LPGA decides on Merit Club for International Crown

The Ladies PGA confirmed a new site for next year’s UL International Crown on Tuesday. It’ll be played July 21-24 at Merit Club in Libertyville.

Merit Club hasn’t been the site of a significant competition since it hosted the U.S. Women’s Open in 2000, a major event that was won by Australian Karrie Webb.

“Everyone at the Merit Club is excited for this opportunity,’’ said general manager Don Pieper in a statement released by the LPGA. “We can’t wait to showcase the world’s best golfers.’’

The club, founded by Bert Getz, was only eight years old when it landed the prestigious U.S. Women’s Open. Chicago architect Bob Lohman and Ed Oldfield Sr., Merit Club’s first head professional, worked together on the original course design and Oldfield’s involvement was a big reason the club landed that event so early in his history.

Oldfield, who had a long career at Glen View Club before going to the Merit Club, was the swing instructor for many LPGA players, most notably Betsy King. He parted ways with the Merit Club shortly after Webb won her title but the club’s reputation as a quality venue continued even without the return of a big-time tournament. Among its most notable members was former Bulls’ great Michael Jordan.

This year Jim Billiter, one of Merit Club’s assistant professionals, made a major impact on the Chicago tournament scene with victories in both the Illinois PGA Match Play Championship at Kemper Lakes and the Illinois PGA Championship at Medinah’s No. 1 course.

Merit Club has only eight months to get ready for one of the LPGA’s biggest events. The International Crown brings together the top four players from eight qualifying countries for a team competition that was first held in 2014 at Cave’s Valley in the Washington D.C. area. Spain won that event.

The second staging of the biennial competition was to be on the same dates that Merit Club will host, but at Rich Harvest Farms in Sugar Grove. Disagreements between the LPGA and Jerry Rich, the owner of Rich Harvest and a long-time supporter of women’s golf, led to the two parties mutually agreeing to part company earlier this month. Neither the LPGA nor Rich has discussed the specific reasons for the split.

Rich had been a leader in the creation of the Crown and had hoped to regularly host it at Rich Harvest. The Sugar Grove layout hosted a most successful Solheim Cup battle between the U.S. and Europe in 2009, which led to the creation of the International Crown. When that event was announced at the PGA Merchandise Show in Florida in January, 2012, Rich Harvest was immediately named the second host site, and Rich and his staff had been working diligently to prepare for it.

Eventually the LPGA decided to take the third International Crown event to Korea in 2018 and – after the break with Rich – opted to keep it in the Chicago area for 2016. Several other clubs were under consideration before the LPGA decided on Merit Club. It could mean the return of Webb to the course where she won her title 16 years earlier. She played for Australia in the first International Crown and figures to be playing for the Aussies again in July.

“We were flattered by the many suitors with championship resumes who came forward,’’ said LPGA commissioner Mike Whan in the organization’s announcement. “Merit Club has a wonderful history and prestige, and will offer a spectacular backdrop to see which country will take home the Crown.’’

Next July’s team event, which will start with two pro-ams before the team battle begins, triggers a three-year run of big-time women’s golf in the Chicago area. The PGA of America has announced that its KPMG Women’s PGA Championship will be played at Olympia Fields in 2017 and Kemper Lakes in 2018.