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Len Ziehm On Golf

BMW’s return to Conway Farms will be even better this time

The first BMW Championship played at Conway Farms in Lake Forest was voted Tournament of the Year on the PGA Tour. That was in 2013.

When the FedEx Cup Playoff event returns this month it will be even better. Work done by both the Western Golf Assn. and the Conway membership ensures that.

Conway was tournament-tested before the 2013 BMW Championship. All of the tournaments that had been played there, though, were amateur events. There’s a big difference between a club hosting a top-level amateur event and a PGA Tour stop.

While the move from Cog Hill, in Lemont – the WGA’s 20-year site for its premier championship – to Conway Farms was a success, there was inevitable room for improvement in some areas. Those areas were addressed over the past two years as the 2014 BMW Championship was played at Cherry Hills in Denver. The many fans that go back to Conway Farms from Sept. 14-20 will notice the difference and appreciate the improvements.

Conway itself will look different. The club underwent a major renovation, the result making the facility much more spectator-friendly. Seating around the 18th green has been doubled and there’s expanded viewing at Nos. 1, 2, 7, 9, 11 and 17. The Beer Garden has also been doubled in size and cart paths have been widened to improve spectator traffic around the course.

Players fortunate enough to qualify will find the practice facility enhanced. Billy Horschel won at Cherry Hills, so he’ll be the tournament’s defending champion at Conway Farms – assuming, of course, he qualifies for the tournament.

Horschel also went on to claim the $10 million bonus awarded the winner of the FedEx Playoffs last year. The WGA, however, is using Johnson for promotional appearances in its return to Conway Farms and it never hurts to have the reigning British Open champion on hand for those duties. The first of those was throwing out the first pitch at a Cubs’ game at Wrigley Field two days after the 97th PGA Championship concluded at Whistling Straits in Wisconsin last month.

The move from Cog Hill to Conway Farms two years ago was a challenge for the WGA. Chicago’s golfing public had to be educated about where the tourney was going, and the event itself couldn’t have been more memorable. Vince Pellegrino, the WGA’s senior vice president, tournaments, can attest to that. The 2013 BMW Championship had a bit of everything.

“Record heat, frost, every weather pattern that week,’’ recalled Pellegrino. “Jim Furyk shooting a 59 when the average score for that day was par, oscillating balls on the first green, Hunter Mahan getting a hole-in-one, weather delays leading to a Monday finish, then Zach Johnson shooting 65 to win by two strokes.’’

The return to Conway may find that hard to match in terms of memorability.

In looking back, Johnson was no slouch leading into the 2013 BMW Championship; he had won the 2007 Masters and eight other PGA Tour events. But that year he was worried about surviving the third stage of the playoffs. He had put himself in jeopardy by skipping the first playoff event in New York to attend his brother’s wedding.

That family-based decision was understandable, but didn’t help his status in the FedEx point race. Johnson hadn’t won a tournament in 2013 until he got to Conway Farms. His rousing final round produced the victory that sent him to Atlanta, where he tied for seventh.

Since then he added a victory in the 2014 Hyundai Tournament of Champions in addition to his playoff win at the dramatic Open Championship at St. Andrews in Scotland in July. All eyes were on Jordan Spieth and his bid for a third straight major championship at St. Andrews, but Johnson nixed that. He won the title in a three-man playoff with Spieth one shot back.

Johnson and Spieth were also paired in the first two rounds of last month’s PGA Championship, with then world No. 1 Rory McIlroy making it a spectacular threesome. Johnson was odd man out in that group. He missed the 36-hole cut, while Spieth outdueled McIlroy head-to-head and went on to wrest the No. 1 spot in the Official World Golf Rankings from him with a second place finish in the last of the year’s four major championships.

Spieth, beaten by Australian Jason Day at Whistling Straits, and most of the other top stars figure to battle again at Conway Farms – third stop of the FedEx Playoffs. It’ll have the top 70 players in the FedEx standings after the first two events are completed.

The Playoff started with The Barclays event, which was held Aug. 27-30 in New Jersey. The second event is the Deutsche Bank Championship from Sept. 4-7 at TPC Boston in Massachusetts, where the playoff survivors will be cut to 70 for the Conway Farms test. The 70 playing at Conway will be reduced to 30 players for The Tour Championship Sept. 24-27 at East Lake, in Atlanta.

All four of the no-cut playoff events have prize funds of $8.25 million so — while the field at Conway won’t be set until after the event in Boston is over — the incentive for the top players to compete in Lake Forest again is extremely high.

“We certainly expect this year’s to be as highly successful and well-attended as that (last) one was,’’ said Pellegrino. That means another big payoff for a most worthwhile cause.

Since the BMW replaced the Western Open as the WGA’s tour stop in 2007 the tournament has raised more than $19.6 million for the Evans Scholars Foundation, which is financing the college education of 870 caddies this year.

A new event, the Evans Scholars Cup involving teams from 28 Chicago area clubs, will be played on Monday of tournament week at Conway. Tuesday is reserved for practice rounds and Wednesday for the Gardner Heidrick Pro-Am. Tournament rounds are Thursday through Sunday, with 11:30 a.m. starts planned for the first two days and 7:30 a.m. teeoffs for the weekend rounds.

Unlike 2013, the WGA has set an attendance limit for this year’s BMW. Crowds will be limited to 27,000 to help create a better spectator experience. The third-round crowd hit 35,000 at Conway two years ago.

Golf Channel will televise the first two rounds and will share broadcast duties with NBC on the weekend rounds. The 70 players will play for a purse of $8.25 million with the champion receiving $1,485,000.