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Len Ziehm On Golf

CDGA GOLFER ESSAY: My FIRST 50 years reporting on golf

Let’s make this perfectly clear from the outset. This is not a farewell/retirement column. It’s a reflection on my first 50 years covering golf in the Chicago area and beyond. It’s been a great run that I envision continuing for many years to come.

I consider the start coming at the 1968 Western Open during my first post-college job for the Hammond (Ind.) Times – now The Times of Northwest Indiana. The Western was played at Olympia Fields that year with Jack Nicklaus winning the title.

Covering PGA Tour events was much different then than it is now. Nicklaus, Arnold Palmer and the top players would sit around a table in a small room designated for the press, drink a beer, smoke a cigarette and basically chew the fat with no more than a half-dozen writers.

Things changed quickly after that. The following year I started my 41-year career at the Chicago Sun-Times. I covered many other sports there – most notably the Northwestern teams for 11 years, pro soccer for 26 years and Wolves and Blackhawks hockey for the final 16 – but golf was always a fixture on my schedule.

The methods for creating and transmitting my reports changed dramatically over the years. First it was dictation via phone from the tournament site to the office. Then we carried both typewriters and telecopiers to the events and faxed the stories in. Eventually fax machines gave way to Radio Shack computers, which were very slow-moving.

Note-taking by hand was the initial method for interviewing. Now there’s digital recorders and transcripts of interviews are even provided at the bigger tournaments. Stories are sent via email and writers can even double as photographers, taking pictures with cellphones and then transmitting them via laptops.

My first big golf event at the Sun-Times was the 1972 Western Open at Sunset Ridge. It was interesting to return to that club this fall for the Western Amateur. There were no other stops at that club in between, so revisiting was special.

Much to my delight, the Daily Herald asked me to be its golf columnist immediately after I retired from the Sun-Times in June of 2010. I completed my ninth season with the Daily Herald this year and have also written for more years than that for both the Chicago District Golfer and Chicagoland Golf. Mix in some spot assignments for other publications, websites and tournament programs, and that’s a little of words and time spent devoted to birdies and bogeys, titles won and lost, course openings and closings and – even occasionally – some controversies.

Based on the research available, I can claim to be the longstanding Chicago golf scribe. Charles Bartlett, the legendary Chicago Tribune golf writer, was on the beat from 1936 to 1967. That’s 31 years. I was arriving on the scene as Bartlett was retiring, and I never met him but I’ll bet we could have shared some great stories.

The best performance by a local player in my era has been – by far – Nick Hardy’s 28 under par 260 in the 2016 Illinois State Amateur at St. Charles. The most exciting finish came in a 1991 LPGA event presented by my then-employer. Martha Nause rallied in the final four holes of an event called the Chicago Sun-Times Shootout at Oak Brook Golf Club, finishing birdie-birdie-birdie-eagle to win by one stroke. The eagle came off a hole-out from 100 yards on her final shot.

While the local scene was always close to my heart I have witnessed first-hand 28 U.S. Opens, 11 Masters, 19 PGA Championships, four U.S. Women’s Opens and the last 34 Western Opens. My debuts at both the U.S. Open and Masters were unforgettable. Johnny Miller’s record 63 on a rainy final day at Oakmont gave him the 1973 U.S. Open. The last of Nicklaus’ six wins in the Masters came in 1986, my first visit to Augusta National, and his charge on the back nine on Sunday was electrifying. I’ve never experienced anything like it, before or since.

Seeing all those great moments up close and personal unfortunately didn’t help my own game. My handicap has never been below 16 but my career low 18-hole round (81) came in this, my 74th year, and – thanks to a strong helping wind and steep downhill terrain leading into the green – I also drove a par-4 hole for the first time in at least 20 years. Maybe I’m just getting better with age – at least I hope so.

Golf has changed a lot in my last 50 years. The top stars are playing for much more money and aren’t as accessible or outgoing as they once were. The number of courses has dropped slightly. More women are playing, and youth programs are taking off big-time.

In short, the story of golf is an ongoing one, and I’m blessed to be able to report on it.

Category: Features