Staff departures put Illinois PGA in limbo

The Illinois PGA is in limbo heading into the first big month of the Chicago golf season. There’s no doubt about that.

Two key staffers, Jared Nowak and Lauren Moy, left the section during the winter and executive director Michael Miller replaced them both. Robert Duke took Nowak’s place as tournament director and Catherine Wagner will inherit most of Moy’s duties in a general office re-structuring.

Wagner will manage day to day operations of the IPGA Drive, Chip & Putt competition and be responsible for execution of current player development programming including the PGA Junior League. She will also help grow the IPGA Foundation programs. Both 24 year-olds are new to the Chicago area; Duke comes from Nashville, Tenn., and Wagner from Austin, Minn.

Those changes, though, were minor compared to the one necessitated by the next departure – that of Miller himself.

Jim Opp, the new IPGA president, announced Miller’s departure in a March 20 letter to the membership. After 27 years with the section, 20 of them as executive director, Miller accepted a position as executive director of the Southwest Section of the PGA.

Miller planned to oversee the transition for the IPGA until May 1 and his tentative starting date on his new job was May 4. Opp said he was in no hurry to name Miller’s successor. A lengthy search was expected after Miller’s departure.

“It’s definitely a little strange for both parties (himself and the IPGA), but this opportunity was too good to pass up,’’ said Miller.

The Illinois and Southwest are among 41 geographical sections of the PGA of America, which has about 28,000 members nation-wide. The Southwest encompasses all of Arizona and part of Nevada, including Las Vegas. It’s larger than the Illinois Section in terms of both geography and membership. The Illinois section has 850 members, the Southwest 1,350.

Illinois has a rich history. It’s considered a charter member of the PGA, with roots to the organization’s founding in 1916. Back then, though, the section encompassing the Illinois club professionals was called the Middle States Section. Illinois got its designation in 1922 and that section has had only three executive directors.

First to hold the job was Ken Boyce, who was in charge fro 1976 to 1988. He hired Miller as his tournament director in 1986. Miller left that post in 1989 to work for Pinnacle, a Libertyville-based marketing firm, but returned shortly after Vance Redfern replaced Boyce as executive director.

Redfern named Miller as his assistant, and Miller moved up to the head job when Redfern left to become associate athletic director at San Diego State University in 1995. The IPGA had a three-person staff when Miller was first hired in 1986. It now has six full-timers and two-three seasonal interns.

“Leaving was a difficult decision because this has pretty much been my whole career,’’ said Miller. “But this will be the next stage of my career – a bigger section with a little different culture. And the climate change doesn’t hurt, either.’’

The Illinois Section members are basically at individual clubs or public courses. Resorts form a much more significant segment of the Southwest Section membership. The Southwest Section post became available when Curt Hudek resigned last fall after seven years on the job. Miller began the interview process for that job in early January.

Under Miller’s direction the IPGA established the Illinois Golf Hall of Fame and a consumer golf show and played major roles in the organization of two PGA Championships (1999 and 2006) and the 2012 Ryder Cup, all played at Medinah Country Club. The youth skills competitions that were part of the ’99 PGA and Ryder Cup were so popular that the PGA took that concept to the national level.

The IPGA Foundation also flourished under Miller’s tenure, and developing a similar one for the Southwest Section will be a priority in his new job.

With his new base in Scottsdale, Ariz., Miller will face new projects that weren’t part of his Illinois duties. The Southwest Section runs a very active junior tour, conducting over 60 events. The Illinois PGA deferred those duties to the Illinois Junior Golf Assn. The Southwest Section also oversees a Golf Pass program, which offers discounted greens fees to residents in what’s considered the offseason there.

The IPGA did have a Golf Pass program that Miller considered “fairly successful’’ for four or five years, but it was discontinued when a consumer golf show was deemed a higher priority.

Miller was also instrumental in making changes in the Illinois Open, the section’s premier event. In January he announced that the event would have a new format and the 54-hole finals would be contested at two courses in an effort to spur more entries.

Under the new format there will be 258 finalists instead of 156 and Royal Melbourne, in Long Grove, and Hawthorn Woods Country Club will share hosting duties for the finals. All 54 holes were played at The Glen Club in Glenview last year. Miller said the changes came after two years of planning.

“I’m saddened that I won’t be here to see that through,’’ he said, “but a lot of good things are in place, the Foundation is strong and the tournament program is one of the best in the country. The timing (for his departure) is good because the busiest time for planning was from October until (the early spring). By April 1 everything was in place. Now it’s just a case of execution.’’