In what likely will be the last time the BMW Championship is played at Cog Hill, some of the PGA Tour’s top players are not sorry to see it leave the public course south of Chicago.
The most biting comment Wednesday came from Steve Stricker, reputed to be one of the most polite players in golf.
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The BMW Championship, now in its sixth year, has its roots in the venerable Western Open, which was first played in 1916.
Stricker is among those who fell out of love with Cog Hill when Rees Jones was hired to redesign the course in 2008 in an effort to land the U.S. Open. The greens were raised. The bunkers were deepened. The course was lengthened. Steep ridges in the greens led to impossible putts for a shot that was only slightly off its mark.
Cog Hill owner Frank Jemsek didn’t get the U.S. Open, and now the BMW Championship is leaving.
“They need to get their money back, I guess,” said Stricker, who won at the old Cog Hill in 1996 when it was the Western Open held around the Fourth of July. “It’s too bad what happened here.”
Cog Hill left a sour taste last year because the course was in poor condition, the product of an unusually hot summer that was tough on golf courses throughout the Chicago area. Phil Mickelson, not a fan of anything Jones designs, said the shape of the course wasn’t the issue.
He attributed the criticism of Cog Hill to the man in charge of revamping it.
“I know we all wish it had turned out differently,” Mickelson said. “But there was a lot of other guys to choose from that probably could do the job, and maybe if they just start over, it could turn into something special. …
“But tee to green and the property, it’s got really great potential,” he added. “I’d love to see Gil Hanse or a Crenshaw-Coore or Kyle Phillips or David Kidd -- or guys that really know what they’re doing -- come in and create something special here because I think that’s what the family and this facility deserves.”
The BMW Championship, which starts Thursday, is the third FedExCup playoff event for the 70 remaining players. The top 30 in the standings after this week advance to the Tour Championship with a shot at the $10 million prize.
Geoff Ogilvy is happy to be here. He had to make birdie on the final hole of the Deutsche Bank Championship last week just to get into the top 70. It was a clutch moment, and a relief, for Ogilvy who is also trying to play his way onto the Presidents Cup team.
His reaction upon making it?
“I get rewarded with a trip to Cog Hill,” Ogilvy said, the sarcasm easy to read.
Few other players have such a keen eye on architecture than Ogilvy. His assessment last year was that if Jones wanted a course that was really hard, then he succeeded, and if he wanted one that was enjoyable to play, then he failed.
He described it Wednesday as “kind of the same as last year, just long and hard and really quite narrow in spots.”
Ultimately, that doesn’t matter. Everyone has to play the course, whether they think it’s among the best or the worst they play. Stricker and David Toms both shared stories of winning on courses they didn’t particularly enjoy at first sight -- Toms twice at Kingsmill (no longer on the schedule), Stricker at Colonial.
“It’s easier when you go to a course and you’re inspired by the course,” Ogilvy said. “Like when Phil gets to Augusta, he switches into a different mode. I’m the same. This is quite similar to a lot of courses we play on tour, so we should be used to it -- long par 3s, long, rough, don’t miss the fairway.”
The BMW Championship is run by Western Golf Association, which supports the successful Evans Scholars program for caddies. It has a history of moving around the country, which it will do starting next year.
The tournament moves to Crooked Stick in Indiana -- the Ryder Cup will be in Chicago a month later -- and it will go to Cherry Hills in Denver in 2014. It is to return to Chicago in 2013, with Conway Farms in the northern suburbs on the short list of courses.
Plenty is at stake this week, whether Cog Hill is a favorite or a course they can’t wait to leave.
Ogilvy and Ernie Els are at the lower end of the FedExCup list and need to finish among the top five or six to advance to the Tour Championship. Els has never missed going to East Lake in the FedEx Cup era.
Webb Simpson, a winner on the TPC Boston, is No. 1 in the standings and assured of being among the top five at East Lake. The leading five players only have to win the Tour Championship to collect the $10 million bonus, no matter what anyone else does.
Simpson is followed by Dustin Johnson, who won the Barclays and is the defending champion at the BMW Championship. The next three are Matt Kuchar, world No. 1 Luke Donald and Brandt Snedeker.
The other “cup” on the line is the Presidents Cup. This is the final week to qualify for the team, and it’s close on both the American and International sides. Jim Furyk is at No. 9, slightly ahead of Toms and Snedeker. On the International list, Ogilvy is at No. 10, barely ahead of Louis Oosthuizen, while Vijay Singh and the Aussie duo of Aaron Baddeley and Robert Allenby still have a chance.
Johnson won a year ago at 9-under 275, a testament to Cog Hill being hard.
“It’s in great shape this year,” Johnson said. “It’s long, it’s hard. You’re not going to go very low here, so make a lot of pars and if you can sneak in a birdie every once in a while, then you’re doing well.”
He figured the key to the week was long irons.
“There’s a few long par 4s where I hit a lot of 6-, 7- and 8-irons, 9-irons,” he said. “Those are long irons to me.”
Mickelson is No. 10 in the standings and needs a big week to give himself a chance at winning the FedExCup. He likes the way he is playing, especially after another week of practice with the belly putter, which he intends to use.
As for his feelings about Cog Hill? Mickelson can overcome that. He had a chance to win at Torrey Pines, another Jones redesign. Besides, Mickelson’s biggest beef is not how the golf course plays for the pros, rather the amateurs.
“A great golf course is … challenging for the good player but playable for the average player, and I feel like this is the exact opposite,” Mickelson said. “It’s fine for us. We don’t have any problems with it. But the average guy just can’t play it.”