Our guest this episode is the Senior Vice President of tournaments within the Western Golf Association, Vince Pellegrino. You can learn more about Vince and the Western Golf Association at wgaesf.org.
In this interview with Vince, we learn:
- How winning an Evans Scholarship impacted his life
- Why the Western Golf Association started in Chicago
- How the WGA and the Chick Evans scholarship can send 900 young people annually to college
- What the future looks like for the Western Golf Association and the BMW Championship
- Why some golf courses can’t host the BMW Championship
- What the Chicago Parks Golf Alliance and Tiger Woods could mean to the future of golf in Chicago
- Whether a golf course in downtown Chicago could ever host the BMW Championship
Interviewer: Walter Lis. Running Time: 20:09
Click here to download an MP3 file.
CHICAGO GOLF REPORT: How did you make your way into the golf business?
VINCE PELLEGRINO: I started caddying at a relatively young age and I grew up in Cicero, and I caddied at Riverside Golf Club. The reason I got involved was because our family dentist was a member at Riverside and recommended to my parents to have me caddy. Obviously, it gets me out of the house and gets me a good summer job making some money. I think my parents were encouraged by the Evans Scholarship and everything else that came along with it, having me be more self-sufficient.
My dad worked three jobs. My mom stayed at home and worked part-time as well, and I think me having some extra money to buy the things that I wanted to on my own was obviously important to them and important for me as well. So, I got started caddying while I went to Fenwick High School.
I really fell in love with the game of golf while I was caddying, and got to meet some great, influential members of Riverside. Ultimately, I applied for the Evans Scholarship which my parents knew about, and I didn’t know so much. I just thought I was kind of getting out of the house, making some money and having some fun learning the game of golf. When in reality, I think they had their eye on me receiving the scholarship.
We had limited financial means. I got good grades in school, and obviously caddied for several years prior to applying for the scholarship. Ultimately, I was awarded the scholarship to attend Indiana University.
When I was a junior, there was a job opportunity posted for an internship with the Western Golf Association, who administers the Evans Scholar Foundation. It was an opportunity to become an intern for the tournament team and work on the Western Junior Championship, the Western Amateur and at the time, the Western Open.
I did that during my junior year in college and got invited back to the internship again after my senior year in college, prior to joining the workforce. That was kind of my lead into golf and the Evans Scholar Foundation and ultimately, tournament golf with the Western Golf Association.
CHICAGO GOLF REPORT: Talk a little bit about how you’ve grown within the association, and how the association itself has changed in that time since you’ve been there.
VINCE PELLEGRINO: After college I actually worked for a short period of time with an Evans Scholar Alum, Kevin Donnellon. Kevin owned a PR firm in Chicago, and he hired me along with another Evans Scholar. Kevin was from Ohio State University, and has been supportive of my career and of the Evans Scholar family.
I worked with Kevin for about four months until John Kaczkowski, who’s the current President and CEO of Western Golf Association Evans Scholars Foundation called me up because there was an opening.
He was being promoted to being the Tournament Director, and he needed somebody to take on the responsibility of the Associate Tournament Director. So after just four short months of working for Kevin, I moved on to work for the Western Golf Association in February of 2000.
After several years, I took on the role of the Director of Sales for the Western Golf Association, which eventually turned into the BMW Championship. The organization went from hosting the Western Open to now putting on the penultimate event in the PGA Tournament playoffs, which was a brand-new concept for the PGA Tour.
In 2007, the BMW Championship took place at Cog Hill. Ultimately, the championship rotated in and out of Chicago to various golf facilities and some of the premium courses in the country.
I was Director of Sales for the tournament, and ultimately became the Tournament Director for the BMW Championship. That’s my current role as the Senior Vice President of Tournaments for the Western Golf Association, which oversees the Western Junior, the oldest Junior Championship in the country. The Western Amateur, one of the most prestigious amateur championships in the world. The BMW Championship and we’ve also hosted a couple of other events during my tenure, the Hotel Fitness Championship in Fort Wayne, which was a Web.com playoff event we ran for a few years. In 2018, we’re going to host the Constellation Senior Players Championship, at Exmoor Country Club. We’re really excited about that event.
But certainly, the golf business has evolved, and mainly with the BMW Championship, we’ve seen some of the up and coming players on the Tour really evolve to some of the biggest names on the PGA Tour.
CHICAGO GOLF REPORT: Can you give a context of what is the Western Golf Association, who does it kind of include, who makes it up?
VINCE PELLEGRINO: The Western Golf Association was started in 1899. And it was started to host championships, really in the West. Chicago was really the West from the East Coast, and it gave folks in the Chicago and the Midwest an opportunity to play professional and amateur golf, which was why the association was started. We ran the Western Junior, which we still do today, and the Western Amateur and Western Open at the time.
In 1930, we not only ran championships but we started to administer the Evans Scholar Foundation. Chick Evans, who was a famous amateur golfer, came to the Western Golf Association, the Director of the Board, to seek it’s help in administering this scholarship idea that he had.
So in 1930, the Western Golf Association decided to administer the scholarship and send two caddies to Northwestern University on full tuition and housing scholarships.
The Western Golf Association really has two functions. It’s to host premier golf championships, but also to administer one of the nation’s largest privately funded scholarship opportunities.
