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October 1, 2015

Conway Farms Debuts Practice Range Renovation at BMW Championship

Tour player reactions to the newly renovated facilities

BY: LEN ZIEHM

PGA Tour players see a lot of golf courses and, somewhat amazingly, they generally remember what most of them look like. That wasn’t quite the case when the top 70 players in the FedEx Cup Playoffs gathered at Conway Farms in Lake Forest, Illinois, in September for the BMW Championship. Conway Farms was the site of the tournament just two years before, but even a star the magnitude of Rory McIlroy had to admit “it’s much different than how I remembered it.’’

Conway’s membership closed the course in April of 2014 and closed its practice range three months later. Both re-opened in late May of this year, and the BMW Championship was somewhat of a coming-out party for the club to show what had been done since it was last seen by the public in 2013.

There was some work done on the course, and the golf shop and caddie house also were upgraded. What made the place look so much different, though, was what was done on the practice facilities. Players noticed it right away and spectators who had attended in 2013 were stunned immediately upon entering the gates. “It’s a beautiful place,” said Jordan Spieth. “We like coming here, it’s top-notch.” Phil Mickelson called the setup “wonderful.” Zac Blair, one of the youngest qualifiers for the tournament, was even more descriptive. “It has the best short game place I’ve ever seen,’’ said Blair. “No wonder Luke Donald is the best short game player in the world.”

Donald, who didn’t qualify for this year’s BMW Championship, is a former world No. 1 as well as a Conway member. He gave considerable input to director of golf Jeff Mory and architect Dennis Wise during the building process. “Luke had a lot to do with it,” said Mory. “He was super-interested in the driving range but intimately interested in what the short game area should be.” “Luke has a very keen eye,” added Wise, who was the on-course architect for designer Tom Fazio when the private facility was built in time for a 1991 opening. “He’s a tremendous artist. He can see it in the dirt. He had some great impact.”

Conway, which will also host the BMW Championship in 2017, was in need of some upgrades after the 2013 tournament. The course was re-grassed and cart paths were expanded on the walking-only course just to facilitate spectator traffic. Spectator viewing was also improved, and Wise added new tees on nine holes, tweaked some bunkers and made some strategic changes to the short par-4 15th hole.

More eye-catching, however, was what he did to the practice facilities. The practice tee was enlarged by almost 50 percent, from 40,000 square feet to 75,000. That enlargement necessitated the building of a new putting green, one that was also notably bigger than the old one.

“We wanted one with enough size for an event like (the BMW Championship), ” said Mory. “We went from 6,500 square feet to one that’s over 10,000.”

The highly regarded new short game area includes two bentgrass practice greens that total 15,000 square feet, plus another half acre of practice area space. Mory stressed though, that the expanded practice facility wasn’t created to please the touring professionals.

“We didn’t expand the range just so Dustin Johnson could hit drivers,’’ said Mory. “While the project was expensive, it was valuable for the day-to-day enjoyment of the members. So many clubs in Chicago don’t have the land or the opportunity to do what we did. This was a reinvestment in things that are great for our club.”

Wise, based in Scottsdale, Arizona, worked for the late Larry Packard in the Chicago area from 1979 to 1985 before joining Fazio. He started his own business, Dennis Wise Golf Course Design, in 2012. In his just-completed project he had to accommodate the needs of members, tour players and the Conway teaching staff – one that features Mory and included the renowned Dr. Jim Suttie during the last summer months. He succeeded on all counts.

“In those three acres we didn’t leave anything on the table, and the players echoed that,” said Wise, after spending a week around the club while the PGA Tour stars were in town. “The tour players loved it, and the members absolutely loved it.”