Chicago off-course as a major golf city

CHICAGO -- There was a time when Chicago and golf were like Indy and racing.

"U.S. Opens, PGAs, the Ryder Cup, the Western Open, the LPGA, the Champions Tour -- professional golf was here on a yearly basis," longtime touring pro and native Chicagoan Jeff Sluman said. "People would miss it if all of a sudden there was nothing."

It won't be sudden, but is sure to be shocking to many area golf fans. The time is coming -- possibly as soon as 2013 -- when Chicago falls off the sport's regular schedule.

Following this week's BMW Championship at Cog Hill, part of the four-event, FedEx Cup Playoff Series, the 2012 tournament, once known as the Western Open, will move to Crooked Stick in Carmel, Ind., and in 2014 will be played at Denver's Cherry Hills Country Club.

A site has not yet been chosen for 2013 or 2015, but given the success of the event (which benefits the Evans Scholars Foundation) during a one-year stop in St. Louis in '08 and the anticipated popularity in Indiana and Denver, Chicago, at best, will cease to be an annual tour stop.

"What it has demonstrated when we've taken the event to other markets is that communities rally behind the event," said Vince Pellegrino, vice president of tournaments for the Western Golf Association. "These are golf-starved markets that haven't had the event before, and it really helps spread the word for the charitable arm of the tournament. It's valuable PR."

The factors which have hurt the BMW since it moved from the Western Open's July 4 weekend to September in '07 are obvious. Saturday's third round will end at 2:30 p.m. to accommodate the Notre Dame-Michigan State football game on NBC. Sunday, the BearsSaints game will kick off at noon in New Orleans. The Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup also begins that same day at Chicagoland Speedway in Joliet.

Chicago fans might be temporarily mollified by the fact that the 2012 Ryder Cup will be held at Medinah in late September. BMW tournament officials also point out that there will be a Notre Dame viewing party Saturday, and Bears fans can watch the Saints game on video screens and in hospitality tents Sunday.

But that is as much a condemnation of the tournament as a selling point. And the absence of Tiger Woods, a three-time Western Open winner ('97, '99 and '03) and two-time BMW champ ('07 and '09), will also hurt this year.

"Frankly, golf is always difficult in the fall going against football," said Sluman, now on the Champions Tour. "Then, as it goes along more, there's the baseball playoffs, then hockey starts. Certainly when I played on the tour, [the Western] always had the Fourth of July date and it was a huge home run."

As popular as the July date was with Chicago golf fans, that was not the case with corporate sponsors, falling as it did on a vacation weekend, and consequently title sponsorship shifted often, from Beatrice to Motorola, from Advil to Cialis.

When the date moved and the name changed from the Western Open to the BMW Championship, it may have been confusing or even a turnoff to traditionalists, but Pellegrino said he doesn't entirely buy that.

"If you look at the corporate sponsorship landscape," he said, "those same people probably don't like that Comiskey Park changed to U.S. Cellular and they still understand why that kind of stuff happens."

Have Chicago fans simply taken for granted that there would always be championship-caliber golf played here? Chicago used to be a regular stop on both the men's and women's pro tennis tours, but that abruptly stopped when events moved to winter, a competitive time on the Chicago sports calendar, and fans failed to support them.

Golf tournaments now flourish in places such as Orlando and Atlanta, cities not as strongly identified with hard-core sports fans as Chicago, a city where the Western Open began in 1899 in suburban golf as a major championship and was anchored here from the '60s on. And yet, Chicago is the place losing its grip on the game.

The U.S. Open has largely bypassed Chicago, the last tournament in '03 a rainy affair at Olympia Fields roundly criticized by pros who viewed the course as too easy. Cog Hill re-did its course in hopes of perhaps attracting an Open, which isn't likely, then Phil Mickelson called it unplayable for the 15-handicapper.

The U.S. Amateur was played this summer at Erin Hills outside of Milwaukee, site of the 2017 U.S. Open. The John Deere Classic has been a PGA Tour staple in the Quad Cities since 1971.

Woods has called Chicago a favorite tour stop and in 2007, during the first BMW Championship at Cog Hill, he spoke of the tournament moving to St. Louis for one year.

"I didn't like that idea," Woods said. "I think [Chicago] is a great town. It's one of the biggest sports towns, if not one of the biggest markets we have in the country. I just don't understand why we can't play here year after year. People have always come out and supported the Western Open. They've always come out in droves and supported this tournament, and it's unfortunate that we're leaving here."

Pellegrino said it's not the tournament's intention to "light a fire" under Chicago golf fans to better support the tournament if they want it to come back. But he also admitted they wouldn't mind if it did.

"Attendance is dwindling and that's another thing we take into consideration," he said. "If the outcome is that it encourages more people to come out and not to take for granted [that the tournament will always be here], that's not our intention but that's a great result for us."

It's a shame it has come to that.

"You don't miss it until it's gone," Sluman said. "Then people are going to say, 'Wow, what happened? Where is it? We can't wait to see it when it comes back.'"

Melissa Isaacson is a columnist for ESPNChicago.com.