Players pillory Dubsdread in advance of Western / BMW

Writing from Lemont, Illinois
Wednesday, September 14, 2011

The meeting of the Rees Jones Admiration Society scheduled for Thursday through Sunday on Cog Hill Golf & Country Club’s Dubsdread layout has been canceled.

The 108th Western Open – titled the BMW Championship for the fifth time – will go on regardless.
There’s $8 million on offer to the 70 professionals in the field, which is $2.8 million more than Frank Jemsek spent to bring in Jones, the star architect, to renovate Dick Wilson’s original Dubsdread design for a potential U.S. Open.

So far, there’s no Open on the way, and the Western is heading out of town.

“They need to get their money back, I guess,” Steve Stricker said of the Jemseks.

And Stricker’s won at Cog Hill, and is a fan of the Jemsek family.

Two years from now, if it’s played at a Chicago-area course beginning with a C, it’ll be Conway Farms. While that’s not a lock, it’s a good possibility, and not just because Luke Donald, atop the world rankings for most of this year, is a member there.

“I’d love to see it,” Donald cooed on Wednesday. “They’re great supporters of golf there, and it’s a great golf club, all walking. And I think it’s a great golf course. It’s very capable of holding a BMW Championship. I’d love to see it go there.”

He confessed he wasn’t a fan of Jones’ architectural style, which, generally speaking, is to make courses harder.

“I’m not a fan of deep bunkers and ridges in greens,” Donald said. “There are certain shots out there, certain carries, just the way you have to fit some of the shots into these tight pin locations, it makes it a little bit difficult.

“There’s not a lot of strategy. Like the 18th, you can’t hit 3-wood short (of the bunkers)  because you’re hitting a 4-iron into a green that’s very slopey, so it forces you to take on the tighter (part of the fairway). Just from an architectural standpoint, I think there are a few flaws.”

Donald may be unaware of the concept of risk-reward off the tee, but he spoke kindly in comparison to Phil Mickelson. An ardent critic of Jones’ work no matter what the zip code since Jones renovated his home course at Torrey Pines, Mickelson teed up his Dubsdread renovation last year, and did it again Wednesday.

“There’s really no shot-making here that’s required,” Mickelson said. “It doesn’t really test our ability to maneuver the ball because the fronts of the greens are blocked, and the only shot is to hit a high flop shot that stops.”

Actually, you can run a shot onto the green on 11 of the 14 par 4s and 5s, but Mickelson was rolling here.

“But being able to maneuver it doesn’t really matter,” the left-hander went on. “That’s basic stuff. Chipping areas, shot value around the greens, penalties for certain misses, all that stuff wasn’t really well thought out.

“But tee to green and the property, it’s got really great potential. I’d love to see a Gil Hanse or a Crenshaw/Coore or Kyle Phillips or David Kidd, guys that really know what they’re doing, come in and create something special here, because I think that’s what the family and this facility deserve.”

Stricker, Donald and Mickelson were not alone.

“Where this golf course really is going to show some teeth (is) because of the green design, because if the greens are really firm there’s some pins on every green that just are not accessible, that you can’t aim at,” said Jim Furyk, who won on the pre-renovated Dubsdread in 2005. “That’s not going to change really whether I’m hitting 7-iron or 9-iron into the green.”

Geoff Ogilvy, who tied for fifth in the 2004 Western but hasn’t finishes higher than 24th on the renovation, said the course wasn’t one of his favorites.

“I guess to play it well you’ve got to hit it out of the fairway bunkers, (which are) in play on almost every hole,” Ogilvy said. “And the greens, you can get some pretty crazy putts if you miss the pin by a long way on the greens. So I guess a lot of these greens, you’re better off to miss the green on the pin side of the hole. Does that make sense?”

Stricker thought the look of the course improved while the ability to play it declined.

“I’ve got to believe for the average golfer, it is very difficult,” Stricker said. “And the players as a whole don’t really care for the redo. To see a tournament that’s been here for so long sound like it’s going to leave is disappointing.”

Speaking for the defense, defending champion Dustin Johnson was all sunshine and bunnies.

“It’s great,” Johnson said. “I like the golf course a lot. It’s in great shape this year. Obviously I played really well here last year, so it suits my game. It’s long, it’s hard.”

This proves the old poker axiom: Winners tell funny stories, and losers say deal.

For his part, Jones, tracked down by Golf Channel, took the high road regarding the criticism.

“I’m not going to address that,” Jones said. “No comment.”

