Reilly. “The number of volunteers needed is bigger. The number of spectators we can expect is bigger. The demand for tickets is elevated. While the number of people that will be here won’t be much bigger (than for the last PGA Championship in 2015), the demand for tickets will be much bigger. Unfortunately several thousand who want to purchase a ticket won’t be able to do that because the demand is so much greater.’’

In case you’ve forgotten what Ryder Cup fever was like prior to Medinah’s year as the host site, tickets to the matches don’t go on sale. The recipients are determined via a lottery. Those who want to be on hand for the action can file an interest form on line, and attendance will be limited to 40,000 to 45,000 per day. That was roughly the same size gallery as attended at Medinah and Minnesota’s Hazeltine layout – the last American site for the matches in 2016. Ticket prices haven’t been announced for the shootout at Whistling Straits.

The uncertainty of the lottery aside, the biggest problem for 2020 Ryder Cup patrons will be finding lodging. There’s more available than there was for the 2015 PGA Championship but, O’Reilly admits, “there’s certainly not enough.’’

“People will stay in roughly a one-hour radius and private home rentals will be off the charts for the Ryder Cup,’’ said O’Reilly. “What helps is that here you can park on site. You’re not taking a bus to the course. That’s a big advantage.’’

One Kohler attraction that won’t be at the Ryder Cup is the 22 black-faced Irish sheep that have roamed the fairways at Whistling Straights and the adjoining Irish Course. They’ll be removed for the Ryder Cup. Otherwise, it’ll be all systems go come 2020.

“The Ryder Cup will be one of the biggest sporting events in Wisconsin ever,’’ said O’Reilly. We’re trying to get as many people involved as possible.’’

The 22 sheep that have roamed Whistling Straits won’t be around when the Ryder Cup comes to town.

PGA Tour schedule for 2018-19 will require some fresh thinking

I did enough venting about this year’s tournament schedule in our last issue. Then – wouldn’t you know it? – the PGA Tour made its plans for the 2018-19 wrap-around season official. There’s lots of food for thought when you analyze that one.

Just knowing the PGA Tour dates isn’t enough to project how our next golf season will be received. The schedules for the USGA, LPGA, PGA Tour Champions, Web.com Tour and local attractions organized by the Western Golf Association, Illinois PGA and CDGA have to be factored in as well.

Still, having the schedule for the world’s premier tour available well in advance is most helpful and – from the overall standpoint – I like what I see. Locally I’m not so sure.

The key dates for Chicago area fans are July 8-14 for the John Deere Classic and August 12-18 for the BMW Championship. Despite massive shuffling of the PGA Tour schedule, the JDC remained in its spot the week before the British Open. While not every tournament organizer would be happy with that place on the calendar, it’s worked out well for the JDC.

Clair Peterson, the JDC tournament director, had a stroke of genius back in 2008 that is still paying big dividends. Rather than make the expected increase in prize money back then Peterson opted to hire a jet that would take players directly from the JDC to the British Open site. That enhanced the players’ view of the tournament and Peterson has continued with that offering every year since then.

Quad Cities was always a friendly place for the pros during tournament week and now – if indeed they wanted to go to the British – they could make the trip with less travel hassles and for a greatly reduced rate. Suddenly the John Deere Classic looked a lot more attractive. Louis Oosthuizen even opted to play there immediately prior to making his British title defense in 2011.

Now for the BMW Championship, the situation isn’t so rosy. The event remains a part of the FedEx Cup Playoffs, though the season-ending series has been reduced from four tournaments to three. The BMW is the second one, when the survivors will again be whittled from 70 to 30 for the season-ending Tour Championship at East Lake, in Atlanta.

The BMW, scheduled for Aronimink in Philadelphia this September, returns to the Chicago area at Medinah No. 3 in 2019. Chicago’s best tournament venue last hosted a PGA Tour event when the Ryder Cup matches were played there in 2012. A return to Medinah is always nice, though the club’s membership isn’t thrilled about losing at least of week of play on their top layout during the busiest part of its golf season. The club agreed to host the tournament when it was held in September.

