BENTON TOWNSHIP — It all came down to timing and historical ties.
In January 2014, the Point O’Woods Golf & Country Club and the Western Golf Association entered into an agreement to bring back the world’s top amateur golfers to Southwest Michigan for the 117th Western Amateur in 2019.
“I think it’s been something on the WGA’s radar for awhile,” said Matt Flaherty, head golf professional at Point O’Woods. “We had a 40-year history with it. As they were moving it around Chicagoland, there were discussions around the timing and fit with our membership and the WGA.
“It was also time to bring it back home.”
Monday is the practice round, with tournament action beginning early Tuesday. The semi-finals and final round will take place Saturday.
In its heyday, the Western Am at the Point drew spectators into the thousands.
The tournament reached its apex in the early 1990s, when then-NBA player Michael Jordan took part in the Western Am, and Phil Mickelson and Tiger Woods won at the Benton Township golf course in 1991 and 1994, respectively.
But then attendance numbers for the tournament dwindled significantly in the later years at the private club, which hosted 40 Western Amateurs between 1963 and 2008.
Eleven years later, the tournament has found a rejuvenated interest in the area. History is the biggest reason for the tournament’s return, Flaherty said.
“The golf course has always been one of the biggest tests to identify the best amateur golfer,” he said. “Not that some of these other places didn’t. Knowing the history here and the champions we’ve had, it was the perfect timing.”
Bruce Pfaff, Point O’Woods tournament chair for the Western Am, said bringing the tournament back every year is not in either side’s best interest.
However, club officials got the call from the WGA five years ago and were keen to the idea.
“The WGA asked us to return to the rotation and we enthusiastically agreed,” Pfaff said. “The first date we couldn’t do because there was a conflict. But we suggested 2019 and that was chosen.”
Three of Point’s club members sit on the Board of Directors for the Western Golf Association.
Pfaff said they continued to remind the WGA that “we should be considered.”
The Western Amateur, since its inception in 1899, has been regarded as one of the top amateur golf events in the world. Only the British Amateur (1885) and U.S. Amateur (1895) are older.
According to Herald-Palladium archives, the first Western Am tournament to be held at Point O’Woods was in August 1963.
“The players loved it. This golf course in late ’60s and early ’70s was referred to as ‘a monster,’” Flaherty said. “With changes to the equipment and techniques, we might see some lower scores now. Back then, hardly anyone could make par.”
In addition to low attendance numbers in the 2000s, the golf club also faced pressure from club members, who saw the weeklong tournament as a drain on the already short golf season in Southwest Michigan.
As a result, the WGA moved the storied championship from the Point to a rotation of Chicago area clubs, starting in 2009.
So now the plan is for the Point to host the Western Am on a cyclical basis.
“Our season is so short. To lose the course for seven to 10 days every year was taxing,” Flaherty said. “Now we’re looking at potentially hosting it on a five- to six-year cycle. That way it’s not too intrusive.”
That seems to be in line with the WGA, as the tournament has its next five years set.
Like anything, time can heal anything.
“I know from speaking with PGA people that they very much appreciated what we’d done in the past and felt it was a long time coming to bring it back,” Pfaff said. “We were very, very flattered because there are a lot of courses that would like to host the tournament.”
A new pairing
In preparation for the Western Am, club officials attended last year’s tournament to get a handle on what would go into hosting it again.
Flaherty traveled to the Western Am the past few tournaments to understand what his responsibilities would be. Pfaff said he has a sense of how it should run as he sat in on a couple of the host club’s meetings last year.
“Their committee was nice enough to let us observe,” Pfaff said. “I got a very good flavor of how they ran the tournament.”
The Point held its first committee meeting in January this year – a month after it was formed.
The committee has since met on a monthly basis to coordinate volunteers and sponsorships, Pfaff said.
While no one expects the tournament to draw spectators like it did in the 1980s and ‘90s, Flaherty said it is his hope the Western Am can bring in 1,500 to 2,000 people over the course of the five-day event.
Above all else, Flaherty looks forward to seeing the talent on display.
“The highlight of this tournament will be watching the future players of the PGA tour,” Flaherty said. “We’ll probably have three to five of them on the PGA Tour next year, with many others working their way there.”
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