Last fall we sent 910 kids to college and our goal is to send a thousand kids to school on full tuition and housing scholarships by the year 2020. What helps us get there is not only the proceeds from the BMW Championship but also major donors and golf enthusiasts, who understand the value of a quality education and giving the opportunity to kids who might not otherwise be able to afford it.
CHICAGO GOLF REPORT: The history of the Western Golf Association and the things that the WGA does, specifically with the Chick Evans Scholarship, impacts so many people. What you want to achieve with the WGA?
VINCE PELLEGRINO: I think part of it is with our championships because that’s my area of focus being the Senior Vice President of tournaments for the Western Golf Association. We’re looking to showcase the best talent in the world at the amateur, junior and professional ranks.
With the BMW Championship, our goal is to continue to raise money for the scholarship. But also, a large part of it is to increase the awareness of the scholarship nationally. I think that is important for the championship considering it has a schedule that rotates in and out of Chicago.
I think what we’ve done in taking the championship to places like Denver, St. Louis, Indianapolis and Philadelphia in 2018, is create that awareness for the scholarship. We’re looking to open opportunities for more kids nationally to receive a scholarship, to know about it, and to get involved in caddying.
I think the goal is on the East Coast all the way up to the West Coast where we have new scholarship house at Oregon. I think our focus with the Championship is not only to present a first-class premier golf championship to the golf fans and the market that we’re in that year but also to raise that awareness for the Evans Scholar Foundation.
CHICAGO GOLF REPORT: When you talk about the Western Golf Association, it began with Chick Evans, who would obviously be one of the heads on the Mount Rushmore of Chicago golf. What is the kind of relationship that you see with the City of Chicago?
VINCE PELLEGRINO: Chicago has some of the best golf courses in the country. Now not all of them can host a championship because of the size and the need for space. But the relationship with the Chicago golf fans goes back to the early 1900s, when we had the first Western Open at the Glenview Club.
We’ve got a history and relationship with the golf fans of Chicago, and what I think you’ll see in the future is being able to rotate that championship amongst Chicago courses. Obviously being at Conway Farms this year, and then 2019 going to the Western suburbs at Medinah, which has obviously hosted some of the world’s greatest golf championships, and really being able to spread the tournament around to various areas of the Chicagoland market.
We were at Cog Hill for a long time, and there’s an opportunity in the future to have the tournament in Chicago, which is exciting for us, with the renovation of Jackson Park and South Shore Country Club. I think the foresight of the City of Chicago and the Park Districts, to make that a championship style golf course to bring the championship into the heart to of the City would be something that we look forward to.
CHICAGO GOLF REPORT: What do you think about the new Chicago Parks Golf Alliance and the opportunities that it could potentially create, not only for the world of golf but for the City of Chicago?
VINCE PELLEGRINO: I think it’s important for us when you step away from golf in general. I think going back to my opportunity that I had to caddy and receive the scholarship is one of the focal points of the project. To not only renovate the golf course to make it a championship caliber golf course, but to also open up opportunities of caddying and giving kids scholarships to attend university like I did. Kids with limited financial needs and great grades, we just need to give them that caddy qualification to give them a scholarship.
From my understanding, there’s going to be a First Tee component, that’ll teach kids how to play golf and the life lessons that go along with it. I think all those things are important.
I can applaud with what they’re trying to do to the golf course and make it a fantastic tournament course that will attract some economic impact in the area because of giving people who come into the City of Chicago a place to relatively close place to play golf. I think it is a good thing.
CHICAGO GOLF REPORT: Do you think if the project is able to move forward and be created just like they’re talking with the Tiger Woods being involved with the design, would that course and that facility provide enough to be under consideration to host your event there?
VINCE PELLEGRINO: I’d have to see the plans for the facility, what kind of space we could have for the championship. But that would be the goal. I know it’s their goal.
We would love another championship course in Chicago and the opportunity to host a championship there. We look forward to seeing the project and to how it moves forward and what the design looks like.
I think it’s just another great opportunity for us to consider when you’ve got a championship like the BMW Championship that rotates around and bring it to different areas of Chicagoland. I think it’s an exciting opportunity for us.
CHICAGO GOLF REPORT: Tell me a little bit about your favorite golf courses in the Chicagoland area, be it both private or public, what do you like?
VINCE PELLEGRINO: I really have grown to appreciate course architecture and a couple of courses that I really am fond of are Shoracres, up in Lake Bluff. It’s a Seth Raynor designed golf course. It has just unbelievable views and architecture of the golf course is really incredible.
I think everyone would be miffed if I didn’t talk about the Chicago Golf Club, just an iconic golf course in Chicago, one of the best in the country. It’s certainly not a course that the PGA Tour professionals could play given the length, but it has so much more to offer in the architecture of the golf course. I just really appreciate that.
And then I think looking at one of the places that we’ve hosted a BMW Championship, Butler National, is a world-class golf course. Very difficult, it could test the best players in the game. It’s right across the street from our office. It’s really an incredible golf course.
So just those three and then I think you can get into the tournament sites that we play at like a facility like Medinah that has a course for every caliber type of player. It is really interesting for a Chicago golf fan to have a championship golf course and two other golf courses that for any amateur in the game can play any one of those two and have a great time.
I think that what golf is about is just having a good time on the golf course, and being able to bond with the people you’re playing. Hopefully along the way, taking some caddies and teaching them some life lessons as well. And I think those are the important things about golf.