Bestselling author Alan Shipnuck remembers his introduction to the WGA

In this collection of personal essays published to mark the 125th anniversary of the Western Golf Association’s founding, leading voices from the world of golf journalism share how their lives – and careers – have intersected with one of the most impactful organizations in the game.

By Alan Shipnuck
Golf Writer
Bestselling author

My first time covering the Western Open came in 1997. I was 24, enjoying my first full season on the golf beat for Sports Illustrated. I still remember being awed by the scale of Cog Hill — all those ribbons of fairway stretching to the horizon. For that week in July, the Western Open once again felt like the center of the golf world. Tiger Woods was less than three months removed from his record-smashing, game-changing win at the Masters, and he electrified Cog Hill with a gritty Sunday comeback to earn his sixth PGA Tour victory. (76 more would follow.) As Woods strolled up the 72nd fairway a couple thousand fans ducked under the ropes and followed him home, as if it were the last hole of the Open Championship. I was part of this joyous, delirious, sweaty mob and it remains a favorite memory from all of my years shadowing Tiger. My deadline story about Woods’ win appeared in the national edition of Sports Illustrated, one of the rare times golf landed in that prized real estate outside of the major championships. My editors loved the piece and that helped me get better assignments going forward.

That week I stayed at a Hyatt in Oak Brook and most of the players were in the same hotel or nearby. At night the golfers haunted the nicer chain restaurants in the neighborhood and thus began my career-long fascination of being an armchair anthropologist observing the players in non-native environments. On a couple of nights I fought my way downtown to indulge in the Taste of Chicago. As I gorged myself with all manner of local delicacies I kept coming back to one thought: I can’t believe someone is paying me to do this!

Woods and Cog Hill elevated each other’s reputation — by 2003 he had won there two more times, his dominance setting the agenda for the ensuing Open Championships. Returning again and again to the Western Open forced me to learn its rich history. With the zealotry of the recently converted I enjoyed lecturing readers that in the 1930s and ’40s the Western Open was a bigger deal than the Masters! Did you know that Walter Hagen won it five times? What, you haven’t heard of Chick Evans? For shame! He’s only the most important amateur golfer this side of Bobby Jones.

In those days I covered a couple dozen tournaments per year, and all the hotel rooms and golf courses could blend together. But the Western Open always stood out because of the folks who gave the tournament its heartbeat: the colorful old-timers at the Western Golf Association and the fresh-faced Evans Scholars. The WGA folks oozed pride and purpose, while the Evans kids radiated gratitude. On the PGA Tour there is always a lot of talk about charity but the Western Open felt unique in that many of the young beneficiaries were on-site working as volunteers, including some very helpful go-fers in the press room.

The advent of the FedEx Cup in 2007 forced the tournament to be rebranded and eventually leave Cog Hill in 2012 (though not before Woods had won two more of the reconfigured BMW Championships). I haven’t been back to Cog Hill in over a decade, which is my loss. But like Tiger, I will always have very fond memories of a tournament and a city that had an indelible impact on my career.