Women’s Western will benefit from closer relationship with WGA

This one was long, long overdue.

The Western Golf Association and Women’s Western Golf Association have jointly announced that they have formed “a new partnership.’’ That made May 10, 2017, an announcement date to remember in Chicago sports history. Given the rich histories of the two organizations, its importance goes beyond just golf.

While the new agreement doesn’t kick in until Aug. 1 – which is after the WWGA’s two 2017 tournaments – it does have the potential for some great things that could be coming to golf in Chicago as soon as the 2018 season.

Few organizations in anything have lasted as long as the two Chicago-based golf groups. The WGA was founded in 1899, the WWGA in 1903. Prior to the women forming their own organization the WGA sponsored the first two Women’s Western Amateur Championships in 1901 and 1902.

Despite their similarities in name and purpose, the two groups have operated more or less independently most of the time since then. They formed a loose partnership in 2011 and the WWGA conducts its board meetings at WGA headquarters in the North Chicago suburb aptly named Golf. That doesn’t come close to having the impact the new five-year agreement will have, however.

Under the new agreement the WGA will “help guide the Women’s Western Golf Foundation’’ and “help stage and promote the WWGA’s Women’s Western National Amateur Championship and the Women’s Western National Junior Championship and secure host sites for the events.’’

These are changing times, and the new agreement in no way detracts from all the great things the women’s group has accomplished in its 116 years. Operating with all volunteers the WWGA put on not only its two continuing championships but also ran an LPGA major tournament, the Women’s Western Open, from 1930 until 1967. The Women’s Western Amateur is the oldest annually played championship in all of golf.

Organizational demands, though, have grown over the years and the 2011 agreement with the WGA did provide the women with some administrative support. Still, more is needed.

The WWGA will operate the same as last year for its two 2017 events – the 117th Women’s Western Amateur June 12-17 at River Forest Country Club in Elmhurst and the 91st Women’s Junior Championship July 10-14 at Dubuque Golf and Country Club in Iowa. Then the WGA takes on managerial duties just as it has long done with its three tournaments – the PGA Tour’s BMW Championship (an offshoot of the old Western Open), the Western Amateur and the Western Junior.

First order of business will be for the WGA to name a site for the next WWGA tournament. No site has been determined for the 2018 Women’s Western Amateur but WGA staffers hope to announce one during the tournament at River Forest and some Chicago clubs are under consideration.

The stop at River Forest was the tournament’s first staging in the Chicago area since Exmoor, in Highland Park, hosted in 2001. Though no official comments were made, the off-the-record sentiments of Western staffers was that the tournament should be basically a fixture in the Chicago area much like the WGA’s Western Amateur has been since the tourney left Point O’ Woods in Benton Harbor, Mich., after a 28-year run there ended in 2008.

Chicago area courses have hosted eight of the nine Western Amateurs played since then and Skokie will be the site of the 2017 championship from July 31 to Aug. 5. The WGA also has reaches a milestone tournament-wise this year when its Western Junior is played for the 100th time. Park Ridge Country Club will be the site from June 19-22.

Both organizations are delighted with the new agreement.

“The history between these two golf associations goes back to the beginnings of the Women’s Western Golf Association. We have had a great relationship with the Western Golf Association through the years,’’ said Frances Fleckenstein, the WWGA president. “We now look forward to taking the next step to having their full support, which will be beneficial to both our organizations.’’

David Robinson, the WGA chairman, feels the same way.

“We’re excited to be deepening our relationship with the WWGA, which has done so much in the Midwest and across the country for women’s golf,’’ he said. “It’s an organization whose values and storied history of championships and scholarships are very much aligned with our own.’’

The WGA’s Evans Scholars program had 935 students enrolled in 20 universities during the 2016-17 school year and 24 percent were women. The Women’s Western Golf Association Foundation, founded in 1971, has awarded more than $3.5 million in scholarships to more than 690 young women from across the country over the years.

Already the two organizations jointly sponsor a Women’s Western Evans Scholar, awarding a four-year tuition and housing college scholarship to a female caddie who excels academically, has an outstanding caddie record and demonstrates financial need. The current Women’s Western Evans Scholar is Hannah Gillespie, who is completing her freshman year at Notre Dame.

And all those good connections lead to the inevitable question: Can there be a Women’s Western Open again?

The Women’s Western Open had a history as rich as the men’s Western Open. It was first played 20 years before the formation of the Ladies PGA Tour, and the LPGA had the support of the WWGA at the time of its founding.

Two Chicago players – Lucia Mida of Butterfield and June Beebe of Olympia Fields – played in the title match of the first Women’s Western Open, Mida winning at Acacia in Indian Head Park – a club that no longer exists. The tourney continued under a match play format through 1954 with 11 of the 24 tournaments played on Chicago courses. The last of those was at Glen Flora, in Waukegan.

Then the tourney went to a stroke play format from 1955 to 1967 and Chicago’s Beverly Country Club hosted twice. The event’s last playing was at another Illinois course, Pekin Country Club, where Kathy Whitworth won the title with a record 11-under-par performance. Years after the event was discontinued it is still considered a major championship in women’s golf history.

Quoting the WWGA tournament histories in its 2016 annual publication, the Women’s Western Open was discontinued “when the WWGA concentrated all its efforts to support and promote amateur women’s golf.’’

Now might be a good time to change that line of thought. The WGA has benefitted from being involved in the pro game, why not the women as well?

No one in a leadership role at either the Western Golf Association or the Women’s Western Golf Association will predict a revival of the Women’s Western Open, but they won’t rule it out, either. Be sure to stay tuned.