LAKE FOREST, Ill. – The clouds darkened and rolled, whipping the flags atop the grandstand around the ninth green at Conway Farms Golf Club one way and the flag on the pin another as Steve Stricker studied his approach, forcing him to back off on several occasions.
His shot into his final hole of the day sailed the green with a low trajectory, but he got up-and-down for par to card a 5-under 66 on Thursday in the first round of the BMW Championship, staying within shouting distance of playing partner and first round leader Brandt Snedeker (63).
"There's a lot of birdie holes out there, but the wind started to kick up, too, so it made club selection kind of difficult," he said. "So you had to kind of pay attention and be careful at times, but a good start to the tournament."
The wind was the only defense for Conway Farms, a private facility less than 60 miles south of Milwaukee.
"That’s what everybody says is the defense of this course," Stricker said.
"Yeah – the wind is all they’ve got," added Tiger Woods, who played behind Stricker’s group and matched him with a 66.
It is the home course to Luke Donald, the world’s former No. 1 player, and several have played it casually, but another defense (at least for a day) was the fact that many players saw the course for the first time this week. With benign conditions for most of Thursday, only 28 of the 70 players in the field shot under par.
Another 10 players shot an even par 71.
Then there were players like Scott Piercy (81), Lee Westwood (80), Matt Every (79), Rory McIlroy and Charley Hoffman (78) and Rickie Fowler (77) who struggled mightily.
"There's just a few spots you can't hit it, and I'm sure they hit it in those spots," said Illinois native Kevin Streelman, who had played Conway Farms casually and who matched Stricker, Tiger Woods and Charl Schwartzel with a 66. "There's just a couple holes out there that can really bite you if you hit it in the wrong spot. The same holes you hit them in the right spot you can attack and make birdies."
It served as a quasi-homecoming for Stricker as well, with plenty of Wisconsinites and University of Illinois supporters following him, Snedeker and reigning U.S. Open champion Justin Rose.
"Yeah, there were a lot of people out there today," he said. "I got a lot of shout-outs from Wisconsin and Illinois, too, but I think the crowd was kind of getting ahead because of who was behind us."
With that he smiled and was shooed away – such is life when the world No. 1 trails you to the podium.
The BMW Championship is run by the Western Golf Association, and this tournament was once known as the Western Open – a version of the tournament Stricker won back in 1996. Now, nearly 20 years later, he’s knocking on the door of his 100th career top 10 finish and 13th PGA Tour victory – even though he scaled back his schedule this year.
Stricker, Rose and Snedeker tee off Friday at 11:48 a.m. off the first hole. Woods and FedEx Cup points leader Henrik Stenson – along with Masters champion Adam Scott – will follow in the group behind.
Final thought: If you’re a fan of any of the 70 players in the field, it’s worth making the short trip down to Conway Farms this weekend. The galleries will not be as big as you’d normally expect for tournament boasting the likes of Woods, McIlroy, Phil Mickelson and recent major champions like Rose, Scott, Jason Dufner, Ernie Els, Bubba Watson.
While Conway Farms was not designed to host professional tournaments – it has a lengthy amateur history – it is walkable and there are some great viewing areas. The players were also amenable to signing autographs after their rounds or interacting with fans in the galleries.
Two highlights I witnessed were Rose hitting out of the gallery on the fifth hole, and rather than cutting right back inside the ropes to the fairway, he walked and talked with fans through the rough. Then, Sergio Garcia spotted a toddler in the arms of his father walking off the ninth green and tossed the dad an autographed ball.
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