News & Opinion

It’s time for Chicago to embrace golf season

CHICAGO – Spectator golf has as many twists and turns as a double-dogleg par 5.

On one hand, you can get up-close and personal with the golfers. At the Senior PGA in Benton Harbor two years ago, I walked the first round with the threesome of John Daly, Mark Calcavecchia and Bernhard Langer.

Calc had his wife on the bag. Daly, his fiancee. And Langer had some geeky guy.

“Langer, your caddie is the ugliest,” someone shouted from the gallery. Which was true, because Calc’s wife and Daly’s fiancee are better-than-average-looking caddies.

Langer, who apparently hadn’t noticed, seemed offended. He turned to the patron and said, “What? What do you mean?”

Could there be a better example of the unblinking focus of Langer, the Tiger Woods of senior-tour golf?

When it was explained, Langer smiled.

In what other sport can spectators have that kind of interaction with the athletes?

I am thinking about that today because the spectator-golf season is about to begin in Chicago, which has a strange relationship with spectator golf.

Put the PGA Championship here, or the Ryder Cup, and Medinah would be bursting at the seams. Which is great, if you can find a place to see the golf amid the sea of golf fans.

That, of course, is the other hand. While a city such as Chicago goes bonkers for PGA Tour players, it often yawns at other golf attractions. Which is a shame. Because this is a good year for up-close spectator golf in Chicago.

The fun starts today, when the Tour’s Rust-Oleum Championship plays at Ivanhoe, a stern challenge for the future members of the PGA Tour (tee times).

Even I don’t catch this event as often as I would like. June is such a busy month. But I do remember being at The Glen Club in 2006, when the grass was high and the wind was howling on the North Shore. A low-keyed young man toughed out a win. I didn’t think much about it until five years later, when I was at the PGA. And that quiet kid, Jason Dufner, lost a playoff to Keegan Bradley, before going on to win his own PGA two years later.

Also at that 2006 tournament, on what was then known as the Nationwide Tour, we were hanging out at No. 17 during the final round when Tripp Isenhour dropped in a hole-in-one.

The point is, if you like golf, these tournaments offer great shot-making and wrenching moments. They also provide a tremendous opportunity to check out up-and-coming standouts. Or see heroes of the past. 

The headliner of Chicago’s spectator-golf season is the KPMG Women’s PGA Championship, which will be played at Kemper Lakes on June 28-July 1. The Women’s PGA, which was played at far-south Olympia Fields, moves north this year.

And while the women won’t be as big of a draw as a comparable men’s event, that can be an added attraction for avid golfers. A smaller gallery means better viewing. Plus, the women play a game that more closely resembles what amateur golfers play. They also are very talented and consistent players.

These tournaments also provide opportunities to see golf courses rarely available to the public.

That’s certainly the case with the inaugural U.S. Senior Women’s Open, which will be played on July 12-15 at historic Chicago Golf Club, the oldest 18-hole course in North America and one of the five founding clubs of the USGA. It’s one of the world’s top 100 courses. Heck, I'd like to see it myself.

The only problem is, the Women’s Senior shares its weekend with the Constellation Senior Players Championship. The men will be playing at another classic Chicago layout, north-suburban Exmoor, a 1915 Donald Ross design. Chick Evans (as in Evans Scholars) was once a member.

Those who turn out to see the senior men try to stop the relentless Langer will discover an extra incentive. Exmoor is a spectator-friendly course. It’s easy to navigate, and its three finishing holes will be excellent for gallery viewing.

Chicago golf fans understood in 1997, when they turned out in droves to watch Arnold Palmer in the U.S. Senior Open at Olympia Fields. Walking with him in the third round was unforgettable, even though he barely had made the cut and was in the first group.

Stopping to say hello to people in the immense gallery – heck, to hug friends in the gallery – to wave and smile and joke even though he was playing poorly provided quite a memory.

I’ve been to dramatic, historic championship events in virtually every sport. That morning with Arnie is in the discussion for top of the highlights list. And he shot an 83.

You might say, Well, that was different. But the point is, you don’t really know. I also have memories of Corey Pavin, Fred Couples and Kermit Zarley – and that’s just the senior-tour category. 

Maybe you’ll reconnect with a familiar face from the past. Maybe you’ll see The Next Great Player. Or a great shot. Or a riveting meltdown. Or maybe you’ll just have a good walk. Unspoiled.

You never know. That’s why it’s good to go.

Herb Gould is a former golf and senior college-sports writer for the Chicago Sun-Times, where his work still appears occasionally, and is a co-founder of Email: Twitter: @HerbGould