Kemper Lakes has a rich history for hosting men’s tournaments. With the women it’s a little different.
This week’s KPMG Women’s PGA Championship is by far the club’s biggest ever. The only one that comes close was 26 years ago when Kemper was still a public facility. In 1992 the U.S. Women’s Amateur was played there. It had a famous finalist, with Annika Sorenstam losing 1-up to the dominant amateur of that era, Vickie Goetze.
Consider how much women’s golf has changed since then. Kemper went fully private 15 years later. Goetze, after a winless 18-year career as an LPGA Tour player, is now the president of the LPGA Players Association and – in the most meaningful change of all – Sorenstam is retired as a player after a Hall of Fame career.
The LPGA’s most dominant player since Kathy Whitworth, the Sweden-born Sorenstam won 72 LPGA tournaments (a record 90 internationally as a professional) and over $22 million in prize money.
When Sorenstam competed at Kemper she was a promising 21-year old senior at Arizona, having won the 1991 NCAA title and making the cut in the 1992 U.S. Women’s Open.
“Other than the NCAA, that was my first really big tournament,’’ recalled Sorenstam. “She was No. 1 amateur then. I was just arriving, but I remember Kemper Lakes as a good match play course and playing there was a big deal for me – a big tournament in a big city on a big stage. I had zero expectations.’’
She handed the title to Goetze with a water ball on the 18th hole after battling back from 2-down with three holes to play to get the match back to all square
“I vividly remember that match. In the last four holes I felt that I was leaking oil, but it wasn’t so much that,’’ said Goetze (now Vickie Goetze-Ackerman). “Annika was taking the match away. It all worked out well for me in the end, and it was such a good match. At that time the U.S. Women’s Amateur matches weren’t televised. After that they were, and I felt that part of the reason was that ours had been such a good one.’’
Sorenstam fared better when she returned to Chicago as a professional. She won back-to-back titles in the Kellogg-Keebler Classic, an LPGA tour event played at Stonebridge Country Club in Aurora in 2002 and 2003. The first of those wins was by an 11-stroke margin.
No player dominated women’s golf the way Sorenstam did. She triggered a power shift to on the circuit after American players had dominated for four decades. Now only one American (No. 9 Jessica Korda) is among the top 10 on this year’s money list.
The first non-American superstar in women’s golf, Sorenstam was player-of-the-year eight times in 11 years from 1995 to 2005. No American has been player-of-the-year since 1993 and only Mexico’s Lorena Ochoa has approached Sorenstam’s record. Ochoa was player-of-the-year four straight times from 2006-09 as Sorenstam was winding down her career. She stepped away from the game in 2008.
The LPGA has also thrived in its numerous returns to Chicago. Australian Karrie Webb won the U.S. Women’s Open at Merit Club, in Libertyville, in 2000 and Danielle Kang took the KPMG Women’s PGA Championship at Olympia Fields last year. Those were the only two women’s majors played in the Chicago area since Kemper hosted the Goetze-Sorenstam duel 26 years ago.
A bigger impact for women’s golf came in 2009, when Rich Harvest Farms, in Sugar Grove, hosted the Solheim Cup matches. That emerged as a rousing battle with the U.S. team beating its European counterpart. Another team event, the fledgling UL International Crown, was also played at the Merit Club in 2016 but with far less fanfare.
While Sorenstam’s appearance at Kemper this week is doubtful, Goetze-Ackerman will be there. She retired as a player in 2009 and three years later became the president of the LPGA Players Association. It takes her to half of the LPGA tournaments in North America each year and a few others overseas.
Goetze-Ackerman has been reluctant to attend major championships, believing that players would rather concentrate on their games at those crucial times of the season rather than discuss political issues. She was, however, at Olympia Fields for last year’s KPMG Women’s PGA Championship and will be at Kemper Lakes as well. Pre-tournament activities start on Tuesday and the 72-hole competition on Thursday.
“I’m looking forward to coming back and looking at the golf course,’’ she said. “ At Olympia Fields I never set foot on the course, but I’ll be walking around Kemper Lakes. I will have to spend some extra days there.’’