Also, not to be ignored, is the fact that BMW’s contract to sponsor the tournament concludes after the 2019 event. As of this printing there’s no hint of a contract extension being in the works, and the Western Golf Association has no site booked beyond Medinah.

Chicago clubs willing to give up their course in August won’t be as plentiful as the number that would be agreeable in the fall. So, the event is somewhat in limbo.

Also a cause for concern is the status of the PGA Championship. It’ll end its long fall run at Bellerive in St. Louis this month, then move up to May 13-19 in 2019. The move will help the PGA (my prediction, though not all pundits agree) in the form of visibility but May dates will also make it difficult to get that major championship back to Chicago – or any place in the Midwest –in future years. Why would the PGA want to risk scheduling its premier event in an area with dubious spring weather?

In its fall dates the PGA has been the one major that has been receptive to coming to Midwest venues. In addition to Bellerive, that tournament was played twice at Medinah since 1999 and also had two stagings at Whistling Straits in Wisconsin in that period. In case you didn’t know, no major championship (USGA, PGA of America, LPGA, PGA Tour Champions) has been scheduled in Chicago in the future. Last month’s Constellation Senior Players Championship at Exmoor will most likely be the last for quite awhile – and that’s a shame.

While other tournament dates for next year haven’t been announced, the closest major will be the U.S. Senior Open, which is scheduled for the Warren Course in South Bend. The KPMG Women’s PGA Championship, played at Chicago area courses (Olympia Fields and Kemper Lakes) the last two years is headed for Hazeltine, in Minnesota, in 2019.

Getting back to the PGA Tour, the schedule will have only 46 tournaments compared to the 49 in the 2017-18 campaign. There’ll be two new evens in the Midwest, both in the two weeks leading into the John Deere Classic. Detroit finally gets back on the circuit with the Rocket Mortgage Classic at Detroit Golf Club from June 24-30 and the Minneapolis area gets still another boost to its golf profile with the 3M Open coming to the Twin Cities from July 1-7. This season the area had a Champions Tour event under that sponsorship.

The main goal of the revamped schedule was to enhance attention on the FedEx Cup Playoffs. Now, instead of September, they’ll be completed on Aug. 25. That means the climax to the golf season won’t be encumbered by competition for attention from the National Football League, Major League Baseball and the Stanley Cup or NBA playoffs.

Golf’s majors will also be better spread out in the new schedule. The Players Championship, which should have been designated a major years ago, will move back to March and Florida weather should be acceptable that early in the year. Then there’s a major a month – the Masters in April, PGA Championship in May, U.S. Open in June and British Open in July. That’s an ideal lead-in to the FedEx Cup Playoffs.

And, there will still be tournament golf played after those playoffs. The PGA Tour slate for 2019-20 will begin a week or two after the President’s Cup (not yet officially scheduled) is played.

Golf has proven to be a tonic for this Parkinson’s sufferer

Gary Smith, by his own admission, is not a champion golfer but his golf story is well worth telling. Tim Rosaforte, a long-time friend of mine who works for The Golf Channel, told it first as a TV feature. Now it’s my turn.

Smith is a Naperville resident, but I met him at the International Network of Golf’s Spring Conference in Biloxi, Miss., in May. He was a featured speaker there and provided a compelling report on what golf has done for him.

In short, golf served as an effective treatment for Parkinson’s disease. That’s a neurodegenerative brain disorder that has very negative life-changing effects for its victims. Smith was diagnosed with it in 2008, but suspects he had symptoms as many as five years before that. His father had died of the disease the same year that Gary was diagnosed with it and his father had battled it for 22 years. Gradually the disease took its told on Smith as well.

“My life was really getting dark,’’ he said. “My dexterity was gone. I had tremors. I was walking very slowly. My voice was wispy. Basically my life was not good.’’

