Women’s Western Amateur reaches milestone at River Forest — and it’s all good

The Women’s Western Amateur has been put on by largely Chicago area volunteers for 116 years and this week’s tournament at River Forest Country Club, in Elmhurst, will mark the end of an era.

The tournament, which tees off today and concludes on Saturday, isn’t folding. It’s just that the Women’s Western Golf Association will turn over the management of the prestigious event, as well as the selection of future sites, to the Western Golf Assn. as soon as this week’s event is over.

“It’ll be a new beginning with an old partner,’’ said Susan Wagner, who has held many leadership positions – including president – with the WWGA for 40 years. “We’re so fortunate to have the WGA behind us.’’

Basically it’s a win-win for both organizations. The WGA has put on men’s events since 1899 that include the PGA Tour’s BMW Championship, the Western Amateur and Western Junior. Both organizations raise funds for college scholarships. The WWGA Foundation has distributed $3.6 million towards scholarships for 690 women since 1971

The WWGA and WGA started working together with the first Women’s Western Amateur in 1901. The women took complete control of the event two years later and also conducted the Women’s Western Junior tournament starting in 1920. It’ll be played for the 91st time next month in Dubuque, Ia.

In addition to those two events, the WWGA conducted a Senior Championship from 1979 to 2007 and the Women’s Western Open, which was considered a major event for players in the Ladies Professional Golf Assn. from 1930 to 1967. The revival of that event has been under discussion since the WWGA and WGA resumed working together in recent years.

Chicago courses hosted most of the WWGA championships prior to 2000. The Women’s Western Amateur, though, hasn’t been played in the area since Exmoor, in Highland Park, hosted as part of the club’s 100th anniversary celebration in 2001. The Junior was last played in the area in 2011, at Flossmoor Country Club.

River Forest members are excited about the tourney returning to the Chicago area. The club opened in 1926 and hosted an Arnold Palmer-Gary Player televised exhibition in 1961 but 24-year head professional Chris Gumbach said this week’s tournament “will go down as our biggest event.’’

The club began talks to host the tournament five years ago and just completed a $1.5 million bunker renovation this spring.

Since its staging at Exmoor the WWGA has taken the Women’s Western Amateur to courses in 11 other states. The 140-player field at River Forest will have elite players from 24 states and 10 countries. Thirty-eight are from Illinois. They include Barrington resident and University of Minnesota golfer Heather Ciskowski, who won the Western Junior in 2013, and Kate Lillie, another Minnesota player from St. Charles who was the Junior winner last year.

Six Northwestern golfers – among them Janet Mao, Hannah Kim and Stephanie Lau off the Wildcats’ team that finished as the runner-up in last month’s NCAA Championships at Rich Harvest Farms — will also be in the field.

The schedule calls for 18-hole qualifying rounds on Monday and Tuesday before the field is cut to the low 64 players. They’ll go into four days of match play competition climaxed by a 36-hole championship match on Saturday.