Conway Farms Golf Club, a private club in Lake Forest, Illinois, has the enviable challenge this week of hosting one of professional golf’s marquee events, the 2013 BMW Championship, which will bring 70 of the world’s best golfers to its award-winning 209-acre course.
Expected among the field are Tiger Woods, Phil Mickelson, last year’s BMW Championship winner Rory McElroy, 2013 Masters champion Adam Scott, and Conway Farms member Luke Donald, who in 2011 was ranked the world’s No. 1 golfer, a position he held for 55 weeks. The event, which will be held Sept. 9-15, is expected to draw 130,000 spectators.
The BMW Championship is the third of four FedEx Cup Playoff events. Thirty players will advance to the Tour Championship in Atlanta, which runs Sept.19-22. Proceeds from the event benefit the Evans Scholars Foundation, which funds college scholarships for deserving caddies
This is the first PGA Tour golf championship held on Chicago’s North Shore since 1972. The BMW Championship and its predecessor, the Western Open, had been played primarily at Cog Hill Golf & Country Club in Lemont over the past two decades.
Hosting this year’s tournament is an honor 22 years in the making for Conway Farms. It has staged 10 tournaments since it opened on Aug. 3, 1991, most recently the 2012 Mid-Amateur Championship. Conway Farms was the first club to host the Western Amateur Championship, when the WGA brought it back to Illinois in 2009. While Conway Farms has never hosted an event of this scope, it is poised to “put its best foot forward,” said club general manager Todd Marsh.
One week before the event, you could find your way to Conway Farms by following the trucks carrying generators (“We’re using a lot of those,” Marsh laughed). On a picture-perfect late summer morning, workmen were tending to construction of spectator seating and hospitality tents. Double-sided bleachers have been erected to spectators could view action on more than one hole at a time. At least one golfer was touring the course.
If Tiger Woods were coming to your house, how would you prepare? Since its selection to host the BMW Championship was announced last March, Conway Farms staff has been meticulously planning and establishing lines of communication with club members, city officials, local business leaders, the Western Golf Association and Professional Golfers’ Association, and local residents who stand to be impacted by the influx of crowds to the area.
“We did our homework,” Marsh said. “We checked with other courses on the PGA tour that have hosted events to get feedback. “There’s a really long checklist for the process of getting ready for a tournament (of this size and scope).”
Among the challenges the private club faced included developing security, traffic and parking plans. Attendees will be parking on land owned by W.W. Grainger Inc. in neighboring Mettawa, where they will take a less than 10-min. shuttle ride to Conway Farms.
Another priority has been the recruitment, selection and training of an estimated 1,700 volunteers, Marsh said. “You have to educate them about their particular position within the golf course.”
But in filling out the 50-page RFP that prospective courses were required to fill out in consideration of hosting the event, Marsh and his staff were convinced Conway Farms would be an ideal venue.
One factor in its favor was Luke Donald, a Conway Farms member. “It certainly helped that in 2011 he was the No. 1 PGA player for the whole year,” Marsh said. “That was right during the decision-making process. He certainly lobbied the PGA and WGA that Conway could host the PGA tour event. “He’s been playing at Conway Farms ever since he became a freshman at Northwestern University. We really appreciate his support and we’re excited he’s in the field.”
In the months leading up the tournament, Conway Farms staff has held monthly meetings with the city of Lake Forest and the WGA, which moved onsite July 1. “They were here quite a bit before that,” Marsh said. “They bring a lot of expertise with their experience running tournaments in the Midwest. At the same time, we have an experienced staff at Conway Farms to help them make this a great experience for everyone who attends.”
In addition to communication, patience, Marsh said, is the biggest virtue in staging premier golf events. “Some things are out of your control,” he said. “We try to keep to the traditions of Conway Farms so that the members have a great experience this year. There have certainly been disruptions, but we’ve been able to communicate with our members on a weekly basis about the championship for them to be excited, but also for them to know about some of the challenges we faced during the set up.”
Marsh said that Conway Farms’ walking-only 7,216-yard, par 71 course, designed by Tom Fazio, is ideally suited for the championship. Fazio, along with golf course architect Dennis Wise, who worked with Fazio on the Conway Farms course before he established his own company, were brought back to design improvements to the course.
Several fairways were narrowed, Marsh noted. “We are excited about the last few finishing holes. Sixteen is a long, uphill par four, 17 is a signature hold, a 210-yard par three downhill to a multi-level green, and 18 is a 750-yard par 5 which is reachable in two for a lot of these pros. The PGA likes excitement. They like a lot of birdies, a lot of eagles, a lot of leader board movement. We think Conway sets up well for that.”
Marsh estimates $225,000 will have been spent toward hosting the championship, but that a lot of the costs were offset by the WGA and PGA Tour.
The BMW Championship is the largest event staged in Lake County in recent years. It is projected to bring in up to $25 million-$30 million to the area.
Beyond it’s positive economic impact on the area (nearby hotels are sold out, Marsh said), a stellar showing by Conway Farms will put the best face on Chicago-area golf. “Golf has a strong history in Chicago that dates back 100 years,” Marsh said. “It’s important for the WGA and important for Conway Farms to put our best foot forward.”
What will Conway Farms do for an encore? “I’ll know more in a couple of weeks,” Marsh smiled. “We would listen if they want to come back (Cherry Hills Country Club is hosting the BMW Championship next year). No contract has been signed for 2015.”
Donald Liebenson writes news and features for Millionaire Corner. He has been published in the Chicago Tribune, The Chicago Sun-Times, The Los Angeles Times, Fiscal Times, Entertainment Weekly, Huffington Post, and other outlets. He has also served as a marketing writer for Chicago-based Questar Entertainment and distributor Baker & Taylor.
A graduate of the University of Southern California, he is married with a college-age son. He also writes extensively about entertainment.