With no sponsorship, Senior PGA marked the end of an era in this part of Michigan

BENTON HARBOR, Mich. — When the final putt dropped in the KitchenAid Senior PGA Championship at the Golf Club of Harbor Shores on May 26 — ironically, the Sunday of Memorial Day weekend and won by England’s Richard Bland — there might have been a few tears running down cheeks of golfers and golf fans in the Michigan and Indiana region known as Michiana.

You can count mine among them. Tears are already welling in my eyes as I write.

On and off since 1963 — with some breaks in between — driving any compass point in Michiana into southwestern Michigan’s glorious fruit belt to watch this grand game has been a relaxing and enjoyable experience.

Watching future greats play in the Western Amateur at Point O’Woods Golf & Country Club near Millburg and then seeing many of them return many years later to compete in the Senior PGA at Harbor Shores in Benton Harbor — two great courses in Berrien County separated by a little under eight miles — have provided wonderful bookends to almost a half-century of golf memories.

It doesn’t matter whether the trip lasted 42 miles from South Bend via M-140 and then down Territorial Road into Millburg and a short jaunt north up Roslin Road to Point O’Woods, the tree-lined design of noted architect Robert Trent Jones Sr. that was home to 41 Western Amateur championships, 38 in a row beginning in 1971.

The same is also true of the 40-mile drive from South Bend via the St. Joseph Valley Parkway (U.S. 31) through acres and acres of farmlands to Harbor Shores in Benton Harbor. Situated on reclaimed Whirlpool Corporation properties through which the Paw Paw River meanders and with three holes built along the dunes of Lake Michigan, this Jack Nicklaus design hosted its sixth and final Senior PGA May 23-26. Whirlpool, parent of Kitchenaid, announced they would not continue their sponsorship of the event.

Now, our future golfing springs and summers will never be the same. To paraphrase “Caddyshack” greenskeeper Carl Spackler (actor Bill Murray): “Au Revoir, Golfers.”

My first visit to Point O’Woods occurred during the “Sweet Sixteen” weekend of the 1975 tournament when another assigned staffer at the Niles Daily Star could not work. The winner was the late Andy Bean, a 6-foot-4 recent Florida graduate who, we all learned, once bit the cover off a golf ball after three-putting during a college match against Jay Haas.

Bean, who beat Randy Simmons 1 up for the Western title, enjoyed a memorable PGA Tour career as did others from the “Sweet Sixteen” that year — Peter Jacobsen, Mike Reid and Curtis Strange. Another “Sweet Sixteen” member that year was Fred Ridley, a Gators teammate of Bean who later won the U.S. Amateur, became a lawyer and is now the chairman of Augusta National and the Masters.

The late Tom Weiskopf won the first Western Amateur at the Point in 1963, and Strange’s 1974 “double” — he won 72-hole stroke-play medal before winning four 18-hole matches for the overall title — followed Ben Crenshaw’s 1973 title sweep.

Tom Weiskopf, shown here at the Augusta National Golf Course during the 1983 Masters, won the first Western Amateur in 1963. Mandatory Credit: Lannis Waters -The Augusta Chronicle via USA TODAY NETWORK

That “double” would later be matched by Rick Fehr (1982), Scott Verplank (1985), Phil Mickelson (1991), Joel Kribel (1996), Steve Scott (1999), Bubba Dickerson (2001) and Danny Lee, whose 2008 “double” coincided with the end of the Point’s 38-year run. When the Western Golf Association returned in 2019, Canadian Garrett Rank, a 31-year-old NHL referee, beat Daniel Wetterich, 3 and 2, for the title.

Mickelson, an Arizona State golfer who won on the PGA Tour earlier in 1991, completed his Western Amateur “double” by beating 19-year-old University of Texas up-and-comer Justin Leonard, 2 and 1. Leonard, who later won the 1997 Open Championship and made the winning putt for Capt. Crenshaw’s winning 1999 U.S. Ryder Cup team, completed a Western Amateur “double” of a different sort – back-to-back titles, matching Hal Sutton’s effort in 1979 and ’80. Leonard won titles in 1992 and ’93, and in 2018, he was named a special honorary member of the Point.

