Pro-ams are an important part of the BMW Championship

The biggest reason the top golfers on the PGA Tour will be at Conway Farms in Lake Forest this week isn’t because of the $8 million in prize money that’ll be on the line. The Western Golf Assn. conducts its BMW Championship to raise money for its Evans Scholars Foundation.

While the 72-hole tournament doesn’t start until Thursday, the preliminary events are just as important to the Foundation. The top players will be participating in two pro-ams that are big fund-raisers. Amateurs’ entry fees go to the Scholarship fund, which has sent over 9,000 caddies to college since legendary amateur golfer Chick Evans created the Foundation in 1930.

First event of BMW Championship Week will be the CDW (Computer Discount Warehouse) Pro-Am, which tees off shotgun style at 12:30 p.m. on Monday after informal practice rounds provide players their first look at a course about to host its first PGA Tour event. Most of the pros participating will be ranked from Nos. 53-70 in the FedEx Cup point standings. Most of the top 52 will be in the bigger, day-long Gardner Heidrick Pro-Am on Wednesday, the day before the 72-hole tournament tees off.

Proceeds from the week’s festivities will help provide full tuition and housing scholarships for 240 Evans Scholars this year. An Evans Scholarship is valued at more than $70,000 over four years, so the WGA is facing an ongoing financial challenge.

While caddies remain a big part of the game, golf has changed over the years and the WGA has changed with it.

“Back in the day caddie programs were thriving,’’ said John Kaczkowski, president and chief executive officer of the WGA. “Then the influx of golf carts caused caddie programs to diminish.’’

Still, the WGA is planning to increase its Scholars to 920 annually. It recently revived a partnership agreement with a 20th university, Notre Dame, and initiated a program designed to introduce girls from disadvantaged families to the benefits of caddying.

“We endorse caddies. We think caddie programs are still important to the game of golf,’’ said Kaczkowski, and plenty of golf clubs – most of them private — agree.

It remains a big deal to get an Evans Scholarship, and funding them comes from a variety of sources, starting with the WGA’s 383 members clubs across the country. More than 26,000 of those clubs’ members contribute money to the Evans Scholars Par Club. With the WGA having offices in the Chicago suburbs of both Golf and Oak Brook, it’s not surprising that 70 of the WGA’s member clubs and one-third of its Par Club members are from the Chicago area. More than $11 million is raised annually from the donations of Par Club members, including Evans Scholars Alumni.

Jeff Harrison, the WGA’s vice president-education, said 715 students applied for Evans Scholarships last year. Applicants are judged on caddie record, academic record, financial need, character and leadership. They must put in at least two years – usually it’s at least four – as a caddie and hold above a B average in college preparatory classes in high school.

Financial need for the applicants varies, but Harrison said the average family income of the 2013 recipients was $60,000. Applications are screened and finalists attend one of five selection meetings, held from November through March, where they are interviewed by WGA directors, Evans Scholars alumni, golf officials and special guests. The location of these meetings varies, and over 100 are in the selection audience at some of them. The audience votes, and the applicants are informed of the results via mail within a week after their interview session. Getting selected is a cause for joyous celebration.

The WGA has Scholarship House facilities at 14 universities and partnerships with six other schools. Among them is a special one at Northwestern, which hosted the WGA’s new Caddie Academy this summer. Twelve high school girls from disadvantaged families lived at the Evans Scholars house on the NU campus while working as caddies at six North Shore clubs.

Four Evans Scholars supervised the six-week program, taking the girls to the clubs Tuesday-Sunday and conducting mentoring sessions at night. On Mondays the girls had supervised outings or field trips.

“The biggest obstacle to caddying is geography,’’ said Kaczkowski. “If you grow up where there’s no caddie programs, how will you caddie? We want to remove geography from the equation.’’