July 24, 2007

Still Thriving

Tradition, challenge help the Western Amateur maintain its prestige after 105 years

Simply say the Western Amateur to any competitive male golfer from the last few decades and chances are you will get a standard reaction, likely in the form of a short sigh and long shake of the head. The tournament's brutal schedule, eight rounds in five days for the eventual winner, has become legend in amateur circles, causing exhilaration for some and nightmares for others.

Nevertheless, when the 105th edition of the country's second oldest amateur tournament -- only the U.S. Amateur is its senior, by four years -- begins next week at Point O'Woods G&CC in Benton Harbor, Mich., it will again have one of the strongest fields of the summer. With dozens of events popping up on the calendar in recent years, the Western has kept its place among the elite thanks to its niche as one of the best tests of the year on one of the top courses.

"It's the most prestigious amateur venue in the U.S. behind the USGA event," contends career amateur Trip Kuehne, the 2001 runner-up.

No doubt the tournament's past has much to do with its continued success. "It really has a lot of history and tradition," notes tournament director John Kaczkowski. "If you look at the trophy, you've got names like Francis Ouimet, Jack Nicklaus, Ben Crenshaw, Phil Mickelson and Tiger Woods, so it certainly has a lot of linkage to past champions and current players on the PGA Tour. It means a lot to players to have their name on that trophy."

Other notable past winners include Chick Evans, Curtis Strange, Hal Sutton, Lanny Wadkins and Tom Weiskopf. While previously rotating among cities in the Midwest, the Western has been at Point O'Woods, near Lake Michigan's eastern shore, since 1971. The tournament's rich history is not lost on its contestants. A room at the clubhouse showcases memorabilia and photos from past Westerns. The tournament's host, the Western Golf Association, and club officials have an annual dinner for match-play qualifiers and present them with a book on the tournament's history. "We always point out 1980, when six of the players went on to win major championships," Kaczkowski says. "And we tell them, 'If you look at the past 13 years, there has been at least one guy in this room [who has eventually] won a major or the U.S. Amateur. Just look around, guys, because it's going to be one of you.' "

The Western's infamous format, too, makes the tournament stand out. After 72 holes of stroke play over three days, the field shrinks to 16 for four rounds of match play contested over two days.

The demanding schedule scares off more mid-amateurs than it attracts, althugh occasionally a career amateur will prevail, such as Danny Green, who holds the modern-day record with nine Sweet 16 appearances, his last coming two years ago at age 49. "It's mainly a college, young-kids tournament," Green says. "They have an endurance [advantage] over an older guy."

Tim Cronin, author of the WGA's A Century of Golf, says the most memorable match in recent history was when Oklahoma State's Chris Tidland extended Woods, then an incoming freshman at Stanford, in the 1994 quarterfinals to extra holes with a chip-in from 60 feet on the 18th after being 4 down at one point. Woods then watched Tidland make a birdie on the second playoff hole.

"At that point you might think, 'Oh, [Woods is] going to collapse,' " Cronin recalls. "Then bang, he knocks down a 20-foot downhill breaker to win the match with an eagle." Club members still participate in the tournament, but fan attendance -- during the 1970s the Western boasting crowds of about 18,000 -- has dwindled in recent years. Still, the level of competition has increased, a development Kaczkowski hopes to build on.

"The volume of international players who have played and played well has grown in the last 10 years," Kaczkowski says. Case in point: Last year's winner, Bronson La'Cassie, was the first Australian to take the title in tournament history.

So what's the key to keeping the tournament relevant with so many events competing for players? Says Kaczkowski: "You've got to keep in tune with the game and try to communicate to the top up-and-coming players."

It's a formula he believes will keep future competitors sighing and shaking their heads for years to come.