Around Dubsdread

Add North Shore Country Club to the list of potential sites for the 2013 championship. The layout hasn’t hosted a professional tournament since the 1933 United States Open – won by amateur Johnny Goodman – but is a hotbed of WGA supporters. It recently hosted the Western Amateur, and raised $135,000 for the Evans Scholars Foundation by passing the hat to members. The drawback: North Shore has next to no room for corporate tents, and no room at all for grandstands on the last few holes. ... Tee times on Thursday and Friday begin at 10:20 a.m. and finish at 12:21 p.m. With only 70 players, there aren’t separate morning and afternoon sessions. PGA champ Keegan Bradley goes off No. 1 at 10:42 a.m., while Masters winner Charl Schwartzel starts play on No. 10 at 11:37 a.m. Phil Mickelson opens at 11:48 a.m. on No. 1, with Luke Donald in the next group. ... Wednesday’s rain softened the course a bit, and that may continue. The forecast calls for potential rain on Friday and Sunday.

– Tim Cronin

The Readers Always Write

Reader Seitz, disagreeing with Cronin's comment that 11 of the 14 par 4s and 5s all running up a shot, writes, "I'd have to disagree with this. Is it physically possible to land a ball short of the green and have it roll on? Sure. Is it a strategic option anywhere? Not really. Maybe to a front pin on 18. But all of the entrances are really pinched and elevated. On only a few holes does the run-up avenue sit on the intended line of play. I think a lot of the criticism from the players is overblown, but this one is pretty accurate."
Cronin responds, "Thanks for writing. The run-up, whether on the intended line of play or not, doesn't mean a player will have an easy putt, or even an easy two-putt. It is nonetheless an option, even if the last option, just as a difficult pin placement is not necessarily one that should be used as a target. Jim Furyk, having won a U.S. Open down the street at Olympia Fields, knows about those."

What's the Western / BMW's next Chicago stop?

Writing from Lemont, Illinois

Monday, September 12, 2011

It’s Western Open / BMW Championship week at Cog Hill Golf & Country Club, perhaps for the last time, perhaps not.

The grand affair will come back to Cog Hill in 2013 if all of the following take place:

1. Every pro in the 70-man field, to a man, says Dubsdread’s condition is perfect and Rees Jones is their favorite golf course re-designer.

2. They all score under par every day.

3. Crowds approaching 50,000 show up on the weekend.

and, most important:

4. BMW’s executives decide that there’s no reason to hobnob with the swells of suburban Chicago’s north shore two years from now, that Cog Hill is better than Conway Farms, Kemper Lakes, the Merit Club or The Glen Club – the quartet most often mentioned as a potential successor, at least for one playing, to Cog Hill.

But that’s not the way to bet.

Expect one of those four facilities, all of which have pluses and minuses, to be awarded the 2013 championship, perhaps as soon as October 1.

Conway Farms is an interesting Tom Fazio layout that might be long enough for the top 70 players on the PGA Tour – it plays 7,198 yards from the blacks – but could be a logistical nightmare. Spectators would have to be bussed in, and, with the course in a residential neighborhood, several of the holes are lined by back yards. Would homeowners want people stumbling into their yards? There’s also the question of how many corporate suites could be located on the course.

Kemper Lakes, which held the 1989 PGA Championship and several Champions Tour tournaments, is a 7,217-yard Dick Nugent-Ken Killian design slated for an refurbishment by Rick Jacobsen at an early date. The timing hasn’t been announced. Despite considerable growth in that area of Lake County, there’s still enough land nearby for adjacent parking, though some fans would, as in 1989, have to be bussed in.

The Merit Club, host of the 2001 U.S. Women’s Open, is the most private of the four most-discussed sites. It plays 7,119 yards from the tips. The Libertyville layout, designed by Bob Lohmann, had across-the-street parking for the Women’s Open, and that spot is still available. But Merit Club, like Kemper Lakes and Conway Farms, is farther from downtown Chicago than Cog Hill. And, like Conway, there are some homes – high-end homes – backing up to the course.

Then there’s The Glen Club. Fazio created the hilly, pseudo-prairie 7,149-yard course from the flat land on the edge of the old Glenview Naval Air Station. It’s hosted a handful of Nationwide Tour tournaments, but would likely be torn apart by the best players on the Tour. And while it’s closer to downtown than the other three contenders, parking would be difficult. It’s not as if the Glen shopping complex would shut down for four days to allow people to park in their lots and garage. A nearby commuter line might offer some relief, but again, it’s another bus-’em-in situation.

The Glen Club is 18 miles from downtown, compared to 20 for Cog Hill, 29 for Conway Farms, 33 for Kemper Lakes and 34 for the Merit Club.

While those four contenders may offer a more stylish zip code, individually, they fail to offer as good a test of golf as Cog Hill, the overall convenience of Cog’s parking – which even BMW fails to take advantage of, not using the Mount Assisi lot adjacent to the 15th hole – the ample room for corporate hospitality, and the rent deal the Jemsek family offers. They give the Western Golf Association the course for free.

So why move? Because attendance has dropped compared to the glory days of Fourth of July weekend dates. Perhaps BMW, which has forced the issue of moving around the Midwest from the start, has done surveys that find north suburbanites don’t care about football, either high school, college or pro, and will storm the gates.

