CHICAGO PREVIEW: No Ryder Cup, but season won’t be dull

No Ryder Cup. No Western Amateur. A quiet year is ahead for golf in Chicago, right?


Chicago golf is never dull, and this season will be as inspiring as the last one – and maybe even more so. Believe me.

Yes, the epic Ryder Cup at Medinah has come and gone – and will never be forgotten. Already, though, there’s an event on the distant horizon that could take its place. Rich Harvest Farms owner Jerry Rich has been a leader in the establishment of the International Crown women’s team event that will begin in 2014 and be played in Sugar Grove in 2016. You’ll be hearing a lot more about that down the road.

But this is now.

Competition-wise, this is what we have in Chicago in 2013:

Finally the Champions Tour is returning. It’s been missing from Chicago since 2002, but this season the $1.8 million Encompass Championship will be played at North Shore Country Club from June 17-23. It’ll be something different from the previous Chicago tour stops, and figures to be fun. The Encompass Championship will be a full-fledged celebrity event, and Chicago’s never really had one of those.

The BMW Championship is also returning, but this time at a new location. Long-played at Cog Hill prior to its staging in Indianapolis last year, this 2013 version will be played at Conway Farms, the private club in Lake Forest that includes Luke Donald among its members. Conway has hosted plenty of big amateur competitions, but this will be the biggest event ever played at the spiffy Tom Fazio design. Last year’s BMW, at Crooked Stick, was named Tournament of the Year by the PGA Tour.

The Illinois PGA is moving one of its major events. The IPGA Players Championship is leaving long-time home Eagle Ridge in Galena and going to Metamora Fields, a new D.A. Weibring design near Peoria.

The Chicago District Golf Assn. has presented a much-revamped tournament schedule. The biggest change involves the 83rd Illinois State Amateur. Previously a fixture in August, the State Am will move to July 16-18 at Aldeen in Rockford and become a lead-in to the Illinois Open at The Glen Club.

The CDGA also moved its 21st Illinois Mid-Amateur Championship at Flossmoor from May to Aug. 27-28 and scheduled a new event – a Super Senior tourney for players 65 and over on Aug. 5 at Royal Hawk.

In addition to bringing the BMW Championship back to Chicago, the Western Golf Assn. has added another tournament. This one part of the new Tour playoffs, and will be played in Ft. Wayne, Ind. The WGA also moved its Western Amateur to The Alotian Club in Arkansas. In making a one-year hiatus from its Chicago Western Am rotation, the WGA is also making a one-year adjustment in the tourney format. The event will be spread over six days instead of five to compensate for expected sweltering temperatures in Arkansas.

What strikes me most this early in the year, though, is the increased Chicago presence on the professional tours. I’m intrigued to see how Eric Meierdierks handles his rookie season on the PGA Tour and how the veteran Nicole Jeray does after surviving another gut-wrenching trip to LPGA Tour School. Both of these players have great stories to tell, and the fact that both are playing at the top level of golf is surprising.

Rarely does a Chicago golfer get through a qualifying school for any of the professional tours. But Wilmette’s Meierdierks, a 27-year old with only one previous PGA start to his credit, tied for 14th in the three-stage PGA November elimination that started with 1,558 players and Berwyn’s Jeray, 42, tied for 17th in the LPGA Q-School. She was competing in it for the 19th time.

Meierdierks, though relatively new to the rigorous qualifying procedures, made it easily in the final stage, but the first of the three eliminations was tremendously difficult on an emotional level. It fell six days after the death of his father.

Jeray, meanwhile, had to go to a seven-player playoff for the final four spots in the LPGA nailbiter. An LPGA Tour player off and on for the last two decades, she survived with a 20-foot birdie putt on the fifth extra hole.

Meierdierks’ arrival on the PGA Tour was a feel-good story, just as much as Jeray’s grittiness was on the women’s side. He had been basically a mini-tour player since turning professional in 2009. His career highlight had been a victory in the 2010 Illinois Open at Hawthorn Woods, and he lost that tourney’s 2012 title in a playoff with Max Scodro last August at The Glen Club. Q-School is a huge step up from the big local competitions, but Meierdierks was up to the task.

“It’s been incredible,’’ Meierdierks told me after a few days of reflection. “It’s been a long journey, and it feels really good to finally have a dream come true and see a lot of hard work pay off.’’

In addition to Meierdierks the PGA Tour cast will include University of Illinois alums Scott Langley, who also made it through Q-School, and Luke Guthrie, who earned his playing privileges for 2013 off his great play the last six months of 2012. Prior to Guthrie, Langley and Meierdierks, the last player with local connections to earn privileges on the PGA Tour was Crystal Lake’s Joe Affrunti, who earned his card by finishing in the top 25 on the Nationwide (now Tour) money list in 2010. He required shoulder surgery last spring and missed most of what would have been his rookie season on the PGA Tour. Coming off a medical exemption, he hopes to resume playing on the circuit in 2013.

There are also some notable newcomers on the home pro front. Mike Scully ended a 10-year stint as Medinah’s director of golf as soon as the Ryder Cup ended. The plum job has gone to Marty DeAngelo . who had been director of golf at Isleworth – the Florida home club for Tiger Woods and several other PGA Tour players. Scully left Medinah to become director of golf at Desert Mountain, a resort facility in Scottsdale, Ariz., that boasts five 18-hole courses.

Another long-established Chicago private facility, Exmoor in Highland Park, also dipped into the Florida ranks for its next head professional. David Schmaltz had worked as an assistant at Jupiter Club. Naperville Country Club elevated assistant Brian Brown to replace the retiring Jim Arendt and Brendan Adair moved from Prestwick to take the head job at Midlothian.

On the college front Northwestern loaded up both its men’s and women’s teams with new recruits. Men’s coach Pat Goss signed Matt Fitzpatrick of Sheffield, England. He was the British Boys Amateur champion in 2012 and Goss calls him “the most significant player we’ve signed since Luke Donald.’’ NU women’s coach Emily Fletcher also recruited well, signing two state high school champions – Minji Luo (California) and Kacie Komoto (Hawaii).

From the equipment side Batavia club manufacturer Tour Edge made a big splash at the 60th PGA Merchandise Show with its new variable fit driver. It marked the first time Tour Edge has entered the adjustable club area.