Kemper awaits another IPGA Match Play, then will be a tour stop again

Kemper Lakes, for 28 years, has been a focal point for tournament golf in the Chicago area and it’ll again host the first big local tournament of the season this month. The 66th staging of the Illinois PGA Match Play Championship, however, will have some new looks.

Within the last year Kemper Lakes has completed a major bunker project and hired a head professional who is among the best players in the local ranks. Both could factor into the tournament, which starts its four-day run on May 8.

Kemper isn’t the oldest private club in the Chicago area by a long shot but its tournament history betters most of the others and the Illinois PGA has benefitted greatly from its connection, whether the club was in its public phase or after it became a private venue.

Back in its early years Kemper was a big player on the national – and even the world – stage. Its biggest event was the 1989 PGA Championship, won by Payne Stewart, but the course also hosted the 1992 U.S. Women’s Amateur, the 2001 U.S. Women’s Public Links Championship, annual Senior PGA Tour stops from 1996-2001, four Grand Slams of Golf and a Tour event in 2002.

Now, though, its biggest event is on the local front – just as it was in the past when all the national events were also stopping by.

From 1979 until 2002 Kemper Lakes was the site of the Illinois PGA Championship. Then the club went private. Fortunately for both the club and IPGA that decision didn’t preclude their relationship for long.

Kemper was suddenly a much quieter place tournament-wise after it went private. A glimmer of the thrill-packed early years returned when the IPGA brought its best players to the facility, which is – depesnding on the whims of local politicians – located in Long Grove, Hawthorn Woods or Kildeer.

In 2006 Kemper returned to the local tournament scene as the site of the IPGA Match Play Championship. That didn’t have the impact of the IPGA Championship but the early spring dates fit the club’s schedule and helped the club retain its local profile. From the IPGA side the tournament received a huge boost in prestige by moving to Kemper Lakes. It was clearly and win-win for both parties.

The Match Play brings out most all the IPGA members who still have a competitive side. The opening day field numbers is capped at 128 players. They are seeded according to last year’s Bernardi Points standings. If the field doesn’t fill up the top seeded players receive first-round byes.

Once the shooting begins its dawn-to-dusk golf for four days with the highlight coming on Thursday, when the tourney concludes with semifinals in the morning and the championship match in the afternoon. Last year’s final saw Kyle Bauer, the 11-year head pro at Glen View Club, defeating 2010 champion Travis Johnson of Medinah 4 and 3.

Though match play golf is known for its unpredictable nature, the tournament has been won by established players most of the time since it was played at Kemper Lakes. Last year’s final was one of the more unusual, though Johns, a long ball-hitting left-handed golfer, usually had a 50-yard advantage over Bauer after their tee shots but that didn’t prevent Bauer from winning handily.

A year earlier the tourney had a surprise winner, too. That’s when Jim Billiter, a long-time assistant pro at Merit Club in Libertyville, got his game together for a march to his first big win. He beat Johns along the way, too.

“That was the only match in which I was under par,’’ recalled Billiter. “You have to play like that to hang in there with a player like Travis Johns. Otherwise it was more of a survival walk.’’

This year Billiter is no longer a Merit Club assistant. He’s the first-year head pro at Kemper Lakes. How that plays into his bid to win the title again remains to be seen but his increased knowledge of the course certainly can’t hurt.

Kemper, despite its rich history as a tournament host, hasn’t stressed playing talent in choosing its head professionals in the past. Only Emil Esposito, Kemper’s first head pro, had a notable playing resume. He was a for Illinois PGA and Illinois Open champion.

Billiter had a brilliant 2015. He followed his Match Play win with a victory in the IPGA Championship on Medinah’s No. 1 course but – despite winning two of the section’s four major titles – couldn’t claim the Player-of-the-Year award. That was because a club commitment prevented him from competing in the Illinois Open, the IPGA’s biggest tournament.

Matt Swann’s departure for a club job in Michigan during the winter created an opening in the Kemper pro shop and Billiter, who spent 11 seasons as Don Pieper’s assistant at Merit Club, was hired as Kemper’s head man. Billiter got married on March 3 and took the Kemper job a week later. He’s slowly adjusting to his new position.

“So far, so good, but we haven’t had a big event yet,’’ he said. The Match Play will kick activity into high gear at Kemper, and the players will notice some upgrades. Libertyville architect Rick Jacobson completed a bunker renovation – the bunkers are now white – and some holes were lengthened. Billiter pronounced the bunkers as “beautiful’’ and the course “in great shape and perfect for match play.’’

The upgrades weren’t made for the benefit of the IPGA tourney. They were made at least in part to land a bigger tournament and it worked. The club landed the KPMG Women’s PGA Championship, and that means the return of big-time tournament golf to the club in 2018. This year’s KPMG Women’s PGA Championship will come to Olympia Fields from June 27 to July 2.

Last year while at Merit Club Billiter worked with the best in women’s golf, too, as that club hosted the LPGA’s International Crown team event. That marked a rare return of tournament play to the Libertyville club, but more big events will likely be coming to Kemper Lakes.

Billiter, though, still won’t be able to play in the Illinois Open. While general manager John Hosteland has encouraged Billiter to compete, the Illinois Open dates won’t work for Billiter at Kemper any more than they did at Merit Club. “We have massive events on Monday and Tuesday (of tournament week),’’ he said. “That tournament is getting hard to win anyway, because more and more great college players are in it now.’’