He lost most of his ability to smell and taste. He felt strange aches and pains and his energy level was dropping off. He was barely able to walk his daughter Morgan down the aisle at her 2010 marriage.

This was especially painful, given the active lifestyle Smith had led prior to the devastating diagnosis. He played basketball and baseball in high school and college and was a skydiver for 20 years. He once para-glided off a 3,800-foot cliff in New Zealand. In his fifties he was a surfer and ran a marathon on his 55th birthday in 2011.

Married with three children, Smith had worked as a psychotherapist, then took on a second career as a loan officer. He continued to work for seven years after getting his Parkinson’s diagnosis before retiring on his 60th birthday in 2015. He wanted to play more golf then, mainly because his wife Nan liked to play the game.

Smith tried other forms of exercise, and some would work for a while, but he came to the realization that “everything goes slow.’’

“My kids said `Please don’t quit’ and I kept looking for exercises,’’ said Smith. “My son said I should go to TopGolf.’’

That fast-growing franchise has a facility in Naperville, and Smith hit lots of golf balls there – up to 1,000 a week.

When Smith turned 60 he and Nan took a trip to Scotland, and she encouraged him to play a round at the famous Old Course at St. Andrews. Using rental clubs, he got through that round and was inspired by the experience. That led to more sessions at TopGolf when they returned to Naperville.

“When we got back there was some freakish weather, temperatures in the 50s,’’ he said. “I started walking (in rounds at Naperbrook and Springbrook, Naperville’s public courses). I was confused. I felt good because I was walking. But it wore me out.’’

Eventually the Parkinson’s symptoms went away. After five weeks he could walk more upright and actually stride, rather then just shuffle his feet. His right foot and arm had been stiff. They started to loosen up. He could type with his right hand again and manage facial expressions. His voice got stronger, too.

Now 63, he usually walks his 18-hole rounds and has done as many as 36 holes in a day. His handicap also dropped from 24 to 10.

Initially Smith felt his “recovery’’ wasn’t the real thing, just a carryover from the St. Andrews experience. His neurologist, Dr. Martha McGraw at Northwestern Medicine Center DuPage Hospital in Winfield, had her doubts as well until Smith demonstrated his regained walking ability at her office.

She declared him back to his pre-Parkinson’s fitness level. Though Smith couldn’t understand his recovery either, he was determined to take his message to others who suffer from the disease. He’s trying to raise money for the Parkinson’s Foundation to fund a scientific study on the potential benefits of golf for Parkinson’s patients.

While he’s thankful for his improved health, Smith still has concerns his old symptoms might return.

“Every day I wake up I just wonder if this will wear off,’’ he said, “but so far, so good.’’

We will all have to deal with `THE BIG CONFLICT’

This is my 50th year reporting on the Chicago golf scene and I can assure you there has never been a month like the one confronting us this July. There have been busy tournaments times in the past, but never anything like what’s coming in the next few days.

I’m calling the whole scenario “The Big Conflict,’’ and I’m not happy about it.

Everything kicks in during the second week of July, but especially on Thursday, July 12. That’s the starting day of competition for the PGA Tour’s John Deere Classic at TPC Deere Run in downstate Silvis.

That’s also the day that the Constellation Senior Players Championship tees off at Exmoor Country Club in Highland Park. This is one of the five major championships on the PGA Tour Champions circuit. It’s a big deal.

And that’s not all. The inaugural U.S. Senior Women’s Open starts its 72-hole run at Chicago Golf Club in Wheaton on July 12 as well.

Three very big tournaments, all of them played over the same four-day period. The John Deere Classic is the only annual PGA Tour stop in Illinois with Bryson DeChambeau coming in as the defending champion with $5.8 million in prize money on the line.

