Major changes are coming to the Illinois Open in 2015

Last month’s 65th Illinois Open revealed one change – the addition of First Tee of Chicago as a charity partner. More changes are coming, and they’re likely to be just as good.

The Illinois Open officially dates back to 1950, when Felice Torza won at Onwentsia, but tournaments of the same name were played as early as 1922. This year entries were down a bit, and it’s become obvious that the self-proclaimed “State Championship of Illinois Golf’’ needs a little freshening.

There’s nothing wrong with that. The tradition-rich Western Open – later converted into the BMW Championship – benefitted first from a move to Cog Hill after a 17-year run at Butler National and later in a move to Conway Farms that involved both format and date changes after a 20-year run at Cog Hill.

In the case of the Illinois Open, it isn’t really a move that’s necessary. As Mike Miller, executive director of the Illinois PGA, sees it, the primary need is to get more spots in the final. In good years the number of entries hits 600.

“A top priority of our section is to make the Illinois Open bigger and better,’’ said Miller in a press briefing prior to last month’s tournament. “The bulk of our entries have been from the Chicago area. We want to know how to get more players from the west and south sections of the state.’’

Four years ago the IPGA set up a committee, headed by Jim Miller – head professional at Bloomington Country Club, to study ways to improve the Illinois Open. The committee’s findings are now being implemented.

Mike Miller said there are no plans to change the final from its present 54 holes to 72 and no plans to open the tournament to out-of-state residents. It’s not likely the tourney will leave its Monday-though-Wednesday schedule and have some weekend rounds, either. Some state opens have done all those things. In Texas, for instance, the state open grew into a PGA Tour stop – the Valero Texas Open.

Whether the tournament could be played outside the Chicago area is uncertain. The last time it was held at an outlying area was 1985, when Crestwicke Country Club in Bloomington was the site. Added at least one pro-am and more charity involvement are also possibilities.

Opening the field to out of state players was looked at, Miller said. “But there is the element of history, that this tournament is the championship of our state,’’ he said. “We want to protect that. We just want to grow the field.’’

That’ll probably happen in time for next year’s tournament, and just that change alone represents something substantial.

This year there were seven state-wide qualifying rounds with the survivors advancing to The Glen Club for the 156-player finals. The field played 36 holes before it was cut to the low 50 and ties for the final round.

Next year the Illinois PGA, which has conducted the tournament since 1977 and split duties with the Chicago District Golf Assn. before that, wants the first 36 holes to be played on two courses. The field could conceivably double if that happens, and the number of 18-hole qualifiers would likely double as well.

Of the seven qualifying rounds this year, the furthest from Chicago was at Effingham Country Club near St. Louis. Others were at Ironwood (in Joliet), Crystal Woods (Woodstock), Westmoreland (Wilmette), Prestwick (Frankfort), Deerfield and Inverness. That meant considerable travel for players hoping to qualify from more distant areas of the state. Their incentive to enter was diminished by those travel considerations and the limited number of finalists’ spots available, but that could change if more players can play in the finals and more qualifying tournaments are offered, thereby reducing travel concerns.

“We’ll try to grow participation by setting up a site (for the finals) at a 36-hole facility,’’ said Miller, who admitted that such a change “potentially’’ would lead to a move from The Glen Club. The Glen hosted the tourney for a record ninth time this year, with stretches from 2002-07 and 2012-14. The Glen, though, has only 18 holes. An alternate site would be needed if The Glen were to be used again.

The Illinois PGA is working the Northbrook-based Kemper Sports in determining site options. Kemper operates The Glen Club as well as 12 other Illinois courses that would be suitable for a major championship like the Illinois Open. They include Chicago’s Harborside International; Cantigny in Wheaton, site of this year’s Illinois State Amateur and Chicago Open; Hawthorn Woods, the Illinois Open site from 2008-2011; Turnberry in Lakewood, the Illinois Open site in 1989; Royal Melbourne in Long Grove, a past site for the IPGA Championship; Bull Valley in Woodstock, Bolingbrook Golf Club, Stone Creek in Urbana and Rockford Country Club.

The Illinois PGA has also used three sites – Medinah and Olympia Fields country clubs and Stonewall Orchard in Grayslake — for its section championships and Kemper Lakes (no longer connected to Kemper Sports) is the annual base for the IPGA’s Match Play Championship. They could also figure in the site selection process.

Of the Kemper-operated courses only Harborside International is a 36-hole facility. Medinah and Olympia Fields also have two 18-holers suitable for the Illinois Open.

“Hopefully in a short period of time we’ll be able to make an announcement,’’ said Miller. “We still have some logistics to work out. We’re looking at all components.’’

BEFORE ENDING this column, mention should be made of the retirement of Matt Pekarek as general manager at Village Links of Glen Ellyn. He spent 47 years at The Links, one of the area’s best public facility and for many years the site of the general qualifying round for the Western Open.

Matt started at The Links five days before the course even opened and later served a term as president of the Chicago District Golf Assn. He plans to continue his involvement with the CDGA and the Pekarek influence will remain at The Links. Pekarek’s brother Chris, the course superintendent, is in his 45th year there.