The previous two local PGA Tour sites were longer-time hosts. Butler National, in Oak Brook, hosted the Western Open from 1974 to 1990. Cog Hill, in Lemont, took over in 1991 through 2011. Neither has hosted a big event since, but that won’t likely be the case with Conway Farms.
The Western Golf Association pulled the Western out of Butler after its exclusionary membership policies (it remains an all-male club) made it unacceptable to the PGA Tour. The WGA shifted its biggest tournament – it was the Western Open through 2006 and then, after a sponsor and format change, became the BMW Championship – from the south suburbs to the north in an effort to freshen the event.
Conway Farms has been a good host in an era much different than when Butler and Cog Hill were involved. The WGA opted for a rotation in and out of Chicago in alternate years, a measure that produced more financial benefits for the Evans Scholars program. Conway hosted only every other year, starting in 2013.
The shift to Conway created a big change in spectator viewing for Chicago golfers. Cog Hill was a premier public venue with loads of room for parking and other tournament operations. Conway, which opened in 1991, was a younger venue by two decades. While it didn’t have the space Cog Hill did, Conway had a glamorous side, with Luke Donald one of its members.
Donald at one time was the world’s No. 1-ranked golfer, and he wasn’t the only Conway member with a familiar sports name. The club’s members have also included former Bears’ lineman Olin Kreutz, ex-Blackhawks’ player and general manager Dale Tallon and Scott Sanderson, who had pitched for the Cubs.
Designed by the highly respected course architect Tom Fazio, Conway has proved to be a worthy tournament site. Before the PGA Tour arrived the club hosted, among others, the U.S. Junior Amateur, Women’s Western Junior, NCAA Division I men’s championship, a U.S. Open sectional, the Western Amateur and a U.S. Mid-Amateur.
The PGA Tour players found it a decent challenge but not overly tough. Zach Johnson won the first BMW there in 2013 with a 16-under-par performance, but he wasn’t the sole star of the show. Jim Furyk shot a 59 in the second round before Johnson overhauled him with a final round 65 to beat Nick Watney by two strokes. Furyk finished third, another shot back. That tourney required a rare Monday finish, as steady rain allowed for only 12 of 60 players to complete their 72 holes on Sunday.
The second Conway BMW in 2015 was the Jason Day show. He tied the PGA Tour 36-hole record, opening 61-63 before winning by six shots over Daniel Berger with a 22-under-par performance for the 72 holes.
More low scoring is expected when the 11th BMW Championship tees off on Thursday. No matter the results, the relationship with the WGA has been a satisfying one for the Conway Farms membership.
“We’re thrilled to have the tournament back in Chicago,’’ said Conway president Bob Terwall. “We like the idea of a less than full field. I’m not sure we would want a 156-player field (which the Western Open had)) in the middle of the summer.’’
He also liked the idea of the tournament coming only every other year rather than being an annual thing.
“Three times in five years was fine, a little less taxing for all staff members,’’ he said. “Leaving Chicago every other year is great four golf. If we had it every four years or six years, that would be great. We’d very much like to remain part of the rotation.’’
The “rotation’’ is very much uncertain now. Aronimink, in Pennsylvania, will host in 2018 and the famed No. 3 course at Medinah is to host in 2019 when the tournament returns to the Chicago area. After that the BMW tourney locations have not been announced.
Vince Pellegrino, the WGA’s vice president for tournaments, called Conway “a wonderful club’’ and didn’t rule out a return in future years. In the meantime, Conway won’t likely be idle as a tournament site.
“We’re supportive of championship golf, amateur or professional,’’ said Terwall. “There’s been a lot of dialog involved. We’ve talked to the LPGA (Ladies Professional Golf Assn.) and USGA (U.S. Golf Assn.). We want to continue to be on the radar.’’
He wouldn’t rule out Conway as being the alternate site for the Illinois Open, either. The Illinois PGA needs two courses for its biggest annual event, with The Glen Club a fixture and the other chosen on a rotating basis.
“We did the U.S. Mid-Amateur (2012) with Knollwood, and that worked out fine, so we’re open to those sorts of things,’’ said Terwall. “We’re very much wide open. That’s the way to really support the game, rather than just talk about it.’’