The Constellation Senior Players Championship is the first major on the 50-and-over circuit played in the Chicago area since the U.S. Senior Open was contested at Olympia Fields in 1997. With no other major championships on any tour scheduled in the Chicago area this could be the last chance to see the Champions Tour’s dominant player, Bernhard Langer, and Chicago’s own Jeff Sluman compete on home turf.

And the U.S. Senior Women’s Open – a long-awaited and long overdue event organized by the U.S. Golf Association – means a chance to see legends like Pat Bradley, Juli Inkster, Meg Mallon, Jane Blalock and Betsy King in competition again. Plus, the tournament offers a rare opportunity for spectators to get inside the gates of the North America’s oldest 18-hole golf course. Chicago Golf Club last opened its doors to spectators for the 2005 Walker Cup matches.

While Chicago Golf Club is old – it dates back to 1892 – the tournament that it will soon host is the USGA’s newest national championship. It’ll have 120 of the best women players who have reached the 50th birthday. They’ll be playing on the same course that hosted three U.S. Opens (1897, 1900 and 1911), four U.S. Amateurs (1897, 1905, 1909 and 1912), the 1903 U.S. Women’s Amateur and the 1979 U.S. Senior Amateur. It was only fitting that Chicago Golf Club be the site for the first U.S. Senior Women’s Open. It’s just too bad that the tournament will have to share the spotlight when it’s here.

The only time I can recall anything close to this weird bit of scheduling was in 1975, when the USGA and PGA Tour opted to schedule big tournaments back-to-back. The U.S. Open was played at Medinah one week and the late, great Western Open was contested the following week at Butler National in Oak Brook.

Such high-profile events were never scheduled so close together in the same geographical area back then. It was simply taboo. There were concerns then that golf interest – including that of potential sponsors – would wane if tournament play was stretched out too far.

As things turned out, there was only a minimal break in the action then. The ’75 U.S. Open carried over to Monday, with Lou Graham beating John Mahaffey in a playoff to decide the title. Three days later Hale Irwin started his run to the Western title on one of the most difficult courses in the country.

Somehow, that glut of golf 43 years ago worked out okay. In fact, it was the start of big things for Irwin. He earned the moniker of “Mr. Chicago’’ as he went on to win the 1990 U.S. Open at Medinah in the tourney’s first-ever sudden death playoff against Mike Donald and then captured the Ameritech Senior Open three times. That tourney was a fixture in Chicago back then, with Irwin winning in 1995 at Stonebridge in Aurora and 1998 and 1999 at Kemper Lakes in Kildeer.

This year’s strange scheduling is a little different than that of 1975. In any other year any one of those three tournaments would be considered the highlight of the Chicago golf season. This year, I’m afraid, the interest in each one will be diluted.

Frankly I’d like to see every round of all three tournaments, but obviously I can’t. You can’t be in two – or three – places at once. As of this writing – a few weeks before the firing begins on July 12 – I don’t know where I’ll be or when. But I guarantee you I’ll be keeping tabs on all of those events.

Unfortunately, after “The Big Conflict’’ is over a smaller version will begin. On July 16, the day after the John Deere Classic, Constellation Senior Players Championship and U.S. Senior Women’s Open all wrap up, the focus shifts to state competitions.

The Illinois Women’s Open begins at Mistwood, in Romeoville, the day after “The Big Conflict’’ and the day after that the Illinois State Amateur tees off at Bloomington Country Club. Both are three-day tournaments, the IWO ending on Wednesday, July 18, and the State Am on Thursday, July 19.

When all is said and done there’ll be eight consecutive days of very meaningful tournament golf at both the professional and amateur levels. Multiple tournaments will be played on seven of those eight days.

Obviously the schedule-makers from the various golf organizations could have done a better job communicating with each other in choosing dates for their 2018 championships. While tournament conflicts are sometimes inevitable, this year’s scenario defies the imagination.

There’s no point in getting into the blame game on this issue. The tournaments will all be played on the dates announced, and they’ll all be good. I just hope we never have to go through something like “The Big Conflict’’ again.