BMW Championship Presents Opportunity For Golf-Starved Baltimore Market

Caves Valley Golf Club sits hidden in a quiet part of Owings Mills, Md., some 20 minutes from the heart of Baltimore. You won’t see it through the woods until you enter the property. But its grandeur is immediately striking — the course weaves through rolling terrain and features great spectator viewing angles at nearly every turn. It’s a picturesque layout primed to host championship golf.

The club has hosted plenty of prestigious events since its 1991 opening, from the U.S. Senior Open in 2002 and the Senior Players Championship in 2017 to the 1995 U.S. Mid-Amateur, 2009 NCAA Women’s Division I Championship and 2014 International Crown on the LPGA Tour. This summer, though, Caves Valley will finally become a PGA Tour venue when it hosts the BMW Championship from Aug. 26-29.

The Baltimore area is a golf-starved market, having last hosted a PGA Tour event in 1962. The Western Golf Association, which operates the BMW Championship, knows this event provides a chance to capitalize on that and to expand its charitable endeavors to the region. For Caves Valley, it’s a chance to showcase the course to an international audience and see how it tests the best golfers in the world.

“We’ve spent [more than a year] working hard on the golf course,” Caves Valley chairman Steve Fader said. “The course has gone through its renovations … and we’re in great shape. We’re hoping the weather cooperates and we have a great tournament week.”

The process for Caves Valley becoming a host venue began more than five years ago, when a BMW representative who had recently played the course asked Fader if the club would have interest in hosting. That started the conversation, and while the decision also required approval from the WGA and the PGA Tour, Caves Valley was announced as the host of the 2021 event in February 2020.

As is often the case when a club hosts a Tour event, the course was updated to prepare for the tournament. Caves Valley’s original plan was to add eight new tees and seven new bunkers, but the club ultimately rebuilt every bunker on the course with up-to-date technology as well. There were a smattering of other alterations, some of which were suggested by the PGA Tour.

“We changed some contours of some holes. We pinched a couple of fairways. The PGA Tour is very much involved in the way the course will play and the course setup, so we’ve been following their directions,” Fader said. “And we’re working hard on the agronomy, the things that you don’t see — there has been an entirely new irrigation system that’s been put in. So the golf course is absolutely magnificent and I think it’s going to just play spectacularly in August.”

When Caves Valley hosts high-profile events, it flips the front nine and back nine for the tournament routing. The course’s regular front nine is generally more wide open, presenting a better chance to pack fans in than the tree-lined back nine. The switch also provides a more dramatic finish — No. 16 will be a par-5 reachable in two for tour pros, No. 17 is a par-3 over water and No. 18 is a scenic par-4 with a creek running along the right side and a natural amphitheatre flanking the green to the left.

The Western Golf Association has run this tournament since 1899, making it the third-oldest PGA Tour event behind only the British Open and U.S. Open. The Western Open, as it was known from 1899-2006, became the BMW Championship in 2007 and is the penultimate event of the FedEx Cup Playoffs. The field consists of the top 70 players in the FedEx Cup points standings, with the top 30 advancing to the following week’s Tour Championship. It’s a no-cut event, so fans will have four days to see their favorite players.

While the WGA is headquartered in Glenview, Ill., and the tournament has traditionally been held in or around Chicago, it has branched out into several other markets in recent years, such as St. Louis, Denver and Philadelphia. (The 2022 event will be held at Wilmington Country Club in Delaware.) These are all markets that, like Baltimore, don’t have a regular spot on the Tour calendar, but have more than enough golf fans to fill the house when an event does come to town.

“The benefits [of moving around] are taking one of the best PGA Tour events on the schedule to a market that doesn’t have a PGA Tour event annually,” said Vince Pellegrino, the WGA’s senior vice president of tournaments. “And so when we do come, the support is absolutely tremendous from the corporate community and the volunteerism and, quite frankly, from the local and state and county officials as well. They understand that this is an economic driver for the area, and they’ve been extremely supportive in Baltimore County.”

Bringing the tournament to new markets also allows expanded reach and awareness for the Evans Scholars Foundation, the sole charitable beneficiary of the event. The foundation, founded in 1930 and operated by the WGA, provides young caddies with full-tuition college scholarships. There were 1,045 Evans Scholars at 19 universities nationwide for the 2020-21 school year, and more than 11,000 scholars have come through the program in its history. Pellegrino is one of them.

The Caves Valley Foundation, in partnership with the WGA, is funding an Evans Scholars house at the University of Maryland. While that’s still in the planning stages, the program will send its first two scholars to College Park this fall. The foundation developed a similar plan at Penn State in conjunction with the 2018 BMW Championship at Aronimink Golf Club just outside Philadelphia.

“The power of creating opportunities for men and women with these full-tuition and housing college scholarships, that’s powerful for us,” said Brian Shell, the WGA’s vice president of education. “Our goal is to really create more opportunities for these deserving men and women, ultimately as Evans Scholars, but certainly beyond that is showing the community and the greater golf community that caddying is a great opportunity for these boys and girls, and if they qualify for the Evans Scholarship, that’s a life-changing part of their life.”

When the championship arrives, the stakes will be high for the players. Those outside the top 30 in points after the event will be eliminated from the playoffs, and Ryder Cup captain’s picks will be announced the Monday following the tournament. But the stakes might be higher for the course and city, which are looking to establish themselves as deserving of more events like this.

Pellegrino said Baltimore has lived up to its reputation as a strong sports town so far, from the support of the corporate community to the more than 2,000 volunteers who signed up within 10 days of those opportunities becoming available. And while Caves Valley’s layout features several birdie holes for the pros, plenty of challenges await as well.

“It’s going to be a big week for Baltimore and Caves Valley to be looked upon as a viable golf community and a viable golf course for the best players in the world,” said Steve Sands, who will be part of Golf Channel and NBC’s coverage of the event. “I think it’s going to be a home run and it should be.

“Golf belongs at this level on a regular basis in the D.C., Maryland, Virginia area. And as a homer, a guy from D.C., from Maryland, it bothers me that there’s not a regular PGA Tour stop there. … I think it’s going to be supported really well financially and on a personal level from fans. And I think it’s going to be a big, big week for them to showcase what they can do on a larger stage if they’re given the opportunity.”

It’s still unclear how close to full capacity the tournament will operate. After golf returned with no fans for most of 2020, tournaments this year are continuing to look more normal. With vaccines widely available and Maryland continuing to lift restrictions, there’s optimism that Caves Valley will host 25,000 to 30,000 people per day during the week.

“We’re continuing to plan for a championship that’ll be more like the 2019 championship than the 2020 event,” Pellegrino said. “All indications are that fans are ready to see the best players in the world up close, so hopefully we can provide that stage for them.”

Photo Credit: Thomas Kendziora/PressBox

Issue 269: June/July 2021

Thomas Kendziora

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