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Len Ziehm On Golf

Celebrity pro-am will make new Champions Tour event special

Tampa’s loss is Chicago’s gain.

The Champions Tour is preparing for its return to Chicago after an 11-year absence, and the new version will be much different than the 12 tournaments played here from 1991-2002. The Encompass Championship will be top-heavy in pro-ams when it takes over North Shore Country Club in Glenview from June 17-23, and about 10 of the amateurs will be celebrity types.

“The celebrity pro-am format will play well with the community here,’’ predicted Tom Ealy, president of Encompass – a Northbrook-based insurance firm that is a division of All-State. Very few pro tournaments on any of the tours have gone that route, the notable exception being the AT&T Pebble Beach Pro-Am on the PGA Tour.

Ealy felt a Chicago version would be ideal after a Champions Tour event in Tampa lost the Outback restaurant chain as its sponsor. As part of an agreement with the PGA, Encompass agreed to sponsor the Tampa event in 2012 and move it to North Shore for the next three years.

“We only had 45 days from the day we signed our contract, but (the Tampa event) exceeded our expectations,’’ said Ealy. “It was a very well-run tournament for 25 years, and we loved what we saw.’’

So now Ealy, planning for its Chicago debut, is rounding up volunteers and pro-am participants. He’s also started his celebrity recruitment. This week he announced the first three – retired and present football stars Joe Theismann and Robbie Gould and TV and film actor Dennis Haysbert.

“We have asks out to some very high-profile people,’’ said Ealy. “Maybe some tournaments don’t have a celebrity format because – if they don’t get the right celebrities – it might not be positive for your tournament. But we think having a Chicago-themed event adds to people’s interest.’’

Standard pro-ams will be held on Wednesday and Thursday and the first two rounds of the 54-hole $1.8 million tournament will have 81 amateurs (some celebrities) playing with the 81 professionals. The tourney will conclude with only the pros playing on Sunday.

Ealy, who took over as Encompass president 18 months ago, went after the golf event “because it was very apparent that we needed to build our brand.’’ The tournament will do that and also help two charities – Bears Care and the Illinois Veterans Fund of McCormick Foundation.

Ealy expects the professional field to be outstanding.

“We’re really excited. The current commitment list has 27 of the top 30 from last year plus six Hall of Famers,’’ said Ealy. The Hall of Famers are Bernhard Langer, Hale Irwin, Tom Kite, Nick Price, Ben Crenshaw and Sandy Lyle. Fred Couples and Tom Watson haven’t entered yet but Ealy is hopeful.

The Encompass Championship falls between last year’s spectacular Ryder Cup at Medinah and the PGA Tour’s BMW Championship, which comes to Conway Farms in Lake Forest in September.

“We know about the Ryder Cup and BMW,’’ said Ealy, “but we’ll be the only tournament that stays here every year.’’

A strong statement

There’s no question about which state has the best golfers in the Big Ten these days. Illinois’ men won the conference tournament for the fifth straight year on Sunday and Northwestern’s women won their first-ever league title, tying with Purdue for the top spot at French Lick, Ind.

Not only that, but NU’s Hana Lee shot the low round (68) of the women’s competition, Illinois’ Thomas Pieters was medalist among the men and NU’s Jack Perry won the Les Bolstad Award for the lowest scoring average in the Big Ten this season. He’s the first Wildcat to win that award since Luke Donald took it from 1999-2001.

A wide Open field

Local qualifying rounds for June’s U.S. Open at Merion in Philadelphia begin here on Monday when Perry and 89 others compete for sectional berths at Northmoor in Highland Park.

Another 90-player local will be held on May 13 at Seven Bridges in Woodridge. Curtis Malm, the Illinois PGA’s player-of-the-year in 2012, heads the field there. The U.S. Golf Assn. announced a record 9,860 entries for the Open – 774 more than the previous high in 2009.

For the first time in many years Chicago won’t have a sectional qualifier, which sends its top players to the starting field at Merion. The closest one will be at Old Warson in St. Louis on June 3.