JUST MY OPINION: Chicago’s rich golf history is second to none

Go ahead, I dare you! Show me one American city that has a richer golf history than Chicago. I don’t think you can do it.

Of course, as a golf writer here for over 40 years, I may be prejudiced. Still, I can’t think of another city with such a broad background of action on the links. This may sound like a golf history lesson, but there’s no denying the huge role Chicago has played in the development of American golf.

For starters, the first 18-hole course in the United States was Chicago Golf Club’s, which opened in 1892 in the suburb of Downers Grove.

Then there’s the oldest tournament on the PGA Tour (next to the U.S. Golf Association’s U.S. Open). It was the Western Open, staged by the Chicago-based Western Golf Assn. which – most appropriately – now has its headquarters in the north suburb of Golf. Staged mostly in Chicago from 1899 to 2006, the Western Open tradition stays alive in its successor – the BMW Championship, a fixture in the Tour’s FedEx Cup playoffs.

Competition-wise, how can Chicago be beat?

The first Masters was won by a Chicago club pro, Oak Park’s Horton Smith in 1934.

The first U.S. Amateur was won by Charles B. Macdonald, the designer of Chicago Golf Club, in 1895.

The first dominant player in the U.S. was Willie Anderson, the only player to win three straight U.S. Opens (1903-05). The winner of four U.S. Opens in a five-year stretch (he also triumphed in 1901), Anderson was the club pro at Onwentsia in Lake Forest.

One of the very first U.S. Women’s Amateur champions was Bessie Anthony, a member at Chicago’s long-gone Westward Ho club. She won her title — then the biggest available to women in American golf — at Chicago Golf Club in 1903, making her one of golf’s first hometown heroines.

The U.S. Open has been played in Chicago 13 times at eight different courses. Chicago Golf Club and Medinah each hosted three times. Anderson (1897), great English pro Harry Vardon (1900) and enigmatic John McDermott (1911) were the winners at Chicago Golf. McDermott would win again in 1912, making him one of just six players – Anderson, Bobby Jones, Ralph Guldahl, Ben Hogan and Curtis Strange were the others — to successfully defend a U.S. Open title. McDermott would later check himself into a psychiatric hospital where he spent most of the rest of his life.

Medinah’s champions were Cary Middlecoff (1949), Lou Graham (1975) and Hale Irwin (1990). Irwin’s win was particularly historic, as it was the first U.S. Open title achieved in a sudden death playoff with Mike Donald the loser of their epic two-man struggle.

Olympia Fields hosted twice, Johnny Farrell winning in 1928 and Jim Furyk in 2003.

The other Chicago U.S. Opens had good winners as well – Alex Smith at Onwentsia in 1906, Walter Hagen at Midlothian in 1914, Gene Sarazen at Skokie, in Glencoe, in 1922 and Johnny Goodman at North Shore, in Glenview, in 1933. Goodman was the fifth, and last, amateur to win the U.S. Open.

In women’s golf, the history doesn’t go back quite as far but Chicago did host the U.S. Women’s Open three times – twice at LaGrange Country Club where Sandra Haynie won in 1974 and Pat Bradley in 1981 and once at the Merit Club, in Libertyville, where Karrie Webb captured the title in 2000.

The PGA Championship has been played in Chicago six times at four different courses, Olympia Fields (1925 and 1961) and Medinah (1999 and 2006) both hosting twice. The first of those PGAs, though, had the most local flavor as Jock Hutchison, a transplanted Scotsman, won at Flossmoor Country Club where he long worked as a club pro.

Hutchison’s win came in only the tournament’s third staging and he was lucky to be among the 32 qualifiers. In a Cinderella story reminiscent of John Daly at Crooked Stick in Indianapolis in 1991, Hutchison entered at the last minute and got in only because two qualifiers ahead of him were unable to compete. The PGA tourney, staged at match play then, received little coverage in the local newspapers because a bigger golf event was being played in Chicago at the same time. Skokie Country Club was hosting an exhibition match pitting Vardon and Ted Ray, the famous English pros, against Chick Evans and Phil Guadin, a couple of Chicago stars.

Hagen (1925) and Jerry Barber (1961) won the two PGAs staged at Olympia Fields, Payne Stewart took the one at Kemper Lakes, in Hawthorn Woods, in 1989 and Woods won the two at Medinah.

Chicago’s major golf organizations are among the best-established in the country. As mentioned previously, the Western Golf Assn. was organized in 1899 and still stages annual competitions for the pros (BMW Championship), adult amateurs (Western Amateur) and juniors (Western Junior).

The Western Open and Western Amateur both started in 1899 at the Glen View Club in the north suburbs. The Open was considered one of golf’s major championships through 1957. All the great players over the years won it – from Hagen to Sarazen to Guldahl to Byron Nelson to Ben Hogan to Arnold Palmer to Jack Nicklaus to Sam Snead to Tom Watson, Nick Price and Woods. Your credentials for being a great player would be tarnished if you didn’t win the Western Open.

