Onward to Augusta

Reporting from Covington, Ga.

Tuesday, April 3, 2012
This is the land of the Waffle House, to say nothing of grits, gravy slathered over everything, even at Chick-fil-A. It is where there's a church on every other corner -- there are even more of those that Waffle Houses -- but where you can, a year after the Atlanta Thrashers departed for sunny Winnipeg, you can still find a hockey game on the local cable sports network.
This is one more example of how the Deep South has always been a collection of contradictions.It is mentioned because Covington, the outpost of the moment, is a few exits, 120 miles worth by the map, down Interstate 20 from a certain invitational golf tournament that attracts international attention.
That explains why 78-room budget motels are filled to the brim in early April. It isn't because the azaleas are in bloom, because this year, the blooms have already come and gone. Spring came early in the Deep South as well. As someone said today, "We went right from fall to summer." Except for the occasional ice storm, winter is a rumor in Covington.
Masters Fever is not. Golf fans everywhere count the days to this week, and merchants, whether innkeepers or sous chefs, count the money anywhere win a couple of hours of the Augusta National Golf Club. The country may be just coming out of a recession, but in these parts, the money tree sung of in "Raintree County" about a half-century ago still blossoms, and, unlike the azaleas, on time, just as Clifford Roberts intended when he and Bob Jones created Augusta National and The Masters in the 1930s.
The annual renewal seems even more anticipated this year, what with the revival of Tiger Woods' ability to close the deal on Sunday afternoon. With Woods coming back to winning form, with Rory McIlroy returning to the scene of his collapse last year -- but with the knowledge that he can not only win a major, but dominate one -- and with a host of others, from overlooked Luke Donald to Phil Mickelson looking to get fitted for a new sports jacket come Sunday afternoon, there are those who are saying no Masters, and there have been 75 previous editions, has been more anticipated.
We like hyperbole as much as the next scribe, but that is a bit much. Do those panting prognosticators not remember 1997, Woods' first appearance at Augusta National as a professional? All the golfing world wondered how the kid would do.
After going out in 40, he did all right, coming back in 30, a stylish 6-under, on Thursday afternoon, and going on to make history, as if on cue.
What about any year from 1959, the first year after Arnold Palmer's first victory, through about 1984? That's how long it took for him, Gary Player and Jack Nicklaus all to be considered past their primes -- with Jack putting the lie to that with his incandescent back nine two years later. Wednesday, they'll probably play together in the Par 3 contest, and they'll all be on the first tee Thursday, when Player joins Arnie and Jack as an honorary starter.
The Masters always is looked forward to. It is a special tournament in a special place. Augusta National is the most natural looking artificial place in creation -- the Disney World of golf, massaged and perfected and tweaked once and again -- and it all works. You can go on and on about what Augusta's board may do wrong -- expect female members within a decade or so, allowing the distaff portion of the 1 percent to join their brothers -- but there is no better run tournament, from how players are treated to how spectators are welcomed, but from the practical and financial end.
Grandstands are ample, viewing mounds are many -- they were invented here, but at Sawgrass -- and, whereas everyone else in Augusta has their hand in your pocket like a Chicago alderman, at The Masters, a golf shirt is priced like a golf shirt from any club, and you can get change back after handing the cashier $5 for a chicken breast sandwich, chips and a Coke. (And, yes, so close to Atlanta, be assured it's a Coke, even though the spigots on the pop machine after covered over, lest overt sponsorship creep onto the grounds.)
There seems to be no chance of that, any more than CBS' announcers, working with a proverbial gun to their collective heads this week, will start blurting out the size of the purse. Years ago, club boss Hord Hardin was asked about the possibility of a title sponsor for The Masters. Said Hardin, "We're not going to become the Pizza Hut Masters."
Speaking of which, it's the dinner hour. The aroma of the Waffle House is singing its siren song. There must be a Pizza Hut in this town.
-- Tim Cronin


