International Crown will have its place in women’s golf history here

The Merit Club’s first tee is where the excitement of the International Crown will begin.

The Chicago area was at the forefront of women’s golf long before the creation of the Ladies Professional Golf Association in 1950. The arrival of the UL International Crown this month at the Merit Club is just the latest of the big women’s
events staged in this neck of the woods.

Granted, the UL International Crown will be the most unique. Its format – 32 players representing eight countries competing to decide the best women’s golf-playing nation in the world – assures that.

The Crown is something new and different. The competition has been played only once before, two years ago at Caves Valley in Maryland with Spain winning. The LPGA needed friendly, enthusiastic environments to introduce its most innovative competition and bringing it to the Chicago area this year and Korea in 2018 fit that requirement to a tee. The Chicago area knows about women’s golf because it has been welcoming such big competitions for well over 100 years.

One of the very first great American players was a Chicago woman, Bessie Anthony. She won the first three national championship put on by the top organization of that era – the Women’s Western Golf Association – in 1901, 1902 and 1903. All three were played on Chicago area courses as was the 1903 U.S. Women’s Amateur. Anthony won that one, too, at Chicago Golf Club.

Another Chicago woman. Elaine Rosenthal, won the Women’s Western Amateur three times between 1915 and 1925 and that tournament – one of the two biggest for women until the LPGA was founded – was played at Chicago courses 12 times in the next 24 years leading into the LPGA’s debut season.

The first U.S. Women’s Open champion in 1946 was Patty Berg, who represented St. Andrews Golf Club in West Chicago for over 50 years. She was also one of the 13 founders of the LPGA.

The first LPGA season consisted of only six tournaments and one, called the Chicago Weathervane, was played at Skycrest Country Club (now Twin Orchard in Long Grove) with Louise Suggs winning.

The U.S. Women’s Open would come to the Chicago area three more times – victories by Sandra Hayne in 1974 and Pat Bradley in 1981 at LaGrange Country Club and by Australian Karrie Webb in 2000 at the Merit Club. That was the first big event at the private facility and the only one until the UL International Crown tees off.

Carol Mann, a World Golf Hall of Famer who grew up in Olympia Fields, also was a U.S. Women’s Open champion in 1965 – a year after she won the Women’s Western Open, a tournament that’s no longer held. The Women’s Western Open was considered a major championship during its run from 1930 to 1967 and was played on Chicago courses 13 times.

The LPGA has made other inroads in the Chicago area for 54-hole tournaments. Betty Burfeindt won the Child & Family Services Open at Midlane, in Wadsworth, in 1973. The LPGA returned for a three-year run of events with the Chicago Sun-Times as title sponsor from 1991 to 1993. Martha Nause won the first with a spectacular birdie-birdie-eagle finish at Oak Brook Golf Club, holing out from the fairway on her last shot. Dottie Mochrie (now Pepper) and Cindy Schreyer were the other champions of that event.

From 2002 to 2004 the Kellogg Keebler Classic was played at Stonebridge Country Club in Aurora and it had some high profile champions – Webb in 2002 and Annika Sorenstam the other two years.

The last time the LPGA came to town was in 2009 for the very well received Solheim Cup – a team event in which the U.S. defeated Europe at Rich Harvest Farms in Sugar Grove. This UL International Crown was also to be played at Rich Harvest, but officials at both the LPGA and the club mutually agreed to a parting of the ways last year and Merit Club owner Bert Getz stepped in to bring the LPGA stars back to his course.

Drew Blass, the Crown director, also was on staff for the Solheim Cup at Rich Harvest.

“I love both places,’’ said Blass. “Every golf club has its positives. Rich Harvest Farms has a lot of great things – all the parking is on site and there’s more acres available — but Merit Club is closer and tighter, so spectators can see more matches. I love the Merit Club. It has the ability to host multiple championships, and I love it that we’re the one to open the gates again. This is a gem that needs to get its name back on the map.’’

Rich Harvest owner Jerry Rich has not commented on the decision to move the event which he helped found away from his club – the most active facility for tournament play in the Chicago area in recent years.

“This (playing at the Merit Club) is better off for everybody,’’ said Blass. “Rich Harvest Farms has the NCAA Championship next year, and they’ve been having a lot of (big tournaments). We were just another event for them.’’

The Merit Club, though, is a good fit for both the exciting new event and the club, which includes legendary Chicago athletes Michael Jordan and Brian Urlacher among its members. One of Merit Club’s assistant professionals, Jim Billiter, is also among the elite playing members of the Illinois PGA. He won two of the section’s four major tournaments — the IPGA Match Play and IPGA Championship – in 2015.