It is almost June here on the far south side in the suburb of San Antonio. We have already had a couple of 90 degree days and everybody is wearing shorts. The Masters has been played and the PGA Tour has visited Texas for the Colonial and Byron Nelson. Next comes the United States Open and then all of Chicagoland gets ready for the Western Open. Oh, wait a minute, it is not there?! What happened to my Western Open?
When I do research I use good old Wikipedia as a starting point and this is the first line from the Wiki page: “The Western Open was a professional golf tournament on the PGA Tour, first played in 1899 at the Glen View Club in Golf, Illinois. At the time of its final edition in 2006, the Western Open was the third oldest active PGA Tour tournament, after the British Open (1860) and U.S. Open (1895).”
It is amazing that it has been 10 years since the Western Golf Association and the Western Open got talked into moving into the FedEx Cup playoffs at the end of the season. As has happened to a number of tournaments on the PGA Tour, the identity has become much more corporate in nature than home spun.
I played the Tour in the last generation that would talk about their schedule in terms of playing The Hope, The Crosby, Doral, The Buick, GGO, GMO, GHO, and the Western Open. I was the first of that last generation that played the “all exempt tour” which ended the days of rabbits trying to qualify on Monday. I was never a rabbit and I have to say that was better than Mondays.
My Western Open came home to roost in Chicago in 1962, when I was 4 and it stayed in Chicago until it moved on to other things in 2007. The list of courses from 1962 to 1974 rings of a who’s who of Chicago golf venues: Medinah, Tam O’Shanter, Beverly, Olympia Fields, Midlothian, Sunset Ridge. I remember going to Midlothian, which was quite a trek from Waukegan, and being mesmerized by the pros, the reverence for the game, and respect of the crowd and immediately went home to Bonnie Brook and began to act like they acted.
My Western Open was important. It was a tournament in the middle of the schedule that everybody wanted to play in and win because of its historical nature. The reasons I know it was important are two. One is when I got onto tour in 1983 that is how it was spoken of in the locker room. The other is recorded in who actually won the Western Open: Billy Casper 4 times, Jack Nicklaus 2 times, Arnold Palmer 2 times (once in Chicago). Two other winners of note were Chi Chi for obvious reasons and Jim Jamieson who was essentially a home-boy winning his event.
Part two of my Western Open, and the part which I remember best begins with Paul Butler and his golf course Butler National Golf Club. Still today when you ask players about the most difficult and challenging golf course they played on Tour, Butler National is in the conversation.Starting in 1974 Butler National became the home of the Western Open and the face of golf in Chicago. The event was still important and again the record will speak for itself in the winners: Tom Watson 3 times, Mark McCumber twice, and both Larry Nelson and Scott Simpson won at Butler and a US Open. Butler produced two fun winners as well – amateur Scott Verplank and Northwestern’s Jim Benepe. I will tell you even today the Western Open at Butler National was as good as professional golf has ever been on the PGA Tour.
When the PGA Tour had to face anti-discrimination sentiment, and Butler being all male in nature, it turned to iconic Cog Hill in Lemont and a giant of a golf personality Joe Jemsek to house and host the last chapter of the Western Open.
Right up to the end my Western Open remained important, a must stop. Again the champion list tells a story. My friend Russ Cochran won the first one at Cog beating Greg Norman who finished second three times in a row. Ben Crenshaw won. Nick Price won twice. Jim Furyk won. And Tiger Woods won three times at Cog Hill and finished second twice as the Western Open.While my Western Open began in 1962 and ended in 2006, the PGA Tour has moved on and has become a place where talented golfers earn the same kind of money other athletes earn. This is a good thing for kids such as me getting there. It is not so much good for nostalgia, and my Western Open is nostalgic.
Tiger went on to win two more at Cog Hill. Dustin Johnson also won at Cog. Justin Rose, Zach Johnson, and Jason Day have all won in Chicago in the FedEx Cup season.
This fall when I watch the BMW I will enjoy it. The cause is the same. The host organization is the same. What is not the same? It is not my Western Open.
That is my view from the Far South Side