But, to repeat, that’s not the way to bet.

The week at hand

Monday’s pro-am was renamed the Chick Evans Memorial Pro-Am, and Wednesday’s, previously the Evans, was renamed to honor Gardner Heidrick, a long-time participant who also endowed an Evans scholarship. ... Players will go off the first and 10th tees the first three days, Saturday’s schedule forced by an early finish to benefit NBC, which televises Michigan State at 0-2 Notre Dame at 2:30 p.m. CT. Sunday, everyone goes off No. 1 with a 5 p.m. finish in mind.

– Tim Cronin

Tracy beats Cantlay 1-up for Western Amateur

Writing from Glenview, Ill.
Saturday, August 6, 2011

Ethan Tracy is a soft-spoken Ohio native who hits most fairways from the tee, most greens from the fairway, and makes every putt he needs to.

Patrick Cantlay found out Saturday afternoon at North Shore Country Club. Tracy, ignoring Cantlay's glittering resume, scored a 1-up victory to win the 109th Western Amateur Championship.

Tracy did so by making birdies on three of the last eight holes, and on five of the last 13.

"Did I?" Tracy said. "I was just trying to stay up on Patrick."

That he did, though it wasn't easy. Cantlay, whose low amateur achievement in the U.S. Open moved him to No. 1 in the amateur rankings, also birdied three of the last eight holes.

Tracy, who entered the week ranked 142nd in the world, hadn't finished higher than eighth this summer, but proved himself worthy for this venerable title beginning on the par-4 11th hole. Cantlay had just hammered home a 45-foot birdie putt that climbed a hill and came down the other side before disappearing. Tracy answered with a 20-footer from the back of the green to retain the 1-up lead he assumed when Cantlay bogeyed the 10th.

"It definitely gave me some confidence," Tracy said. "To make a putt like that to halve was important in a match like this, especially because it came down to the last hole."

That was thanks to the fine play of each player, which wowed the gallery of about 500. Cantlay squared the match with an 8-foot birdie putt on the par-5 12th, but Tracy reassumed the lead with an 18-footer for birdie on the par-4 13th. Ultimately, that was the difference, though not without a skipped heartbeat on the 18th.

Tracy pulled his drive on the home hole to within six feet of out-of-bounds, and three feet short of a mighty oak. Thus jailed, he had no choice but to chip back to the fairway, and then plopped his approach eight feet from the cup.

Cantlay had a 12-footer for birdie, but ran it by the edge of the hole. Tracy saved his par and annexed the title.

"It's really special," Tracy said. "This is the best I've played. I worked the ball both ways, and the last two rounds of stroke play, I started rolling the ball well. I've improved, but I still have improvement to go."

Cantlay, who had squeezed into the Sweet Sixteen via a playoff, and knocked off second-ranked Peter Uihlein in his first round match, groused about his play, never mind that he won the first hole and kept the pressure on Tracy to the bitter end.

"I played poorly, to be honest," said Cantlay, a 19-year-old UCLA sophomore from Los Alamitos, Calif. "I never made any putts. I played awful in stroke play. And Ethan played great this afternoon.

"You can't win all the time in golf. You play 150 guys."

At the Western Amateur, it always comes down to two, and then one. This year, the one is a 21-year-old sophomore at Arkansas who hails from Hilliard, Ohio and was playing in his third Western Amateur. Knocked out of the Sweet Sixteen in the first round last year, Tracy selected Arkansas over Tennessee, Louisville and Ohio State, but was still delighted to be presented with a 2011 program signed by no less than Jack Nicklaus, whose college career at Ohio State included winning the Western Amateur 50 years ago this March.

"I've never met Jack," Ethan said. "I passed him a couple of times at the Memorial Tournament."

Now he's got Nicklaus' autograph, plus the champion's gold medal, plus a trophy, and knows his name will go on the George Thorne Trophy along with Nicklaus, Tiger Woods, Phil Mickelson and a host of other luminaries.

Tracy, who stayed at a KOA Campground with his father-caddie Dan all week, which meant a one-hour trek to outstate Union each way, scored a 1-up victory over Cheng-Tsung Pan of Mialoi, Taiwan, in the morning semifinal, while Cantlay won his match against Jeffrey Kang of Los Angeles – and Southern California, making it a UCLA-USC match – to advance to the championship round.

Amazingly, Tracy isn't in the U.S. Amateur field, and winning the second-oldest amateur championship in the country doesn't get you into the oldest. He's the first alternate out of the site he tried to qualify from, which means he has to cross his fingers that someone drops out before action at Erin Hills commences on Aug. 22.

He's probably not going to be picked for the Walker Cup team, either. None of that mattered as he pondered his achievement.

