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Len Ziehm On Golf

Here’s what to expect at this year’s KPMG Women’s PGA Championship

The KPMG Women’s PGA Championship, coming to Kemper Lakes in Kildeer from June 26 to July 1, is the biggest golf tournament coming to the Chicago area this season and it figures to be the biggest for many years to come.

Formerly called the LPGA Championship, this tournament is – with the U.S. Women’s Open – the top event on the premier women’s tour. It’s big, no doubt about it.

The men have a PGA Tour Champions major, the Constellation Senior Players Championship, coming to Exmoor Country Club in Highland Park in July at the same time the U.S. Golf Association brings its first U.S. Senior Women’s Open to Chicago Golf Club. Neither carries the historical significance that the KPMG Women’s PGA Championship does.

And, sad to say, neither the PGA of America, the U.S. Golf Association, the PGA Tour, PGA Tour Champions or the LPGA have any of their major tournaments scheduled in Chicago in future years. Such big events are generally scheduled many years in advance so it’s appropriate to savor this one coming to Kemper Lakes this month.

There’s some interesting symmetry involved in the connection of this tournament with this club. In 1989, when Kemper Lakes was just 10 years old, the club landed the men’s PGA Championship – the most prestigious event Kemper has ever held. The KPMG Women’s PGA Championship will come close.

Kemper was a young, public venue in 1989. Now, 29 years later, Kemper has landed another long-prestigious championship in similar circumstances. Kemper doesn’t have much of a track record in women’s golf. The club, now private, has never hosted a women’s professional tournament. The only thing remotely close on the women’s front was the 1992 U.S. Women’s Amateur.

So, a primer is in order. Here’s what you need to know to fully appreciate this upcoming KPMG Women’s PGA Championship.

For starters, the KPMG event is the second-longest running tournament in women’s golf, having been founded in 1955. The U.S. Women’s Open is the only older one, having been first played in 1946. To put both in perspective, the LPGA Tour itself played its first season in 1950.

Three tournaments in the LPGA’s inaugural season were played in the Chicago area. The Chicago Weathervane Open, a 36-hole tournament, was played in May at Skycrest Country Club (now Twin Orchard in Long Grove). Louise Suggs won the $750 first prize. In July of that year there were two events at Tam O’Shanter in Niles. Babe Zaharias won both the All-American Open and World Championship, events staged by innovative golf promoter George S. May.

The U.S. Women’s Open made its debut in 1946, with Chicago-based Patty Berg the champion. The LPGA Championship was first played nine years later, when Beverly Hanson took home a $1,200 first prize from a $6,000 purse at Orchard Ridge in Fort Wayne, Ind.

Neither the U.S. Women’s Open nor LPGA Championship have stopped much in Chicago, making this month’s tournament a rare treat. The Open came to LaGrange Country Club in 1974 and 1981, with Sandra Haynie and Pat Bradley the champions. It didn’t return until 2000 when Australian Karrie Webb was the winner at the Merit Club, in Libertyville.

The LPGA Championship wasn’t played in these parts until last year, when Olympia Fields was the site of Danielle Kang’s first professional victory. In an unusual bit of scheduling the tourney was scheduled in the Chicago area two years in a row, Kemper landing this year’s event. The tourney goes to Hazeltine, in Minnesota, in 2019 and Aronomink, in Pennsylvania, in 2020.

Under LPGA management the tourney bounced around the country with only one major controversy. That came in 2005 when the organization’s professionals-only policy was altered so that 15-year old Michelle Wie could compete, a move designed to spur attendance and media attention. Many of the professionals objected, though Wie proved she could compete by finishing the runner-up to Annika Sorenstam.

Wie turned pro in October of that year and the professionals-only policy was restored for the 2006 LPGA Championship. Wie will also be in the field at Kemper Lakes and – unlike most every other player in the field – has tournament experience on the course. When she was just 11 Wie competed in the 2001 U.S. Amateur Public Links Championship at Kemper.

A longer-lasting change impacted the tourney in 2015, when management was shifted from the LPGA Tour to the PGA of America and KPMG was included in the title. The sponsorship and management change has bolstered the tournament, and a record purse of $3,650,000 will be on the line at Kemper Lakes. The champion will receive $547,000, up from the $525,000 that Kang picked up for winning at Olympia.

It’s been a long time between Kemper Lakes’ hosting of the men’s and women’s PGA Championships but one tournament official was involved with both.

Kerry Haigh, chief championships officer for the PGA of America,
worked on the tournament for Northbrook-based KemperSports in 1988 and 1989 after spending four years with the LPGA. His role in golf got much bigger after that, when he joined the PGA of America.

“I know how wonderful the women PGA players are. They’re incredible,’’ said Haigh following a two-day planning session at Kemper Lakes seven weeks before the tournament proper. “Their overall fitness and dedication are comparable to the men’s tour.’’

He feels Kemper will be comparable to the much older Olympia Fields as a venue for the tournament.

“Olympia Fields was outstanding,’’ said Haigh “There are more trees there, and it was a wonderful test of golf. Kemper Lakes has a lot more water. It comes into play on six or seven holes. It’s a more modern course and, in its own way, could be more difficult and challenging than Olympia Fields.’’

Haigh remembers Kemper Lakes from 29 years ago, when the top men battled for the PGA Championship there and the late Payne Stewart emerged the champion.

“It’s matured beautifully,’’ he said. “The bunkers are significantly more in play now, and they’re more penal. It’s a really good test and the greens can make it really difficult.’’