Tiger Woods and Chicago used to be a great recipe for winning, or at least coming close.
He won two PGA Championships at Medinah. He won the Western Open three times and the BMW Championship twice, all at Cog Hill. Woods has finished out of the top 20 only one time in 15 tournaments in the Chicago area, including the 2003 U.S. Open at Olympia Fields.
But he has played the Windy City just twice since his last win (by eight shots) in 2009, and neither time was particularly memorable — a tie for 15th in 2010 that kept him from qualifying for the Tour Championship for the first time in his career, and an 0-3-1 record at Medinah last year in the Ryder Cup.
His next shot is at Conway Farms, a course Woods had never seen until the pro-am Wednesday at the BMW Championship.
"I normally don't work this hard in a pro-am, but I had to do a little bit of work because I wasn't out here yesterday," Woods said.
Conway Farms, a Tom Fazio design north of Chicago, becomes the third course in as many years to host the second-oldest golf tournament in America. At a time when 70 players are trying to qualify for the 30-man field at the Tour Championship, some introductions are in order.
Luke Donald is a member and knows the course better than anyone in the field. Zach Johnson is among the few who played Conway Farms when it hosted the NCAA Championship in 1997. Steve Stricker drove down from Wisconsin on Sunday to see the course for the first time. A Western Golf Association official said about half the field was practicing Monday, a large number compared with other events, especially this late in the season.
As for Woods?
He sent out his caddie, Joe LaCava, to scout the course ahead of him.
"It helps that Joey has been out here a couple days getting the lines, and we were discussing a lot of it today," Woods said.
Woods said it was different from Cog Hill and Medinah but a "nice track." He mostly remembered how confined the layout is on the front nine, restricting gallery movement on a couple of holes. And the closing stretch of holes — a reachable par 4 with water down the entire left side, a strong par 4 at No. 16, a downhill par 3 framed by mounds, and a par 5 closing hole at 570 yards with water in front of the green.
Adding a wrinkle to a new course is that blistering hot conditions earlier in the week were supposed to yield to cooler temperatures — the low 50s in the morning — the rest of the week and a wind out of a different direction.
"That's where I have to rely on Joey a little bit, and we were discussing the weather forecast and how it's going to change a little bit, and discussing the different lines and different options," Woods said. "As I said, we did a little bit of work today, more so than we normally do."
Woods has won five times this year, bringing his PGA Tour career total to 79 as he closes in on Sam Snead's record of 82. Woods doesn't stray much from his schedule, and because he wins so often, he tends to win at the same courses. The last time he won on a golf course he had never played was at The Grove outside London for the 2006 American Express Championship.
The BMW Championship is the third FedEx Cup playoff event, and the hardest to get some separation. The field has been reduced to 70 players, so for the first time during golf's version of the post-season, there is no cut.
The goal is to get into the top 30 for the FedEx Cup finale at the Tour Championship, where everyone will have a shot at the $10 million prize, and they are guaranteed a spot in at least three of the major championships next year.
Better yet is getting into the top five in the FedEx Cup standings — those players only have to win at East Lake to capture the FedEx Cup.
Henrik Stenson, coming off a win at the Deutsche Bank Championship, is No. 1 by a small margin. Masters champion Adam Scott is right behind. The onus is on Rory McIlroy, who is No. 41 and figures a seventh-place finish is needed to get into the Tour Championship, a consolation prize for a season gone wrong. Donald, meanwhile, is No. 54 and faces a tougher task to avoid missing the Tour Championship for the first time in five years.
"I guess if there was ever a year to struggle, to coming into an event needing a big week, this is a good one to come to," Donald said.