Conway farms confirmed for 2013 BMW

    Writing from Chicago
    Monday, March 12, 2013

    At least one BMW Championship – traditionally called the Western Open – will be played at Conway Farms Golf Club in Lake Forest.
    The 2013 iteration has been locked in by the Western Golf Association and the PGA Tour. Conway officials want the 2015 playing as well, and will get it if the first edition goes well. The club originally demanded both the 2013 and 2015 tournaments be in the same contract, but the deal signed gives the club and PGA Tour a mutually-agreed option to play there in 2015.
    “Many of our volunteers and contributors to our championships and scholarships live in the city’s northern suburbs, and this gives us the opportunity to reward their support by showcasing the world’s top golfers on a course in their own backward,” Vince Pellegrino, the WGA’s tournament VP, said in the WGA's release.
    That, and title sponsor BMW’s interest in marketing to the north shore crowd, were among the ingredients that went into the formula that dislodged the tournament from Cog Hill Golf & Country Club in Lemont – considered by some WGA directors driving from far off Highland Park and vicinity to be on the other side of the moon – and moved it north. Others included Luke Donald’s membership at Conway Farms and player dissatisfaction with the Rees Jones renovation of Cog Hill’s Dubsdread layout, a Dick Wilson design.
    The deal confirms the WGA’s contract provision with the PGA Tour that at least every other BMW is played in the Chicago area, and puts the local playings on an odd-numbered year basis. This year, the tournament is at Crooked Stick Golf Club, near Indianapolis, and in 2014, it’s at Cherry Hills Country Club, near Denver.
    So the BMW / Western returns to the northern suburbs of Chicago for the first time since 1972, when Jim Jamieson won the Western on a cold, rainy week at Sunset Ridge Country Club, and for only the seventh time in its history. It has been a rare visitor to the neighborhood since the 1899 inaugural at the Glen View Club.
    In the release, Donald said of his home summer club, “(I)t provides such a different test every time you play it, (it) is sure to make the BMW Championship a thrilling event for players and fans alike.”
    Conway is a Tom Fazio design that winds through a housing development. Officials plan to cut down trees to allow room for corporate tents and other infrastructure associated with big-time golf. Spectators will have to be shuttled in, for the small parking lot at the clubhouse will accommodate only players, and the grassed auxiliary lot near it will be filled by tournament operations.
    The Western had been played at Cog Hill since 1991, with 2008 the exception. Jemsek Golf used that year, when the BMW was played at Bellerive Country Club in Town & Country, Mo., to bring in Jones for his $5.2 million renovation of Dubsdread. The hope was to get a U.S. Open. Instead, the Jemsek family lost the favor of several Tour players, including mild-mannered Steve Stricker, who had won the Western there.
    The announcement updates the lineup of confirmed and potential BMW tournament sites thusly:
    2012: Crooked Stick Golf Club, Carmel, Ind.
    2013: Conway Farms Golf Club, Lake Forest, Ill.
    2014: Cherry Hills Country Club, Cherry Hills Village, Colo.
    2015: TBA (potentially Conway Farms)
    2016: TBA (potentially Harding Park Golf Course, San Francisco)
    – Tim Cronin


Tour renegotiating S.F.'s BMW contract to accommodate Conway Farms

Writing from Chicago

Thursday, February 16, 2012

The PGA Tour and the city of San Francisco are renegotiating the contract that calls for the BMW Championship to be held at Harding Park, the San Francisco Chronicle reported Thursday.

Doing so would allow Conway Farms Golf Club in Lake Forest to host it in 2013 and 2015, which the club is requesting. It would also fulfill the sponsoring Western Golf Association's desire – and contract – to play at least one of every two BMWs in the Chicago area.

The Tour wants to push back a BMW appearance at Harding Park and add two Schwab Cup playoff tournaments – that's the Champions Tour finale – to make up for not playing the BMW in San Francisco in either 2013 or 2014.

Harding Park general manager Phil Ginsburg told the Chronicle the plan calls for playing the BMW at the course in 2016, and adding two Schwab Cups from 2017 to 2019.

"This could turn out to be a win-win for everyone," Ginsburg said. "It gives the Tour needed flexibility, strengthens our existing agreement and brings extra tournaments to Harding for the next decade."

Tour executive David Pillsbury told the Chronicle that the contract with the city calls for the BMW, traditionally known as the Western Open, to be played in one of the next two years. Previously, it had been reported here and elsewhere that the BMW had to be played at Harding Park by 2015. The 2014 tournament is slated for Cherry Hills Country Club, near Denver, leaving 2013 as the only date to fulfill the current contract.

"We've told all the parties the same thing throughout this dialogue: Look, we have a contract with the city of San Francisco to bring the penultimate playoff event there in 2013 or '14," Pillsbury told the Chronicle's Ron Kroichick.

"Until we are able to secure approval from the city to do otherwise, we plan on honoring our contractual agreement. We're hopeful, but it's not done until it's done."

