Given their global impact, this week's 39th Ryder Cup matches at Medinah Country Club may be the biggest sports event ever in the Chicago area.
Without question it'll be the biggest golf event -- and that's saying a lot. Chicago, and its suburbs, may well have the richest golf history of any city in the country.
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Here's a few factoids to prove the point:
• The first 18-hole course in the United States was Chicago Golf Club, which opened in 1892 in the suburb of Downers Grove. Now the club's course is in Wheaton, and it remains one of the premier layouts in the country.
• The PGA Tour's oldest tournament (next to the U.S. Golf Association's U.S. Open) is the Western Open, staged by the Chicago-based Western Golf Associations, which -- most appropriately -- now has its headquarters in a suburb named Golf. Staged mostly in Chicago from 1899 to 2006, the Western Open tradition stays alive with its successor, the BMW Championship, which has become a fixture in the Tour's FedEx Cup playoffs.
• The first Masters tournament was won by a Chicago club pro, Oak Park's Horton Smith in 1934.
• The first U.S. Amateur was won by a Chicago resident, Charles B. Macdonald. He was also the designer of Chicago Golf Club's courses.
• The first dominant player in the U.S. was Willie Anderson, the only player to win three straight U.S. Opens (1903-05). The winner of four U.S. Opens in a five-year stretch (he also triumphed in 1901), Anderson was the club pro at Onwentsia in Lake Forest.
• Among the earliest U.S. Women's Amateur champions was Bessie Anthony, a member at Chicago's long-gone Westward Ho club. She won her title -- then the biggest available to women in American golf -- at Chicago Golf Club in 1903, making her one of golf's first hometown heroines.
Home to big events
Chicago has hosted many, many big events since. The U.S. Open has been played in Chicago 13 times at eight different courses. Chicago Golf Club and Medinah each hosted three times, and the last staging of that event at the Ryder Cup site produced extraordinary history. Hale Irwin defeated Mike Donald for the 1990 title at Medinah in the first U.S. Open decided in a sudden-death playoff.
Olympia Fields hosted the U.S. Open twice, and Onwentsia, Midlothian, Skokie, North Shore and Olympia Fields were all one-time U.S. Open venues. North Shore's staging, in 1933, resulted in the tourney's last amateur winner -- Johnny Goodman.
The U.S. Women's Open has also been played in Chicago three times, and the Solheim Cup at Rich Harvest Farms in Sugar Grove drew more than 120,000 spectators in 2009 for the biggest international event in women's golf.
The PGA Championship was Chicago-based six times at four different courses, Olympia Fields (1925 and 1961) and Medinah (1999 and 2006) both hosting twice. The first of those PGAs, though, had special local flavor as Jock Hutchison, a transplanted Scotsman, won in 1920 at Flossmoor Country Club, where he long worked as a club pro.
Chicago's major golf organizations are among the best established in the country. The Western Golf Association was organized in 1899 and still stages annual competitions for the pros (BMW Championship), adult amateurs (Western Amateur) and juniors (Western Junior).
Recently the WGA was hired to manage a Web.com Tour playoff event to be staged in Ft. Wayne, Ind., next year. The WGA also has operated a respected scholarship program for caddies, one inspired by legendary Chicago player Chick Evans in 1930. In another recent development, the WGA joined forces with the Women's Western Golf Association, which is in its 112th year and puts on some of the biggest tournaments for women amateurs.
Growing the sport
Chicago golf isn't all about tournament play, either. More than anything it's about devotion to the sport.
The Illinois Section of the PGA was formed in 1916 as one of the founding sections of the PGA of America. The Chicago District Golf Association opened its doors in 1914 and has 400 member clubs, private and public, and 82,000 members. It's one of the biggest such organizations in the country catering to amateur and recreational players.
And now comes the Ryder Cup. It'll result in the latest chapter in Chicago golf history -- and probably the biggest to boot.