It was two-and-a-half years ago when the Western Golf Association, organizer of the Western Amateur, announced that it was moving this important amateur championship out of Point O’ Woods, its Michigan home for the previous 38 years. Traditionalists in the amateur game were, understandably, aghast.
After all, the Western had an incredible history at the Point, with a past-champions list right out of the Hall of Fame. The current generation will recognize names like Woods, Mickelson, Leonard, Strange, Crenshaw and Wadkins. Those of a certain age will recognize names like Nicklaus, Stranahan, Weiskopf, Morey, Yates and Coe. This was, and is, a tournament of consequence in the amateur game.
But 38 years is a long time, and the relationship had grown testy. The members of the Point had grown tired of the annual interruption of their play, and they were not thrilled with the financial arrangements. The WGA was looking for ways to inject a dash of new blood into this event, to keep it current and meaningful in a busy annual summer schedule.
And so a new rota for the Western, first played in 1899 at the Glen View Club, was established, all at private clubs located in the Chicago area. Importantly, these clubs are all great supporters of the Evans Scholars Foundation, the nation’s largest privately funded college scholarship program that benefits caddies. The 2009 tournament was the first time the championship strayed from the Point, to Conway Farms. The 2010 edition was played last week at the demanding Skokie CC, where Gene Sarazen defeated Bobby Jones in the 1922 U.S. Open.
The host clubs are to be commended for stepping up to host this tournament, especially in the current economic environment. This is no Monday corporate outing; this is a weeklong commitment that could cost the club close to $100,000, not including lost guest, cart and food and beverage revenue.
Two years down the road, it looks like all parties benefitted from this change of venue. Point O’ Woods members got their course back, albeit at a certain loss of national recognition for a pretty good Robert Trent Jones track. The players gained the opportunity to play some great courses in Chicago, venues that have hosted numerous USGA championships, including the U.S. Open, the Amateur, the Senior Amateur and the Mid-Amateur. And the tournament got exposure in a big media market at a time when the Bears haven’t yet kicked off and the two professional baseball teams are usually planning for next year.
Additionally, the new Chicago location has added international exposure to this event. Twenty different countries were represented in this year’s 156-player field. WGA executive director John Kaczkowski observed that “we’re seeing more interest from the Pacific Rim than ever before.” Perhaps this is a larger trend in golf; perhaps it’s the lure of Chicago parkland style golf courses, perhaps its proximity to the O’Hare Airport. Either way, it was a factor that resulted in one of the most geographically diverse fields all year long, and arguably the strongest amateur field anywhere in the world in 2010. All of the top five in the WAGR were present last week at Skokie.
Lost unfortunately is a connection to history, linkage to the great names listed above. But one thing hasn’t changed: the Western, along with the U.S. Amateur, is one of the hardest amateur tournaments to win anywhere in the world. In reality, it is two tournaments – a 72-hole, stroke- play affair with a 36-hole cut, followed by match play for the Sweet 16. No wonder the stroke- play medalist has earned quite an achievement of his own. Winning the whole thing? Impressive, indeed.
Make no mistake about it, this is a schoolboy event. The ultimate champion will have played eight competitive rounds in five days – a good month’s work for your typical competitive mid- amateur. Mid-Am Danny Green won in 1997, but he was (and perhaps still is) an anomaly. Nathan Smith, Mike McCoy, Scott Rowe and Tim Mickelson were among the more prominent mid-ams to compete this week. Only Rowe survived the 36-hole cut, but he did not advance to the Sweet 16.
Fittingly, this storied amateur championship heads next year to North Shore CC, the host club the last time an amateur (Johnny Goodman in 1933) won the U.S. Open. That’s an historical linkage even the Point O’ Woods membership would respect.