There’s an old axiom that’s quite straightforward — “Remember the golden rule — he who has the gold makes the rules.“
This week’s BMW Championship, the second leg of the FedEx Cup Playoffs, is a glaring example of how golf’s historic past is swiftly pushed under the rug because tournament sponsorship reigns supreme.
Prior to 2007 — this week’s event had a simple and clear identity — the Western Open. The event’s origins harken back to 1899 — only four years after the start of the United States Open Championship. The Western Open was one of the most sought-after titles in all of golf. Keep in mind, two of the other major events on American soil came on the scene a number of years later — the PGA Championship starting in 1916 and The Masters which commenced in 1934.
The names of the golfers who won the Western Open over the years covers nearly all the game’s greatest champions from the likes of Chick Evans, Walter Hagen, Gene Sarazen, Byron Nelson, Ben Hogan, Sam Snead, Arnold Palmer, Billy Casper, Jack Nicklaus, to name just a few.
This week in 1971 that Olympia Fields last hosted the Western Open with Bruce Crampton coming out the winner. And next summer, 100 years after our first turn as host, the @wgaesf is coming back to OFCC for the penultimate event in the FedEx Cup Playoffs! Now that’s a #TBT. 🏌🏻 pic.twitter.com/9uKWhL5UF9— Olympia Fields CC (@OFCCClubhouse) July 18, 2019
Before the terminology of “major championships” was established with media and followers of the game it was clear the Western Open was one of the most cherished titles to capture — on an equal level with the US Open and PGA Championship. The legendary Walter Hagen won the event five times and if modern bean counters were fair in numbering total majors won, the Haig would have a most impressive total of 16 — one more than Tiger Woods and just two behind Nicklaus.
As the years progressed and professional golf blossomed it was clear players were looking for more lucrative payouts. Without question, the ascension of sponsorships was going to be the driving force in professional golf as it has in all other sports.
The Western Open maintained its name without any overt sponsorship connection through 1986. From 1987 thru 2006 a total of seven sponsors fixed their respective names with the Western Open in the title.
That changed in 2007 when BMW came with its engines roaring and wallet open.
The PGA TOUR understands the value and meaning of the two words that matter most in professional golf — who pays? The Western Golf Association, which runs the event, bowed to the pressures at-hand. No longer would the sponsor share equal billing — but instead would be the official name period.
So much for history.
Did any players protest when this happened? Not at all.
Does any of this truly matter?
For many the short answer is — no.
Gainbridge LPGA R1
Technically, the winner of the BMW event is the Western Open champion but you won’t see any mention of that because media is now conditioned to simply regurgitate what the event is called by the presenting group. Watch the telecast and you will see BMW plastered about at just about any camera angle. The same can be said of the broadcasters. It’s as if the Western Open really never existed. What’s lamentable is that during a telecast of Golf Channel highlighting past times Olympic Fields hosted the event they added the BMW connection to championships predating the 2007 corporate takeover. So much for history. So much for accuracy.
Down the line there may be other title corrections coming. Will any of the four major championships change their official title? Right now — it’s highly unlikely. But, circumstances can and do change in sports and life. Money drives the bottom line and no elite level sports organization can simply chuck aside the priorities of those putting up the big-time bucks.
Fortunately, the event has still tried to keep its connection to the immediate Chicago area. However, it was laughable just a few years ago when the BMW — oops, I mean the Western Open — actually went east to the Philadelphia area and was staged at Aronimink. In 2021, the event will once again head east to Caves Valley just outside of Baltimore.
Sponsorships are a fundamental reality to all professional sports and naming rights are central to any company’s marketing and branding efforts.
Those on the sports side generally, and golf specifically, are fully aware of the situation and frankly have little desire to stem the tide.
The Western Open still lives on. Albeit in the dark shadows.