In 1994, the Western Amateur was won by an 18-year-old recent high school graduate – Eldrick Tont “Tiger” Woods, who then was told by father Earl to sign autographs for the dozens of African-American youngsters who followed him.

You just never knew who you would encounter walking “The Point.” In 1991, NBA great Michael Jordan of the Chicago Bulls was paired for the first two rounds with Mickelson and local Chris Smith of Rochester, Ind., a former Western Junior champion. Baseball home-run smasher Mark McGwire played the first two rounds of the 2004 tournament with current PGA Tour member Kevin Kisner.

And, yes, that was former Masters champion Craig Stadler, a 1973 “Sweet Sixteen” qualifier, carrying the bag for son Kevin during the hot and humid days of the 1998 tournament.

Johnny Miller, then NBC’s lead golf analyst, shared his microphone skills for WSJM radio’s broadcasts during son Andy’s “Sweet Sixteen” championship matches in 1997 and ’99.

And who can forget the 1985 sighting of a Golden Bear? Nicklaus, then on a diet, flew up daily from Dublin, Ohio, to watch son Jackie play that year. While in Millburg, Jack cheated on his diet, enjoying the homemade butter pecan ice cream sold by the first tee. The following spring, Nicklaus donned the Masters green jacket for a sixth time.

Jack Nicklaus smiles after teeing off on the fourth hole during the Champions for Change Golf Challenge at Harbor Shores Golf Club in Benton Harbor, Mich., Aug. 10, 2010.

Nicklaus later returned to design Harbor Shores, and for its grand opening on Aug. 10, 2010, he invited Miller, Tom Watson and Arnold Palmer to tour the course for a charity skins event. When Miller pulled out a wedge instead of a putter on the multi-tiered, 10,500-square foot green on the 10th hole to execute his remaining 102 feet to the pin, Nicklaus stomped down the hill, dropped a ball and, without lining it up, putted it up the terrain and into the cup — much to the delight of Palmer, Watson and the more than 5,000 fans in attendance.

Two years later, England’s Roger Chapman totaled 13-under 271 to beat John Cook, Hale Irwin, Bernhard Langer and others for the first Senior PGA Championship title at Harbor Shores. In 2014, Scotland’s Colin Montgomerie totaled the same score for a four-stroke victory over Watson, who edged out Langer and Jay Haas by two more.

In 2016, Rocco Mediate of Greensburg, Pa., shot 19-under 265 to beat Montgomerie by three strokes and Langer and Brandt Jobe by five, reinforcing Mediate’s love affair with southwestern Michigan golf courses that dates back to 1983; That year he pre-qualified for the Western Amateur at Dowagiac’s Hampshire Country Club and then made the 36-hole cut. The following summer, Mediate would lose the final to John Inman with both golfers wearing plus-fours.

England’s Paul Broadhurst would match Mediate’s winning total in 2018 to beat Tim Petrovic by four shots as nine golfers, including Montgomery, Miguel Angel Jimenez, Jerry Kelly and Scott McCarron, shot 10-under or better for four rounds.

Two years after the 2020 return to Harbor Shores was canceled by the COVID-19 pandemic, New Zealand’s Steven Alker shot an 8-under 63 in the final round for a 16-under 268 total that was three strokes better than Canada’s Stephen Ames and six ahead of Langer.

Steve Stricker, a 1989 “Sweet Sixteen” qualifier at the Western Amateur, was expected to play in that 2022 Senior PGA after captaining the U.S. Ryder Cup team to victory in 2021 over the European team captained by Ireland’s Padraig Harrington. But Stricker tested positive for COVID-19 and had to withdraw.

Last year at the Senior PGA held at Fields Ranch East in Frisco, Texas, the 57-year-old Stricker and Harrington renewed their rivalry as players, shooting 18-under 270s before Stricker won his sixth senior major title on the first playoff hole. The Top 10 included Alker, Jimenez, Stewart Cink, Y.E. Yang, Darren Clarke and Vijay Singh. All of them — and many others from past Western Amateurs at the Point — were in this year’s farewell field at Harbor Shores.

Anyone have a hanky to spare?

Story originally appeared on GolfWeek