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Len Ziehm On Golf

Women’s golf will become very big in Chicago the next three seasons

Big-time women’s golf has come to Chicago only sporadically over the years. Now that’s about to change.

Next year the UL International Crown comes to Rich Harvest Farms in Sugar Grove. In 2017 the new KPMG Women’s PGA Championship will be played at Olympia Fields, and then in 2018 that same big championship will come to Kemper Lakes in Kildeer, marking that club’s return as a world-class tournament venue.

All three events merit international attention, and the sudden recognition of Chicago as a gathering point for the world’s best women players won’t likely stop there. The LPGA’s satellite Symetra Tour, for instance, has already extended overtures to Mistwood, in Romeoville, about hosting one of its tournaments.

The Mistwood hierarchy, however, already puts on a significant more regional women’s event – the Illinois Women’s Open, which will be played for the 22nd time in 2016 – so the decision to add another big event or alter the popular IWO will require considerable deliberation.

There’s no deliberating about the significance of the three events coming our way in the next three years, however. They’re all on par with Chicago’s biggest women’s tournaments of the distant past.

The Women’s Western Open was major amateur event beginning in 1930, before the LPGA’s creation in 1950, and it continued as an LPGA major until it was discontinued after the 1967 playing. In was contested in the Chicago area 14 times.

Since then the big women’s individual championships in these parts were the U.S. Women’s Opens of 1974 (won by Sandra Haynie), 1981 (won by Pat Bradley) and 2000 (won by Karrie Webb). The first two were played at LaGrange Country Club, while Webb’s win came at Merit Club, in Libertyville.

The return to the women’s big-time events comes with a team competition. The International Crown is pretty much the brainchild of Rich Harvest owner Jerry Rich, long a supporter of the women’s game. He welcomed the Solheim Cup in 2009, and Rich Harvest produced one of the best-received competitions ever between the U.S. and Europe.

The success of that event encouraged Rich to venture into unchartered territory. He approached Mike Whan, commissioner of the LPGA Tour, about creating a new team competition that would also involve the circuit’s abundantly talented Asian players. Whan saw the same need for such an event as Rich did, and the first International Crown was played at Cave’s Valley in Maryland in 2014.

Next year’s July 19-24 event at Rich Harvest will be bigger, better – and could be much different because Spain, winner of the first Crown, isn’t qualified for the second yet.

The top eight countries on the Rolex World Ranking on April 4 will be in the next International Crown. Spain is currently ranked ninth, behind – in order – Korea, the United States, Japan, Australia, Sweden, Chinese Taipei, Thailand and England. Each country will have four players on its team, but the players won’t be finalized until the individual world rankings are announced on June 13.

Though the teams and players won’t be determined until the spring, weekly tickets are already on sale and volunteer registration is open, both by visiting www.ULCROWN.com.

As if that event isn’t big enough, the newest – and most exciting – major championship for women will follow the International Crown to town on successive years. That became a reality with a stunning August announcement by the PGA of America the day before the PGA Championship was played at Whistling Straits in Wisconsin.

Usually the PGA of America and LPGA, as well as the PGA Tour and U.S. Golf Assn. announce their tournament sites at least five years in advance and Chicago had been largely out of the mix in recent years.

All that changed when the PGA of America announced that its newest event, the KPMG Women’s PGA Championship, will be held at Olympia Fields in 2017 and Kemper Lakes, in Hawthorn Woods, in 2018. Olympia Fields and Kemper Lakes are roughly 60 miles apart.

The KPMG Women’s PGA Championship is part of a new partnership between the PGA of America and LPGA. It was held for the first time this year at Westchester Country Club in New York and it’ll be played at Sahalee, in Washington, in 2016.

Inbee Park has won the event the last three years. It had long been known as the LPGA Championship since its first staging in 1955. Usually events of such prominence are either held annually at the same site or are moved around the country. Playing back-to-back at different courses in the same geographical area is highly unusual.

“I know that those two clubs will do an incredible job hosting the major championship for the women,’’ said Kerry Haigh, chief championships officer for the PGA of America. “This will be a special moment in time for the LPGA and women’s golf in the Chicago area.’’

“There could be some great efficiencies in going to Chicago in back to back years,’’ offered Pete Bevacqua, chief executive officer of the PGA of America. “The clubs obviously have a great relationship working together to make sure that we deliver a wonderful experience in 2017, and that same group of people, plus more, can come out and experience it again in 2018. We can use that really to the advantage of the championship.’’

The women will also be playing on courses that have already hosted men’s professional majors. Olympia Fields most recently hosted the men’s U.S. Open in 2003 and Kemper Lakes hosted the PGA Championship in 1989. Both are private clubs, but Kemper was a public venue when the late Payne Stewart won the PGA there.

Olympia also hosted this year’s U.S. Amateur but has hosted just one big women’s event – the 1933 Women’s Western Open, won by Chicago amateur June Beebe. Olympia has a more recent connection with the women’s game, however, since LPGA Hall of Famer Carol Mann honed her skills while growing up at the club.

The biggest women’s event played at Kemper Lakes came in its public phase. The 92nd U.S. Women’s Amateur was played there in 1992 and future Hall of Famer Annika Sorenstam was the runner-up to Vicki Goetze in that one. Prior to turning private Kemper was a busy tournament site, hosting events on the Champions Tour and the Grand Slam of Golf as well as being the site of the Illinois PGA Championship for 24 straight years. As a private club Kemper’s lone tournament venture came in hosting the IPGA Match Play Championship each spring.

Category: Features