Western Amateur: A Peek At The Future?

Now it’s North Shore’s turn.

The Western Golf Assn. is now in the third year of its new policy of playing its Western Amateur championship at Chicago courses. After a 28-year run at Michigan’s Point O’ Woods the WGA took the Western Am to Conway Farms, in Lake Forest , in 2009 and Skokie, in Glencoe, in 2010.

History-wise, North Shore — which will host the tourney from Aug. 1-6 — is very much similar to Skokie. Both hosted long-ago U.S. Opens, Skokie in 1922 when Gene Sarazen was the champion and North Shore in 1933 when Johnny Goodman became the last amateur to win that coveted title. North Shore also hosted the 1928 Western Open (a brothers’ duel in which Abe Espinosa beat Al) and the U.S. Amateurs of 1939 (won by Marvin “Bud” Ward) and 1983 (won by Jay Sigel).

Like Skokie, North Shore underwent a renovation long after the respected British firm of Colt, MacKenzie and Allison did the original design work for the course’s opening in 1924. Rick Jacobson, the Libertyville architect who caddied at North Shore in the 1970s, played the pivotal role in the club’s Strategic Presentation Plan that began in 1994.

The change in venue doesn’t mean much to defending champion David Chung, a Stanford University senior from Fayetteville, N.C.

“I don’t mind coming back to a different course at all,” said Chung. “It levels the playing field, having limited knowledge of the course. I don’t know much about North Shore, but I have heard it’s a demanding course similar to Skokie. The way I see it, if you’re playing the best golf in the field you win — no matter which course the tournament is on.”

Well said, but Chung is a different player this time around. He’s more seasoned, for one thing. After his win at Skokie Chung went all the way to the final of the U.S. Amateur before losing to Peter Uihlien. The runner-up showing got Chung into the Masters, but he didn’t survive the 36-hole cut. He did, however, post a scorching round on his school’s home course later on, tying the Stanford course record with a 61.

But, though, he’s more battle-tested, Chung isn’t swinging the same — on purpose. Despite his success over the last two seasons he decided to undergo a swing change in an effort to better prepare him for the PGA Tour.

“The professional game is different than the college game in that it rewards a different sort of player,” explained Chung. “The college player can definitely compete with the pros when he’s playing well, and can even win on tour. However, where the pro is different is that his game is more mature. He’s more consistent day in and day out and always has control of the golf ball….I’m working to maximize my control and distance by increasing my torque on my backswing and having more unity between my body and arms on my downswing. Basically I”m swinging in more of a `together’ motion.”

Regardless of how he’s swinging, Chung will have to be at his best to win the title again. As usual, the Western field is loaded — and this one may be even more so than most years. The early entries include No. 1-ranked amateur Uihlein, Kent State’s John Hahn who won the Western Am at Conway Farms and Patrick Rodgers, Chung’s freshman teammate. Rodgers won the Western Junior last year and could defend that title since he would still be 19 by tournament time. Rodgers, though, opted to skip his title defense to play at North Shore.

Geography-wise that’s not a big difference for Rodgers. For the first time since 1928 the WGA is playing all three of its championships in the Chicago area, so he’d be coming to Chicago anyway. The Junior will be played at Beverly and the PGA Tour’s BMW Championship returns to Cog Hill.

Also teeing it up at North Shore will be Russell Henley, a University of Georgia golfer who won the Stadion Classic on the Nationwide Tour this year, and Scott Langley, the 2010 NCAA champion for Illinois. For some local flavor there’s Vince India, the Illinois Amateur champion from Deerfield and Big Ten player-of-the-year for Iowa.

Frequently dubbed “the Masters of amateur golf,” the Western Am is a grueling test. It begins with the entire field playing two rounds of stroke play competition, then the low 44 and ties go 36 more on Day 3 to decide the 16 qualifiers for the match play portion of the tournament.

The Western’s “Sweet 16” have included some great talents over the years. Twenty-nine of the last 35 PGA Tour players-of-the-year were “Sweet 16” qualifiers. So were 12 of the top 20 on the PGA’s career money list. Twenty-eight went on to win major championships.

The very select batch that went on to win Western Am titles include Jack Nicklaus, Tiger Woods, Ben Crenshaw, Justin Leonard, Phil Mickelson, Curtis Strange, Hal Sutton, Lanny Watkins and Tom Weiskopf.