One of the joys of hanging out “under the tree” at Augusta National during Masters week is getting reacquainted with old golf friends and colleagues. Such as it was when I had the opportunity to re-introduce myself to 1971 Masters champion Charles Coody.
I caddied for Coody in the 1972 Western Open at Sunset Ridge CC in Northfield, Ill. We (note the use of the caddie vernacular “we”) went 72 holes, and Coody was a perfect gentleman, even though I suspect he wasn’t thrilled to have some teen-age kid toting his bright-orange Powerbilt bag around. He never once asked me a question, which was fine because I was terrified that if he asked, I would get it wrong.
Local caddies on the bag for Tour players is just one of the many wonderful aspects of the Western, now named the BMW Championship, that are gone. And gone from Chicago, at least some of the time, is one of golf’s oldest and proudest golf championships. The PGA Tour announced last week that the 2014 tournament will be played at Cherry Hills CC in Denver. The 2012 event is already headed to Indianapolis.
As a native Chicago golfer and former “looper,” I find this all quite sad.
I understand why this is happening. Owned and operated by the Western Golf Association, the tournament benefits the Evans Scholar program. This is one of the finest golf charities in all of the game. Each year, the WGA sends more than 200 financially needing caddies to college. This can and has been a life-changing opportunity for bright but financially challenged kids.
If you write a check for college tuition, I don’t have to tell you which way the cost trend has gone. With ever-increasing tuition and costs, coupled with a nasty recession, the WGA has been pinched. To its credit, the Western has not cut back on the number of scholarships they offer, so revenue has got to increase. Moving the event around is a sure way to generate new corporate revenue and bigger gate revenues.
It’s the gate revenues I have a problem with, because that situation was caused by none other than the PGA Tour. Years ago, when trying to coerce more money out of NBC and CBS, the FedEx Cup Playoffs were created. To make this contrivance work, Chicago was needed. A gun was put to the head of the WGA: move from your summer dates, or else. The Western, with huge tuition liabilities, obliged, and moved to September. And the galleries, once in the top five on Tour, dwindled.
Apparently, someone forgot to tell the Tour that Chicago is football country after the first of September. The Bears overwhelm the Cubs and White Sox, even in those rare years when one or the other team is in a pennant race. Furthermore, Chicago is surrounded by a bunch of Big Ten football schools, plus Notre Dame. Chicagoans also take their high school football pretty seriously. Previously huge galleries disappeared, their members to be found tailgating or watching a high school game. Pro golf fans became collateral damage in the need to assuage TV.
The situation became aggravated when the players, course- design experts all, loudly criticized the host venue, Cog Hill’s Dubsdread course. If they popped off about BMW or any sponsor the way they savaged Cog Hill, they would have been handed an envelope the next week with their fine inside, as well as their penance (you must play the Bob Hope for the next five years). The Tour stood by silently as one of golf’s royal families, the Jemseks, got vilified by the players. Ponte Vedra Beach seemed to forget all that this family did to save this tournament post Shoal Creek, when the tournament desperately needed to find a politically correct new home.
Jack Vickers can relate to the Jemsek’s frustration. He operated the previous PGA Tour stop in Denver, the quirky but always fun International. The Tour dropped him like a rock several years ago when they asked him to move to September. Vickers knew what the Tour didn’t – golf can’t compete with football, and so he passed, and his beloved tournament died. And now, as the Tour returns to Denver in football season, Cherry Hills member Vickers can only laugh.
And so it is, the PGA Tour is easing out of one of the great golf markets in America because it miscalculated the sports calendar. At best, as local golf scribe Ed Sherman pointed out in his blog, the BMW Championship will be played their every other year. At best, 2013 has yet to be decided.
Here’s hoping Cherry Hills president John Elway, the former Denver Broncos star who is now an executive with the team, can engineer his greatest drive yet: scheduling an away game for the Broncs that weekend, so that golfers will turn out for the 2014 tournament. The Evans Scholars on campus deserve it.