KPMG Women’s PGA will be Kemper’s biggest event in 29 years

This spring has not been business as usual at Kemper Lakes. The Kildeer club, which had been a tournament hotbed for more than two decades before going private, has been a busy place again even during the period when snow delayed the traditional start of spring.

That’s what happens when a club takes on a major championship. Kemper will host its biggest tournament in 29 years when the KPMG Women’s PGA Championship activities begin on June 26. The four tournament rounds in the $3,650,000 championship are June 28 through July 1.

It’ll be the third of the five designated major championships for the Ladies PGA Tour in 2018. The ANA Inspiration was played in April in Rancho Mirage, Calif., with Sweden’s Pernilla Lindberg winning the title in a three-way playoff with South Korean Inbee Park and American Jennifer Song. The U.S. Women’s Open runs May 31 through June 3 at Shoal Creek in Alabama.

After the KPMG Women’s PGA Championship comes the Ricoh Women’s British Open from Aug. 2-5 in Lancashire, England, and The Evian Championship from Sept. 13-16 in France. The U.S. Women’s Open is the oldest of the five majors, having been first played in 1950, and it has the biggest purse at $5 million.

The KPMG dates back to 1955 when it was know as the LPGA Championship. The ANA Inspiration started in 1983, the Ricoh Women’s British Open in 2001 and The Evian Championship in 2013.

Before that the designated women’s majors included the Titleholders, which was last played in 1972; the Women’s Western Open, which bowed out in 1967; and the duMaurier Classic, which ended its run in 2000.

Last year, in a scheduling rarity, the KPMG Women’s PGA Championship was played at Olympia Fields in Chicago’s south suburbs. Other than the Masters, a major championship is rarely played in the same area two years in a row. That’s what’s happening with the KPMG Women’s PGA Championship, however.

Just this man’s opinion, but the tournament will be bigger and better in the move to the north. For one thing, Kemper’s membership is excited about the club’s return to the world spotlight after being away from it for too long. The only bigger event ever held at Kemper was the men’s PGA Championship in 1989.

Last year’s tourney at Olympia Fields came out just fine, but hosting big tournaments is old hat for that club. Kemper’s membership will benefit from last year’s experience at Olympia because many could view what went on there first hand. It’s certain to be a great show with the club receiving long-term benefits from it.

The 2019 KPMG Women’s PGA Championship will be contested at Hazeltine, the Minnesota course that hosted the last Ryder Cup matches and also was the site of multiple U.S. Opens and PGA Championships. That means a profile boost for Kemper Lakes, which will be joining some select company in hosting this year’s tourney.

Acting together, Kemper’s members made one decision that will spice up this year’s event. They decided to give a name to their course’s three-hole finishing stretch – certainly the most difficult on the Chicago golf scene and one of the toughest stretches in the country.

On the men’s PGA Tour side there are plenty of courses with catchy names for their most prominent holes. Augusta National has its Amen Corner. PGA National has its Bear Trap. Innisbrook’s Copperhead has its Snake Pit. Now Kemper Lakes has The Gauntlet. It encompasses the par-4 16th (which has my vote as the most difficult hole on the course), the short 17th (a par-3 with an island green) and the sharp dogleg left par-4 at No. 18. – a good hole for viewing throughout.

Club officials asked for suggestions to name the fearsome finishing stretch, then the list was narrowed to three or four for a members’ vote. The Gauntlet won out, and a big rock has been put near the No. 16 tee to mark the start of it. More decorations will be forthcoming.

“But the whole course is really challenging,’’ said head professional Jim Billiter, the reigning Illinois PGA Player of the Year. “The ladies will love it.’’

Though none have visited Kemper Lakes yet, some may have an inkling of what lies ahead because the tournament staff – headed by tournament director Jackie Endsley and head of operations Eric Nuxhol – have been working out of a trailer in the club parking lot for several months. Bleachers, merchandise and food tents and other on-course necessities will be constructed beginning in late May.

Billiter’s lifestyle also took on a new look because of the tournament. As an assistant pro at Merit Club in Libertyville he got a taste of what tournament preparations required when the UL International Crown – an LPGA team competition – was played there in 2016. The Crown was a new event, and the KPMG Women’s PGA Championship is on a much bigger scale.

Whereas winter golf trips were commonplace for Billiter in past years, he couldn’t leave town much this time.

“It’s been a lot of work buying items for the merchandise tent,’’ he said. “We want to do well. We want to make money for the club and the members and put on a good show for KPMG, and we’re ahead of the game.’’

He fears that the time spent on preparation for the KPMG tourney might negatively impact his title defense in the Illinois PGA Match Play Championship, which will be played at Kemper from May 7-10.

“This winter I was tied up a bit,’’ he said. “In years past I made up to six trips in the winter, with members or for tournament series. This year I made just one, so my (playing) expectations aren‘t as high for this year. Still, this has been a fun, learning experience.’’

The tournament will be fun, too, as it will bring the best women golfers in the world back to Chicago. Former champions include Louise Suggs, Mickey Wright, Betsy Rawls, Kathy Whitworth, Nancy Lopez, Jan Stephenson, Pat Bradley, Beth Daniel, Betsy King, Juli Inkster, Karrie Webb and Annika Sorenstam.

Last year Danielle Kang captured her first title at Olympia Fields, which proves that a big name doesn’t always win this big tournament. Let the firing begin.