A move to the north will freshen up the BMW Championship

The PGA Tour hasn’t visited the north suburbs in 41 years, when the Western Open was staged at Sunset Ridge Country Club in Northfield. That’s surprising, given the golf enthusiasm demonstrated annually in the area and the wide area of quality courses available.

Other golf tours did make appearances. The U.S. Women’s Open was played at Merit Club in Libertyville in 2000. The PGA’s satellite Web.com Tour was a fixture at The Glen Club in Glenview through 2007. The Champions Tour had regular stops at Kemper Lakes in Long Grove in the 1990s and finally returned this June at North Shore Country Club, also in Glenview.

The PGA Tour, the biggest and best in the world, was always a no-show after Jim Jamieson’s final putt dropped in his six-stroke victory in the 1972 Western. Finally the draught is going to end. This week the PGA Tour returns on a course that didn’t even exist when Jamieson won.

Conway Farms, a private facility in Lake Forest, will open its gates on Monday for the BMW Championship and the top 70 players on the FedEx Cup Playoffs point list will battle for $8 million beginning on Thursday.

The Western Golf Assn., based in north suburban Golf, staged its biggest Chicago tournaments at Cog Hill in Lemont the last two decades but opted for a fresh look this time in an effort to improve fundraising for its Evans Scholars Foundation. The tourney will also be played at Conway in 2015, assuming the sponsorship agreement with the automaker is extended.

BMW needs plenty of space to showcase its products during the tournament, and Cog Hill offered much more of than than Conway Farms will, but the Lake Forest location has re-invigorated the event and intrigued the players. Most of them won’t have seen the course until Monday because Conway Farms’ start as a golf course wasn’t all that long ago.

It only opened on Aug. 3, 1991 but it didn’t take long for the Tom Fazio-designed layout to gain the respect of the top players. The best college players checked it out at the men’s NCAA Championship in 1997 and the Big Ten Championship in 2006. The best juniors were there for the 1998 U.S. Junior Amateur and the American Junior Golf Association’s Canon Cup in both 2002 and 2006.

Luke Donald, at one time the world’s No. 1-ranked player and one of the 70 competing this week, started playing at Conway when he was a student-athlete at Northwestern and he’s now a Conway member.

Some other professionals played it in competition at two U.S. Open qualifiers – a local elimination in 2007 and a sectional qualifier in 2008. Mainly, though, the Lake Forest masterpiece has been a haven for amateurs. Most recently it was the site for the 2009 Western Amateur and the 2012 U.S. Mid-Amateur.

This week, though, Conway Farms moves into a new era. The BMW Championship will be the first PGA Tour event held on the 7,216-yard par-71 layout.

Course architect Fazio doesn’t know how the PGA Tour stars will react to his fourth Chicago creation, but he’s comfortable with his finished product.

“If you could give a class on golf course architecture you’d use Conway Farms,’’ said Fazio, who collaborated with his uncle, George Fazio, on the creation of Butler National in Oak Brook – the all-male club that hosted the Western Open from 1974-1990—and was sole architect for both Aurora’s Stonebridge Country Club, a stop for tournaments on both the Ladies PGA and Champions tours in past years, and The Glen Club.

“There were very few restrictions, a lot of land to work with (209 acres) and the owners were committed to a qualify golf experience,’’ said Fazio. “It was a textbook, fun way to create a golf course.’’

Tournament director Vince Pellegrino believes the course will be ideal for both players and spectators because of that.

“It’s not going to be the most difficult course they play, but they won’t tear it up – and it’s not bad for TV and for the people on the grounds to see birdies and eagles,’’ he said. “We encourage that. That’s OK, but it’ll be a good challenge for the best players in the world.’’

Conway Farms’ creation started with three golf-minded families who purchased the property on what was old Conway Road in 1956. It was all farmland until Fazio was hired. His creation includes two great short par-4s – Nos. 7 and 15. They may be the most memorable holes, but No. 17 is a par-3 that’s hard to forget with its downhill fairway and long-range views of the area and the par-5 finishing hole is a fun adventure with a creek running from the left side, then across the fairway and then behind the green.

The Conway membership –it’s by invitation only — has welcomed tournament play on its walking-only course. Chief operating officer Todd Marsh and director of golf Jeff Mory have been on hand almost from the beginning and the 255 regular members are serious about their golf. Marsh says 169 have single digit handicaps.

“That may put us in the top five clubs in America,’’ said Marsh. “Our members are passionate about their golf. We may have the busiest practice facility in the Midwest because they take their golf seriously.’’

“We have known that Conway Farms is a world-class golf club,’’ said Conway president Dave McDonough, “and we’re excited to know the world is going to realize it as well.’’