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Len Ziehm On Golf

Conway Farms is ready for a BMW Championship replay

The PGA Tour’s visit to Chicago isn’t an annual thing anymore, but when the circuit does come it’s a big deal. That’ll be the case this week when the BMW Championship returns to Conway Farms in Lake Forest.

This week’s $8.25 million event, which tees off on Thursday, is the second of three scheduled stagings at Conway Farms. The first was in 2013, and the third and final visit to Conway will be in 2017.

Last week the Western Golf Assn. announced the BMW Championship sites through 2019 — a continuation of its policy of coming to the Chicago area only every other year. The 2016 tournament will be played at Crooked Stick in Indianapolis. After the next return to Conway the event will move to Aronimink in Philadelphia in 2018 and come back to Chicago, at Medinah, in 2019.

All those events – including this week’s — will be hard-pressed to match the first visit to Conway, which hosted the PGA Tour for the first time in 2013 after being the site of a wide variety of top amateur tournaments.

“Record heat, frost, every weather pattern that week,’’ recalled Vince Pellegrino, senior vice president, tournaments for the Western Golf Assn. “Jim Furyk shooting a 59 when the average score for that day was par, oscillating balls on the first green, Hunter Mahan getting a hole-in-one, weather delays leading to a Monday finish, then Zach Johnson shooting 65 to win by two strokes.’’

This time Johnson is back, but as the reigning British Open champion. Two years ago his profile wasn’t so lofty. He was just worried about surviving this third stage of the FedEx Cup Playoffs – golf’s most lucrative competition. It started with 120 players – determined on a point system after the PGA Tour’s 47-event regular season — competing for $8.25 million at The Barclays in New Jersey. The playoffs then continued with the top 90 competing in Boston’s Deutsche Bank Championship for another $8.25 million.

Conway is the third leg of the season-ending playoff series, and it’ll send 30 players to Atlanta for The Tour Championship where another $8.25 million – plus a $10 million bonus for the series winner – will be on the line. Peak at the right time, and a golfer can become a very rich man in a very short period of time. That’s what happened to Billy Horschel last year, when he won the last two playoff tournaments as well as the bonus in a span of barely three weeks.

The playoffs have been a bit on the weird side midway through the four-tournament series this year. The top two players in the world rankings – Jordan Spieth and Rory McIlroy – have done little. Spieth, the Masters and U.S. Open champion, didn’t even survive the 36-hole cut in the first two playoff events.

Two other young stars — PGA champion Jason Day and Rickie Fowler – have taken advantage of the Spieth-McIlroy letdown, Day winning The Barclays and Fowler the Deutsche Bank Championship. But all four hotshots, along with Johnson and Horschel, will be in the field at Conway.

There’ll be some notable absentees, to be sure. Tiger Woods didn’t qualify for the FedEx Cup events and three Chicago-connected players who are regulars on the PGA Tour – Conway member Luke Donald, Mark Wilson and Kevin Streelman – were eliminated the Deutsche Bank Championship.

The BMW Championship, though, has never had to worry about getting a great field thanks to its enviable spot as the next-to-the-last stop on the PGA Tour’s tournament schedule. The BMW started a run as the PGA Tournament of the Year in its first playing at Conway.

“We certainly expect this year’s to be as highly successful and well-attended as that one was,’’ said Pellegrino. Since the BMW replaced the Western Open as the PGA’s Chicago tour stop in 2007 the tournament has raised more than $19.6 million for the WGA’s Evans Scholars Foundation, which is financing the college education of 870 caddies this year.

Unlike 2013, the WGA has set an attendance limit for this year’s BMW though the weekly total is still expected to match last year’s 130,000. Crowds will be limited to 27,000 to help create a better spectator experience. The third-round crowd hit 35,000 at Conway two years ago. This year the crowds don’t figure to be as unwieldy and Conway itself will look different.

The club underwent a major renovation since the first PGA Tour visit, the result making the facility much more spectator-friendly. Seating around the 18th green has been doubled and there’s expanded viewing at Nos. 1, 2, 7, 9, 11 and 17. The Beer Garden has also been doubled in size and cart paths have been widened to improve spectator traffic around the course.

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