While the WGA usually took the Western Amateur around the country, it’s now contested mostly at Chicago courses. It also has had its share of great champions, among them being Chick Evans, Nicklaus, Tom Weiskopf, Hal Sutton, Strange, Ben Crenshaw, Phil Mickelson, Justin Leonard, Scott Verplank and Woods. You want a taste of golf history, look no further than the champions lists of the Western Open and Western Amateur.

The Western Junior has a solid history, too. It was first played in 1914 and was the first such competition in the history of American golf. In the last year the WGA joined forces with the Women’s Western Golf Assn., which also had a rich history operating independently. The WWGA has been putting on tournaments for 112 years and conducted the Women’s Western Open, considered one of the women’s major events, from 1930 to 1967. Thirteen times it was played on Chicago courses.

Now the WWGA holds only its annual Amateur and Junior championships, but its return to the professional stage looms a distinct possibility now that a connection with the WGA has finally been initiated.

Chicago golf isn’t all about tournament play, either. More than anything it’s about devotion to the sport.

The Illinois Section of the PGA was formed in 1916 as one of the founding sections of the PGA of America. The IPGA staged the first championship for its members in 1923, but its biggest event now is the Illinois Open. Though records date back only to 1950, the Illinois Open or versions of it were conducted as early as 1923 as well. Today the IPGA has over 800 members based at 325 facilities and it conducts over 50 events annually. This year, of course, its members have also played a big role in the organization of this Ryder Cup.

The Chicago District Golf Association opened its doors in 1914 and had 400 member clubs, private and public, and 82,000 members at last count in 2011. It’s one of the biggest such organizations in the country catering to amateur and recreational players.

The National Golf Foundation, which once had headquarters in Chicago, reports that the Chicago area has 800,000 golfers. Still not convinced that Chicago golf is the greatest?

Here’s a few more factoids for you:

TOMMY ARMOUR, known as one of the game’s greatest teachers when he worked as Medinah’s head pro from 1933-44, wasn’t a bad player, either. Before settling in Chicago he won three of the current major titles – the 1927 U.S. Open, 1930 PGA and 1931 British Open.

ERRIE BALL, who had long runs as the head pro at both Oak Park and Butler National, in Oak Brook, was world renowned before making Chicago his home for 44 years. He was the youngest player in British Open history when he teed off at age 16 in 1926 and played in the first Masters in 1934.

CHIP BECK, long settled in Lake Forest, shot only the second 59 in PGA Tour history (at the 1991 Las Vegas Invitational) and made the first hole-in-one on a par-4 hole in Nationwide Tour history, at the 2003 Omaha Classic.

GARY ADAMS, who founded the TaylorMade golf company in 1979, was one of the sport’s great innovators, having introduced the metalwood.

THE PRESS LOUNGE at Augusta National, home of the Masters tournament, is named after Charles Bartlett, the Chicago Tribune golf writer for 36 years prior to his death in 1967.

TOM BENDELOW, long employed by Chicago’s Spalding sports equipment manufacturer, is most likely golf’s most prolific course designer. He did the original design for an estimated 700 courses nationwide, with over 100 of them – including all three courses on the Medinah premises – in Illinois.

HERB GRAFFIS, a long-time Chicago golf writer, joined his brother Joe in founding Golfdom, the first periodical devoted to the business side of golf, and he was also a founder of both the National Golf Foundation and Golf Writers Assn. of America.

GEORGE S. MAY, perhaps more than any other tournament promoter, turned golf into a spectator sport with his All-American and World Championship tournaments at Tam O’Shanter, in Niles, in the 1930s and 1940s. His 1946 All-American tourney there was the first televised golf tournament.

THEY’RE ALMOST forgotten by now, but Chicago produced some of the country’s best women golfers long before there was an LPGA. First there was Bessie Anthony. Then along came Elaine Rosenthal, who learned the game at Ravisloe in Homewood, and was the runner-up in her second national tournament — the 1914 U.S. Women’s Amateur. After Rosenthal came Virginia Van Wie, a Beverly member who won the U.S. Women’s Amateur in 1932, 1933 and 1934. Both Rosenthal and Van Wie played in numerous exhibitions and were considered among the very best women players of their day in an era long before the LPGA was born.

Give up yet on Chicago being the America city richest in golf history?

A case could admittedly be made that Chicago’s tournament scene has dwindled in recent years. The PGA Tour’s BMW Championship is an every-other-year attraction now, with the WGA wanting to showcase its big event in other golf-hungry markets. The Ladies PGA Tour, which staged no less than three of the 14 tournaments in its inaugural season of 1950 in Chicago, has been an infrequent visitor ever since. But, while it hasn’t been here since 2009, that last visit was one of the biggest events in LPGA history – the Solheim Cup matches at Rich Harvest Farms in Sugar Grove.

The Champions Tour hasn’t been here since 2002, but it had long and successful runs – at Stonebridge in Aurora and Kemper Lakes in Long Grove – before that. Even the Nationwide Tour is gone, departing after a seven-year run at The Glen Club in Glenview in 2007.

Still, while Chicago might not seem the golf hotbed it once was, the fact that the Ryder Cup is being played here this week shows that all those years building a rich golf tradition count for something. Chicago golfers haven’t left the game in any significant numbers during the recent economic downtimes, and golf excitement won’t be leaving Chicago any time soon either.