Add Palmer Cup to the big events Jerry Rich is bringing to Sugar Grove

Big golf events used to be commonplace in Chicago. Now, not so much.

No U.S. Opens or PGA Championships are scheduled in these parts. The PGA Tour comes only every other year, for the BMW Championship. The LPGA and Tour no longer make annual stops here. Only the Champions Tour, with its new Encompass Championship, offers that.

Enter Jerry Rich. His influence on the golf landscape is a broad one.

He built his own course, Rich Harvest Farms in Sugar Grove – and it’s one of the best in the country. He’s also been a leader in growing the game, thanks to his non-profit Kids Golf Foundation that has impacted the lives of 150,000 youth since its founding in 1998. The respected caddie program at Rich Harvest has also helped in that regard.

Rich Harvest may be an ultra-private club, but Rich has used his course for numerous fundraisers, most notably the Bob Murphy Pro-Am that has been held the past 10 years.

The point of this piece, though, is what Rich has been doing lately. That’s extraordinary, too.

In January he was in Florida to participate in the announcement of a new LPGA event – the International Crown – at the massive PGA Merchandise Show. Less than six months later Rich was at the forefront of another announcement, when Arnold Palmer reported that his Palmer Cup event would be played at Rich Harvest in 2015.

Life hasn’t been easy for Rich the past few years. He won his own battle with cancer in the months leading up to Rich Harvest hosting its biggest event so far – the 2009 Solheim Cup battle between the LPGA teams from the U.S. and Europe. Then, last month Rich lost his wife Betty after her lengthy battle with health problems.

Through all that Rich has worked behind the scenes to underscore his commitment to amateur golf and keep the big events coming.

The Solheim – which brought 120,000 spectators to Sugar Grove — may have provided the biggest boost to Rich Harvest’s international profile, but prior to that the course hosted the Western Junior Championship and Mid-American Conference Championship in 2003 and 2012 and the NCAA Division I Central Regional in 2007. (The latter will return to Rich Harvest in 2014).

Even with the Palmer Cup and International Crown on the horizon, Rich Harvest will be the site of two more Western Golf Assn. championships – the Western Amateur in 2015 and the Centennial Western Junior in 2017.

Make no mistake, though. The Palmer Cup will take the course’s impact on college golf to a higher level and the International Crown will be the biggest event yet on Rich Harvest’s calendar. Those events may seem a bit far down the road now, but they will merit periodic updates leading up to their stagings. Let this be the first one.

The Palmer Cup dates to 1997, when the legendary Arnold Palmer created an annual Ryder Cup-style competition between the college stars of the U.S. and Europe.

“A unique event – the 10 best Americans against the 10 best European-born (college) players,’’ said Rich. “Arnold wants to bring it to a whole new level and raise a little more money, because they don’t have the sponsors in Europe that we have here.’’

Former PGA of America president Jim Awtrey contacted Rich on Palmer’s behalf in the winter of 2012. An agreement to host the event was made this spring.

In landing a Palmer Cup Rich Harvest joins the list of famous layouts that have hosted the competition. Past venues in the U.S. include Baltusrol, Kiawah, Whistling Straits and Cherry Hills while the matches in Europe have been held at St. Andrews, Royal Liverpool, Ballybunion, Prestwick, Royal Portrush and Royal County Down.

Past participants in the matches include Luke Donald, Russell Henley Jonathan Byrd, Lucas Glover, Ben Curtis, Hunter Mahan, Graeme McDowell, Dustin Johnson and Bill Haas. So, count on the pro stars of the future coming to Rich Harvest in 2015.

Rich went right from the Palmer Cup announcement, made during the 20 1/2-9 ½ U.S. victory in this year’s Palmer Cup at Wilmington (Del.) Country Club in June, to Baltimore for more meetings on the International Crown. This will also be a biennial team event, with LPGA stars from eight countries competing. This first staging will be at Cave’s Valley in Maryland in 2014.

“It’s going to be huge, the biggest thing that ever happened to the LPGA,’’ said Rich. “I told Mike Whan (LPGA commissioner) that he has one of the greatest products in the world and that we had to create an event that would bring the great players in. This way the American public can start identifying with these girls.’’

The rosters for each country will be determined on a two-year point system, and competition for both player and country to qualify for the event will be intense. That’ll become more evident as the inaugural International Crown approaches and determination of the 32 players and eight countries is on the line.

Though he was prominent in the creation of the event Rich didn’t want to host the first one. He wanted additional time to develop data that would be helpful in staging the event long-term That led to Rich and his staff gathering information on 1,800 girls high school teams in Illinois, Iowa, Wisconsin, Michigan and Indiana. They’ll play a prominent role prior to and during the event’s staging at Rich Harvest.

Rich has given me an inkling of the exciting things coming down the road regarding the International Crown, but we’ll leave the announcements to him and his capable staff. Suffice it to say, Rich Harvest’s first venture with the International Crown probably won’t be its last.

“We’re hoping we can keep the International Crown here forever,’’ Rich said. “Mike Whan gave me until the end of the year to find sponsors, and possibly Rich Harvest could do it. Chicago needs that event, and I’d rather have these (players from different countries) come to Chicago.’’

More to the point, if big golf events are to be played here with any regularity Chicago needs the efforts of Jerry Rich to make it happen.