Celebrity involvement will make Encompass a spectator-friendly tourney

The Champions Tour is returning to the Chicago area for the first time since 2002 and nobody – repeat nobody – is as happy about this most positive development as I am.

Chicago’s been losing its pro tour stops, and the return of the Champions will help correct that. The Encompass Championship will be held June 17-23 at North Shore Country Club in Glenview. It will add to the rich history the 50-and-over circuit has had in Chicago – even if the cycle has endured an 11-year absence attributable to sponsorship problems.

Plus, the new event will introduce a new, spectator-friendly format and should draw virtually all of the top players. They’ll be well-rested because the Champions Tour doesn’t have an event the preceding week, when the U.S. Open is contested at Merion in Philadelphia.

The Champions Tour dates back to 1980, when it was known as the Senior PGA Tour and had just four events and purses totaling $475,000. An indication of just how far the circuit has come is reflected in the Encompass purse — $1.8 million with the winner receiving $270,000

Encompass Insurance, headquartered in Northbrook, sponsored the Encompass Pro-Am of Tampa Bay in April of 2012 as part of an agreement with the PGA Tour that called for the creation of a new tournament in Chicago for the following three years. This will be the first of those three.

Previous Chicago tournaments on the Champions Tour were known as, first, the Ameritech Senior Open from 1991 to 1999 and, finally, the SBC Open, from 2000 to 2002.

During Ameritech’s sponsorship run the tourney was considered one of the best on the Senior PGA Tour. The ASO was first held in 1989, at Canterbury in Cleveland, and Michigan’s Grand Traverse Resort was the site in 1990 before the tourney began its Chicago run. Bruce Crampton and Chi Chi Rodriguez were the first two champions.

Chicago had a taste of senior golf prior to the ASO’s arrival at Stonebridge, a then-new private club with a course designed by Tom Fazio. The facility had opened on the Aurora-Naperville corridor in 1990.

In 1988 the U.S. Golf Assn. staged its U.S. Senior Open at Medinah, with Gary Player winning. That event would also come to Olympia Fields in 1997, Australian Graham Marsh emerging as the champion. Those 72-hole competitions contributed to the popularity of the senior golf in Chicago but didn’t have the same free-wheeling flavor as the annual 54-hole tour stops that began in 1991.

Mike Hill, then the hottest player in the 50-and-over ranks, won the tourney’s first staging at Stonebridge and Dale Douglass took the second. Those tournaments were only mildly successful compared to what was to come.

Michael Jordan was in his heyday as a basketball player then, and his passion for golf was just starting. In 1992 he played 54 holes at Arnold Palmer’s Bay Hill Club in Florida even though he was scheduled to play in the NBA All-Star Game that night. After his golf marathon — but before he left Bay Hill for his basketball game — Jordan let it be known that he wanted to play a round with Palmer – any time, anywhere.

That round materialized at the 1993 ASO’s Thursday pro-am, with a then-record 17,500 following the two sports legends around the course. Palmer shot a 1-over-par 73 and Jordan, who billed himself as an 8-handicapper, had an 81. George Archer’s victory in the tournament proper seemed anti-climactic.

John Paul Cain’s win in the 1994 ASO was interesting, as he became a rare sponsor’s exemption to use the invitation as the prelude to a championship run.

The best golf at Stonebridge – and my favorite ASO/SBC memory – came in 1995, the tourney’s last staging on that course. Joe Jimenez, then 69 years old, shot a 62 and set a record for the most strokes below age. On the same day eventual champion Hale Irwin shot 63. Those dazzling scores, shocking at the time, underscored just how good senior golf could be.

That ’95 win earned Irwin the moniker of “Mr. Chicago.’’ He had won the Western Open at Butler National in 1975 and the U.S. Open at Medinah in 1990. (He wasn’t done, either. Irwin would go on to win back-to-back ASO titles in 1998 and 1999 after the event moved to Kemper Lakes).

Irwin’s wins there came in the third and fourth of six stagings at Kemper. The first two were won by a Morgan, Walter in 1996 and Gil in 1997.

The tourney remained at Kemper after Irwin’s victories there, but the tourney made a name change. The last three tourneys were known as the SBC Open, with Tom Kite the champion in 2000 and Dana Quigley in the last staging at Kemper in 2001. Irwin went to a playoff with Bob Gilder when the tourney moved to Harborside International in 2002. Gilder got the win that time, and the senior stars haven’t been seen here since. The end of the run was sad, for both the players and Chicago’s always loyal golf fans.

That’ll all change when the Encompass Championship tees off at North Shore, a private club that hosted the Western Open in 1928, the U.S. Open in 1933, the U.S. Amateur in 1939 and 1983 and the Western Amateur in 2011.

Tournament director Mike Galeski expects most every top player on the Champions Tour to compete in an exciting new format. They’ll have standard pro-ams on Wednesday and Thursday and then begin the tournament proper with an amateur partner. The 81 pros and their 81 amateur partners, some of them celebrity types, will compete as two-man teams Friday and Saturday in a tournament within a tournament, then the pros will decide their champion on Sunday in the third and final round of the 54-hole test.

The galleries should be sizeable, and not just because of the big names playing. Ticket prices are reasonable — $20 in advance or $25 at the gate, and those 18 and under will be admitted free.