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Olympia Fields Embraces Amateur Game

You have to tip your cap to the leadership and membership of Olympia Fields Country Club, south of downtown Chicago. For in a time of transition for many private clubs in America, Olympia Fields is giving up its courses in order to host amateur tournaments.

The club was recently selected to host the 2015 U.S. Amateur. And, unlike recent venues that have hosted the Amateur (Chambers Bay, Erin Hills, Merion, etc.), this comes with no guarantee that a U.S. Open is soon headed its way. And that is fine with Olympia Fields.

There remains some lingering angst about the 2003 Open on the North Course at Olympia Fields. Someone not named Tiger Woods won, disappointing more than a few. The weather didn’t cooperate, causing the course to play completely different (i.e. easier) than intended. And then there was the small problem of “fees” required by Chicago politicians. It was this and more that caused the USGA to effectively abandon Chicago as a men’s Open host for the foreseeable future. Despite pleas from Cog Hill, the next midwestern Open will be played in southern Wisconsin, which is not to be confused with suburban Chicago. Erin Hills, host of next summer’s U.S. Amateur, will host the 2017 Open.

All of this does not concern the membership of Olympia Fields. They think it was a fine national championship, and they make no apologies. The club is having too much fun hosting amateur tournaments to worry about what the blogosphere thinks about 2003.

Several years ago, Olympia Fields created the Fighting Illini college golf tournament. In short order, this has become a key annual fall event that draws a quality field. Next summer, the club will host the U.S. Junior Girls Championship; in 2012, the Junior Ryder Cup. It has also signed on to be part of the new rota for the Western Amateur.

Why so much amateur golf? “It’s just something we do,” says club president Jeff Goldman. 

There are other clubs and resorts that regularly host amateur events. Bandon Dunes comes to mind; although very new, this resort has hosted the Curtis Cup, U.S. Mid-Amateur, several Oregon Opens and, next summer, concurrently the U.S. Men’s and Women’s Public Links championships.

But few clubs exhibit as much ardor and enthusiasm for hosting amateur events as Olympia Fields does. Never mind that there is no big pay day involved; indeed, these types of tournaments can be money losers. For the Amateur in 2015, both the North and South golf courses will be shut down for at least a week, costing the club guest and cart fees and associated food and beverage income.

These tournaments can also irritate the membership by inconveniencing them, particularly in a short golf season. It helps that Olympia Fields has 36 holes, so that when some of the smaller amateur events are played, there are still 18 holes open for member play. But in the case of the Amateur, the USGA will be around all summer, phasing in tournament conditions. Handicaps are sure to rise, and not everyone will enjoy USGA-style rough.

But this club presses on. This spirit goes back to its founding in 1915. The club’s first president was Amos Alonzo Stagg, an icon of amateur sport who served on the U.S. Olympic Committee. This spirit of amateurism continues today.

To forgo revenue during these economic times is admirable. But it may be a very shrewd longer term move. Private clubs are under pressure, due to the economy as well as changing social priorities and behavior. The American golf marketplace will continue to see the number of private clubs decline in the years ahead. In buttressing its global prestige by hosting important amateur events, Olympia Fields may well be writing its own insurance policy. People are likely to gravitate to more prestigious private clubs rather than just the ordinary place around the corner.

Pro golf could return to Olympia Fields in the future if the whispers of Chicago golf insiders are to be believed. But it is more likely to be women’s pro golf. Hosting the U.S. Women’s Open in the second largest media market would be a coup for the USGA and a boon to the women’s game. It would also provide this deserving club with a very rare distinction – hosting the U.S. Senior Open (1997), U.S. Open (1928 and 2003), and Women’s Open.


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