Illinois Open has put Stonebridge back on the golf tournament scene


Stonebridge Country Club, which is hosting the 72nd Illinois Open this week, has an interesting history.

The Aurora private club opened in 1989 with a course designed by the well-respected Tom Fazio. His other Illinois creations include The Glen Club, in Glenview, and Conway Farms, in Lake Forest.   The latter two have been frequent sites of the biggest Chicago tournaments in recent years, but not Stonebridge.

Stonebridge came on like gangbusters immediately after it opened. The Senior PGA Tour (now PGA Tour Champions) had its stars on the layout barely two years after its opening, and the Ameritech Senior Open made a home there from 1991-95.

Champions during that run were Mike Hill, Dale Douglas, George Archer, John Paul Cain and – saving the best for last – Hale Irwin, who would also win a Western Open and a U.S. Open at Chicago courses.

Those tournaments didn’t even produce the most notable day of golf during those five years.  That one came in a pro-am, when Arnold Palmer and Michael Jordan were paired together and fans turned out in droves to follow those legends around the course.

Stonebridge wasn’t idle for long after the senior stars moved on.  The LPGA brought its Kellogg-Keebler Classic to Stonebridge in 2002, and the first winner was another legend, Annika Sorenstam.  She won the next year as well and Australian Karrie Webb, who had captured the 2000 U.S. Women’s Open at Merit Club in Libertyville, won the third and last visit from the best women players.

That stretch of tournament golf was virtually unheard of for a course as young as Stonebridge was then. After that blitz of tournaments – and with the homesites around the course pretty much all sold – the club was bought by the members from a developer.  Holding tournaments was no longer a priority.

That mindset changed in 2018 when the club’s 30th anniversary was approaching. An upgrade of the course was in order, and – rather than bring back the Fazio team – the greens committee interviewed four local architects before hiring Mike Benkusky, of Lake in the Hills. He was to get the course ready for the 2020 Illinois Open, when Stonebridge was scheduled to co-host with Naperville neighbor White Eagle.

Stonebridge happened to have a former Illinois Open champion as its greens chairman.  Joe Emerich was a Palatine amateur when he won the 2008 Illinois Open at Hawthorn Woods. He turned pro shortly after that, and three years later he was a regular on the Canadian PGA Tour.

“I learned how good I wasn’t,’’ said Emerich, who became a Stonebridge member in 2018 and has been heavily involved in course projects while transitioning to a job in the commercial insurance brokerage business.

“The course is certainly different,’’ he said.  “The renovation added 400 yards. We were very excited to co-host with White Eagle in hopes that we’d be the main site eventually.’’

Pandemic concerns changed everything.  The Illinois PGA opted to reduce the number of players and  drop its two-course format for the tournament finals.  White Eagle was the sole host in 2020 but Stonebridge was selected for that prestigious role this year.  This week marked the first time the club had hosted a big event in 17 years.

The pre-renovation yardage was fine for senior and women’s tournaments, but not for the young PGA Tour wannabes.  Now it measures 7,168 yards from the championship tees and was tested in qualifiers for the Illinois State Mid-Amateur and U.S. Amateur before landing the Illinois Open.

Benkusky also emerged in a changing world.  His work had been almost entirely on Midwest courses, but this year he landed a job in Florida for the “re-imagining’’ of a Dick Wilson design at Palm-Aire Country Club in Sarasota. Rarely do Illinois-based designers venture so far south, but Benkusky’s knowledge of the work of Wilson and Joe Lee, who designed the other 18-holer at Palm-Aire, helped land him the job.  Wilson and Lee had co-designed the famed Dubsdread course at Cog Hill in Palos Park.

Now, with another Illinois Open wrapping up, the future of Stonebridge as a tournament site is up for grabs. Available roads and parking areas nearby might make it attractive for bigger events again.

“Championship golf is something Chicagoland yearns for,’’ said Emerich. “Stonebridge came out of nowhere to host its first big events.  If we could do that once, we’re capable of doing it again.’’