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Len Ziehm On Golf

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.