If the deal is approved by the San Francisco brass and the double visit to Conway is locked in, the BMW schedule would line up like this:

2012: Crooked Stick Golf Club, Carmel, Ind.

2013: Conway Farms Golf Club, Lake Forest

2014: Cherry Hills Country Club, Cherry Hills Village, Colo.

2015: Conway Farms Golf Club, Lake Forest

2016: Harding Park Golf Course, San Francisco

If the Tour and San Francisco can't reach an agreement, everything aside from this year's visit to Crooked Stick and the 2014 jaunt to the Rockies is up in the air.

– Tim Cronin


Coming in April: Illinois Golfer in print

Writing from Chicago

Monday, February 13, 2012

Starting in April, Illinois Golfer, heretofore available only through this website, will be available to golfers statewide in print as well.

Illinois Golfer, a monthly newspaper covering every facet of the game, will be packed with news and features about the people and places Illinois golfers should know about. Illinois Golfer will be available for free at public and private golf courses throughout the state. Readers will also be able to subscribe and get each issue delivered for $20 annually.

Barring changes to accomodate late-breaking news, the premiere issue includes:

• A season preview, anticipating a year culminating with the Ryder Cup at Medinah Country Club.

• The first of a two-part series on the state of the game in Illinois.

• What’s new in golf equipment, as seen at the golf shows.

Illinois Golfer’s spring fashion preview.

• An essay on why the Masters Tournament matters.

• Columns by publisher Tim Cronin and contributing writers Jim Owczarski and Mike Spellman. The trio has covered golf on all levels.

• Illinois’ most complete monthly public golf directory.

The website will include breaking news, commentary, and links to golf news elsewhere on the Internet. Most of the print edition’s features will be exclusive to the publication.

Look for Illinois Golfer at your favorite course!

– Tim Cronin


BMW to Conway Farms? Yes, if...

Writing from Chicago

Thursday, February 9, 2012

It was about three weeks ago that a source close to Conway Farms Golf Club in Lake Forest confirmed that the club and the Western Golf Association had agreed to hold the 2013 BMW Championship – the Western Open in days past – at the elite north suburban course.

So why no announcement? When asked about the delay, a WGA spokesperson said, "It'll be a while."

Here's why, according to another source close to the situation: Conway Farms also wants the 2015 BMW, and wants an agreement for it now, so both can be announced at the same time.

Easy to accomplish, right? One would think the stars were lined up.

After all, the WGA, stung by player criticism of the revised Dubsdread layout at Cog Hill Golf & Country Club in Lemont, wanted a new Chicago-area site. Conway Farms proved a better site than The Glen Club, the Glenview layout that was also in the running. The WGA wanted Conway, a club that emphasizes walking and caddies, and thus is a big supporter of the Evans Scholars Foundation, the WGA's caddies to college charity arm. Conway wanted the WGA for the prestige, headaches of staging a big-time tournament aside.

But 2015 is taken. The PGA Tour's deal with San Francisco calls for Harding Park to host "the penultimate event of the FedEx Cup playoffs," to paraphrase the contract's terms, no later that 2015. The BMW is that tournament.

So the Tour, by contract, has to be in San Francicso in 2015. The WGA is being told by Conway Farms it has to be at Conway Farms in 2015. And, oh by the way, the whispers are that the WGA's deal with the Tour calls for a tournament in Chicago every other year, and Cherry Hills Country Club, just outside of Denver, is hosting the BMW in 2014.

If there's a year between 2014 and 2015, only the Incas know, and their calendar runs out in December.

There is a solution, though it would entail arranging many dominoes, some of which may have already fallen. Move the 2015 BMW to the second week of the playoffs, and switch the tournament played in Boston to Baghdad by the Bay. That would give Conway the BMW it demands, give San Francisco the penultimate tournament its contract requires, and give the Tour a playoff tournament on the West Coast for the first time since the Tour Championship was played at the Olympic Club well over a decade ago.

Easy, right? Not necessarily. Details of the Deutsche Bank Championship's contract with the sponsor and the course, Tour-operated TPC Boston, are unknown.

That's why it might be "a while" before the official word is forthcoming. And while it's highly unlikely, what if Conway's brass insist on a 2013-2015 combination and the Tour and WGA can't make it happen? Do they reject the 2013 BMW after all the planning? Not likely, but if that happens, where would the BMW end up?

It would take a while for that question to be answered.

– Tim Cronin