This could be the start of something big.
Pro golf tour stops were commonplace in Chicago for decades, but not lately. The arrival of the Encompass Championship, which ended its 54-hole run at North Shore Country Club in Glenview on Sunday, changed all that.
Craig Stadler, the 1982 Masters champion but winless in eight years on the 50-and-over circuit, scored a breakthrough victory on a course that drew raves from all the players. The event had a celebrity component for a two-day pro-am, which helped bring in sizable, supportive galleries. Everything was positive.
Insurance company sponsor Encompass was happy. North Shore members were happy, and the players were happy. Encompass has a contract to hold the event at North Shore next year and an option to do it again in 2015.
"Based on this year, we want to stay here for a long time," said Encompass president Tom Ealy. So be it.
The field –- 28 of the top 30 on the season money list –- was one of the best on the Champions Tour this season. Fred Couples was the runner-up to Stadler and luminaries like Mark Calcavecchia, Bernhard Langer, David Frost, Hale Irwin and Bernhard Langer joined with Chicago area residents Jeff Sluman and Chip Beck to rally support for an event that was hampered by a 3-hour 28-minute rain delay on opening day and the Blackhawks’ captivating Stanley Cup playoff run, which diverted attention from the golf.
Still, the story line for the week was a good one. Stadler’s comeback victory was both surprising and inspiring. Stadler, who hadn’t even contended in a tournament since 2007 after a series of health problems, had a five-shot lead after playing his first six holes in the final round.
That big lead wasn’t safe, as it turned out, and the finish was filled with drama. A combination of Fred Couples’ birdies and Stadler’s own shaky play turned the tourney into a gritty battle down the stretch, and Stadler’s win wasn’t assured until he rolled in a breaking 12-foot par putt on the 18th green to complete a sand save.
Stadler, 60, underwent hip replacement surgery in 2010 and also had problems with his back and foot, but health concerns were only part of his problem in recent years. His game, once good enough to win the 1982 Masters, soured until he paid a visit to California-based swing guru Billy Harmon when he was on the brink of quitting. Harmon revived Stadler’s career by changing his setup, his alignment and his grip. In other words, it was a complete makeover that isn’t done yet.
"It’s been all new stuff now," said Stadler. "It’s been about a six-week process of totally changing my whole golf game, revamping everything. I’m not sure this is the fruition of it yet, because I putted just phenomenally well until the back nine (on Sunday). If I keep putting well it doesn’t matter how I hit the ball."
For a week at least, that mindset worked.
Stadler dominated Chicago’s first Champions Tour event since 2002. He was in a three-way tie for the first round lead, was two strokes ahead after two rounds and was at the top of the leaderboard throughout the final 18.
He made birdies on his first two holes on Sunday and added two more at Nos. 5 and 6. Then he had some shaky moments before he posting a 71 and a winning 13-under-par 203 total for the 54 holes. Couples applied the most pressure, making birdies on his first three holes and getting to 7-under for the day on the 14th.
Frost, Langer, Mark O’Meara and Sluman –- one of Stadler’s playing partners in the final threesome –- all had chances to catch Stadler but none did. That quartet ended in a tie for third, one stroke behind Couples.
Couples had the best chance to catch Stadler. He arrived at the 18th tee one behind Stadler, who had made bogeys at Nos. 12, 14 and 15 and was struggling four groups back. Couples put his tee shot in the fairway but his 9-iron second at the par-4 wound up in a green-side bunker.
"A pretty simple shot," said Couples. "I call it a shank. It wasn’t very good."
His bunker shot wasn’t very good, either. "I just hit it too soft," said Couples, who couldn’t save par and settled for a 66 –- the best score of the day.
Even then Couples still had a chance, and headed for the practice range to warm up in the eventuality of a playoff. That looked like a distinct possibility when Stadler’s second at the 18th also found a bunker. He got out, to 12 feet, and faced a left-to-right downhill putt with a six-seven inch break.
"It looked really familiar to the putt I made a billion years ago (actually 1992) at Akron," said Stadler. "I talked to myself -- 'you made that one, make this one, what the heck.'"
The putt went in for the ninth Champions Tour win of Stadler’s career and first since his marriage to wife Jan three years ago. ``Her whole family’s here, probably 10 of them, so it was very special,’’ Stadler said.
From a previous marriage Stadler has two sons – Kevin, who plays on the PGA Tour, and Chris, who played football at Lake Forest College. Sunday’s win earned Stadler $270,000 from a $1.8 million purse.
"Craig made a few bogeys down the stretch, but clearly he was the class of the field," said Sluman. "He played great, hit some wonderful shots, putted great. That putt on 18 was really, really important to him, and the crowd was pulling for him. I couldn’t be happier for him."
The Encompass was just the start of a Chicago golf season that won’t have as big an event as last year, when the Ryder Cup was played at Medinah in September. The tournament schedule, though, is much better balanced than it’s been in years. There’s plenty of great golf on the horizon in the next few months.
On successive weeks are a flood of significant events. This week the 80th Illinois Women’s Amateur has a Tuesday-Friday (June 25-28) run at Cantigny in Wheaton. Then the PGA Tour’s John Deere Classic will be staged July 11-14 at TPC Deere Run in the Quad Cities.
After that biggie there’s the 84th Illinois State Amateur July 16-18 at Aldeen, in Rockford, and the Illinois Open July 22-24 at The Glen Club in Glenview.
July wraps up with the Illinois Women’s Open July 31-Aug. 2 at Mistwood, in Romeoville, and the Illinois PGA Championship concludes the big state competitions Aug. 26-28 at Olympia Fields.
While the Encompass Championship provided a big bang to the start of the tournament season, the BMW Championship provides a spectacular conclusion. A FedEx Cup playoff event on the PGA Tour, it moves from Cog Hill in Lemont to Conway Farms in Lake Forest this year with Sept. 12-15 dates.