Western Open: Gone but not Forgotten

LEMONT, ILLINOIS l Steve Stricker had good reason to have an affinity for the old Western Open. He is a child of the Midwest, growing up in Wisconsin and attending college at the University of Illinois.

 


Then he had an early career highlight when he won the Western in grand fashion by eight shots in 1996.

 

So Stricker always feels good returning to Cog Hill even if the Western Open doesn’t exist anymore.

 

“It really doesn’t feel any different,” Stricker said. “The same Western Golf Association (people) are running it. I’ve gotten to know them growing up over the years. It still feels like the Western Open to me.”

 

Stricker, though, is in the minority here. There was a decidedly different feel to last week’s PGA Tour stop in Chicago.

 

The Western Open, a venerable event that dated back to 1899, went the way of the persimmon driver in 2006. It was supplanted by the BMW Championship, the third leg of the PGA Tour’s FedEx Cup playoff series.

 

The shift in format and from the traditional Fourth of July date to the week after Labor Day has produced considerable pros and cons for tournament organizers. In short: Better fields, smaller crowds.

 

The whole dynamic has thrown into question whether the BMW will remain anchored in Chicago, the nation’s third-largest market.

 

Next year’s tournament will be the last of a three-year run at Cog Hill. The 2012 BMW is scheduled to be held at Crooked Stick in Indianapolis. Tournament organizers don’t want to compete with the Ryder Cup, which will be played that year in nearby Medinah.

 

But beyond 2012, John Kaczkowski, president and CEO of the Western Golf Association which runs the tournament, said the BMW is keepings its options open.

 

“We’ll see,” Kaczkowski said. “What happens in 2010 and 2011 will have a lot to do with 2013 and beyond. Are we going to come back here every year? Two out of three years? We honestly don’t know.”

 

The only certainty is that the BMW will continue to have a top field as long as it is part of the playoff series. Tiger Woods was a regular at the Western Open, and usually that’s all you need. But the fields weren’t deep after you got past Woods.

 

Now as a FedEx Cup event, the BMW draws a nice collection of international players and other top stars, such as Phil Mickelson, who wasn’t a Western regular. Plus Woods, assuming he qualifies.

 

“Our field is much better than before,” said tournament director Vince Pellegrino. “If you like golf and to see the best players, we’re the place.”

 

However, the improved field hasn’t translated into big crowds for the BMW in Chicago. By comparison, the Western did much better with its summer date. The second round on Friday often was a smaller, rowdy version of Phoenix. Large crowds of 50,000 people came out to get an early start on their holiday weekend.

 

“Fridays would be crazy,” Kaczkowski said.

 

That atmosphere disappeared with the move to September. Last Friday was decidedly tepid at Cog Hill. You could even get a good view of Woods thanks to a relatively small (for him) gallery.

 

School is back in session, and in Chicago, sports fans are fixated on one word: football. The start of the NFL season has completely drowned any talk about golf.

 

“It’s all about the Bears now,” Kaczkowski said. “We were more on everyone’s mind in July. We’re struggling to get any space in the media. It is what it is. If we could run this tournament here during the first week of August, we’d be in good shape.”

 

Moving from the September date doesn’t appear to an option for the BMW. However, moving the location of the tournament squarely is on the table.

 

Officials saw what happened when the 2008 tournament was held at Bellerive Country Club in St. Louis while Cog Hill was being renovated. The event was sold out and that was without an injured Woods.

 

“Not only was it good for us (from a revenue standpoint), but the buzz was huge there,” Kaczkowski said. “Everyone wanted to be there. The tournament was the place to be seen.”

 

The original plan was for the BMW to rotate in and out of Chicago every other year. The PGA Tour then backed off that stance after receiving considerable heat for not having an annual stop in such a major golf market. That prompted a three-year stint at Cog Hill through 2011.

 

After the successful tournament in St. Louis and with anticipation already growing for Indianapolis in 2012, Kaczkowski appears to be laying the foundation for moving the BMW on a regular basis after next year.

 

Kaczkowski says the WGA has two priorities: Keeping BMW happy and maximizing dollars for its charity, the Evans Scholars, a college scholarship program for caddies.

 

It all could add up to more changes for the BMW.

 

“It’s not our desire to go somewhere else,” Kaczkowski said. “But if our revenues are declining, and we’re not making money, we have to look at every possible option.”

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