"This is No. 1," he decided.
– Tim Cronin

Flossmoor's Armstrong in Women's Western Junior Final Four

Writing from Flossmoor, Ill.
Thursday, July 14, 2011

Flossmoor's Ashley Armstrong advanced Thursday to the Women's Western Junior semifinals, winning both of her matches in the tournament at Flossmoor Country Club.

Armstrong beat Alexandra Harkins, of Crystal Lake, 3 and 2 in the afternoon quarterfinal. She faces Shawn Rennegarbe of downstate Addieville in Friday morning's semifinal. The other semifinal pits medalist Jordan Lippetz, of Bradenton, Fla., against Manuela Carbajo Re, of Buenos Aries, Argentina. The winners meet for the title in the afternoon.

Armstrong advanced to the quarterfinals Thursday morning with a 3 and 1 victory over Harley Dubsky, of Valparaiso, Ind. Harkins, from Crystal Lake, needed 19 holes to beat Jacqueline Setas, of East Lansing, Mich.

For more on Armstrong, check out Thursday's coverage in the SouthtownStar (link may not work after seven days):

2014 Western / BMW to Denver's Cherry Hills

Writing from Chicago
Tuesday, April 12, 2011

The rotation system that saw the 2008 Western Open / BMW Championship played at Bellerive Country Club in Town & Country, Mo., and will see next year's affair visit Crooked Stick Golf Club in Carmel, Ind., now has a third course outside the Chicago area: Cherry Hills Country Club in Englewood, Colo., just outside Denver. The Western / BMW will be played there in 2014.

That the Western will move out of Chicago for a second time in this decade is no surprise, for a number of reasons. Foremost among them is the revenue the sponsoring Western Golf Association can generate when visiting a major city that doesn't regularly host big-time golf – and, for all the faults of the format, a PGA Tour playoff tournament is very much big-time golf.

In 2008, even with one day a complete rainout, the WGA brought over $3 million to its coffers, and thus to the Evans Scholars program, from its visit to Bellerive. A similar figure is possible next year.

In comparison, the WGA has been fortunate to make about $1.5 million, on average, in recent years when the tournament has been played at Cog Hill Golf & Country Club. The problem has not been the site – leave last year's greens trouble out of the equation for this argument – but the time of year. Golf in Chicago after Labor Day, with the Bears and Notre Dame playing, is a hard sell, given that the Western had been played in from mid-June to late-August, and usually around the Fourth of July, since it returned to Chicago in 1962.

With Tiger Woods in the field and up to (and sometimes over) 50,000 fans crowding Cog, the WGA earned more than $2 million on some occasions.

With September dates, those days are gone, unless the WGA travels. Since BMW wants a big crowd to see its cars – and wanted to alternate the championship in and out of Chicago originally anyway – the Western will be on the move in 2014. Oddly, it will go to football-mad Denver, and in Cherry Hills to a club where John Elway, the most beloved Bronco of them all, is the club president. Perhaps he can give Roger Goodell a call at the proper time and arrange for his old club to play on the road, or at least on Monday night, when the pros are at his club.

The surprise isn't so much the shift from Chicago for another year, but the venue. Cherry Hills isn't terribly long given its mile-high altitude – 7,500 yards plays more like 7,000 – but it does have a championship history, most notably Arnold Palmer's dramatic victory over Ben Hogan and amateur Jack Nicklaus in the 1960 United States Open, which started with Palmer driving the first green in the final round and making up a seven-stroke deficit over Mike Souchak, the Rory McIlroy of the day.

It had been thought, and expected by some, that in either 2014 or 2015, the Western would be played at Harding Park in San Francisco, given the PGA Tour's contractual obligation to play something there by the latter year. And perhaps the Western might still go there, though two straight years out of Chicago would make even less sense than playing even one year out of every two out of Chicago.

The story broke at mid-morning Monday, when the Chicago Tribune reported the news, citing unnamed PGA Tour employees. WGA brass were mum, but Cherry Hills members were not. The club e-mailed members late Monday night to let them know the championship will be played there from Sept. 1-7, 2014.

It will be the first top-tier PGA Tour tournament in the greater Denver area since the last playing of the International, the modified-Stableford tournament, at Castle Pines, some 30 miles south of Denver, in the summer of 2006.

Cherry Hills will also host next year's U.S. Amateur.

This year's Western / BMW is at Cog Hill. The 2013 edition is slated for Chicago, but no course has been selected. Cog Hill's future as a Tour site may well depend on how well Dubsdread looks this year, under new superintendent Scott Pavalko, when the pros visit. They howled last year when several greens were scarred and portions were grassless. Cog Hill is on the clock, and Pavalko has to come up big, or other courses with at least some interest in hosting – including the Glen Club and Kemper Lakes – will be high on the list of the WGA's go-to sites for 2013.

- Tim Cronin
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