Golf Q&A: Jerry Rich of Rich Harvest Farms
Thursday, May 18, 2017
Jerry Rich is the owner, president, and designer of Rich Harvest Farms, the site of the 2017 Division I Women's (May 19-24) and Men's (May 26-31) Golf Championships.
Rich, who made a living by designing an integrated computer system for Wall Street traders, always dreamed of creating his own course. That dream became a reality in 1985 when he and his wife bought 1,820 acres of land in Sugar Grove, Illinois, just outside of Chicago. Since then, the course has grown and expanded and was named to Golf Digest's "America's 100 Greatest Golf Courses."
We talked to Rich this week as he gets his dream course ready to host the upcoming tournaments.
1. As the host of the upcoming Men's and Women's NCAA Division I Golf Championships, you and your staff will soon have the eyes of the collegiate golf world fixed on Rich Harvest Farms. Share with us the level of anticipation and excitement from everyone there at the club and the greater Chicago area for the upcoming events.
My membership and the local community have known about my desire to host a national championship for years, so they are just as thrilled as I am. The amount of promotion other groups have done on our behalf is proof of that.
We are all about growing this wonderful game we call golf — that's why I founded the Kids Golf Foundation back in 1998. It is a part of everything we do, so hosting the NCAAs felt like the perfect marriage.
But it isn't just golf-centric organizations who are helping. We have deep ties with the City of Chicago through their involvement with the Kids Golf Foundation. We work with their park districts and Boys and Girls Clubs, so they have a vested interested in the tournaments, as does Kane County and the surrounding counties from an economic standpoint.
Everyone is excited!
2. Rich Harvest Farms has hosted several major tournaments since you opened the course in 1999. These include the 2009 Solheim Cup, 2015 Western Amateur and Arnold Palmer Cup as well as several NCAA Regional Championships. Please talk about why you decided to build the course and take us on the journey from the start with your original design to today.
Back when I caddied at Butterfield County Club in the '40s, I just fell in love with the way golf courses were designed, with their greens and the way the bunkers were shaped. I remember I used to take scorecards and draw my own holes on the back. I kept them in a cigar box, never thinking that I'd pull them out some day and use them as the basis of a design.
It was just a dream, to design at least one golf hole, but that dream became a reality in the early '80s. My wife Betty and I always talked about owning a small farm, but we wanted to be close to our friends in Oakbrook, our alma mater Northern Illinois University, and an airport.
It seemed impossible, but when I was checking out the Aurora Municipal Airport, I looked at the surrounding area and thought, "Wow, what a great place to look for that farm!" I met with a broker to see if there were any properties available in Sugar Grove. My timing was perfect, and I ended up with 12 parcels of land, for a total of 1,820 acres.
Now I finally had my opportunity to design that golf hole! But when I drew it up, I decided just one hole would be boring. Three holes that could be played six different ways would be a lot more exciting! By the time those holes were being shaped in, I added three more, for a total of six holes that could be played in three sixes. Once the original six were completed, I added another hole and another.
By the time I completed the 11th hole, I realized I might as well go all the way and finish the last seven, giving me all 18. Rich Harvest Farms' golf course was finally completed in 1998, over 10 years after I started. I had lots of fun doing it, but it was difficult.
Since I built it piecemeal, I wanted to make sure that no one would be able to determine which holes were built first when it was completed. I've had hundreds of Golf Digest panelists out to rate the course for their "America's 100 Greatest Golf Courses" since then, and I always challenge them to name the original six holes. No one has been able to figure it out.
Rich Harvest Farms is pretty much the same today, with a few modifications to make it more challenging. After hosting about 20 amateur events, I realized the golfers were getting better and better, so I added more bunkers, narrowed the fairways and moved back the original tees by 800 yards. I always want to challenge the abilities of the players of today.
3. When did you decide you wanted to bid for the NCAA championships, and could you briefly explain the process? What are some of the key differences between hosting a professional event, like the Solheim Cup and a collegiate championship?
About 16 years ago, the Commissioner of the Big Ten Conference, Jim Delany, came out to Rich Harvest Farms to play a round of golf. He and I got to talking about the amateur events I planned to host, and he suggested that I should put in a bid for a NCAA National Championship.
Thinking that I'd probably be hosting it within a year, I did as he said. There turned out to be a lot more involved in putting in a bid than I thought. Not only did the NCAA need to get to know our facilities first before they would consider us, but so did all the university coaches and the various other committees who made up the decision-making process.
In preparation, I hosted both the Mid-American Conference Championship in 2003 and 2012, and the NCAA Men's Division I Central Regional in 2007 and 2014. Only then was my bid accepted.
As for the key differences between hosting an amateur event versus a professional one, there aren't a lot in my mind, at least as far as the way I run my tournaments. I will say that the players are different — in a professional tournament, the players are celebrities. The women of the Solheim Cup were famous, and many people came to see them from all over the world.
Since a lot of amateur players don't have that kind of name recognition, their tournaments are seen less as a spectator sport and more as a family-friendly event. Other aspects need to be developed to attract the crowds.
However, I firmly believe that things are starting to change. The quality of amateurs is increasing, the Golf Channel is showcasing them a lot more, etc. The golfing public is starting to identify some of the amateur names and follow good university teams like University of Illinois and Northwestern University.
I could really see amateur golf's popularity skyrocketing in the next couple of years.
4. Hosting two major golf championships back to back is very unusual. With live television, large galleries, a significant media presence and on-site hospitality — not to mention more than 500 players and coaches — it sounds like a logistical nightmare. How have you and your staff approached the challenge? How many volunteers will be involved over the two-plus weeks? What do you see as potentially the biggest obstacles you and the staff will have to overcome besides Mother Nature?
When considering the 2017 NCAA Division I Men's and Women's Golf Championships, my staff will be taking it one week at a time. We view the men's championship and the women's championship as two separate tournaments, and that approach allows us to break down what is necessary for both of them to succeed.
It might seem like a nightmare, but Rich Harvest Farms has hosted over 50 amateur events over the past 20 years. We also hosted the largest event in LPGA history in the Solheim Cup in 2009, with over 120,000 people attending. We are used to working with large galleries, media and hospitality at multiple events — sometimes at the same time — so we view the logistics of the tournaments as exciting rather than challenging.
For volunteers, we need to fill 2,200 shifts. Since people can and have already signed up for more than one shift, we are looking at about 800 volunteers. Word went out back in July of last year, so we're almost at capacity. We've noticed a lot of excitement about it among the local residents and others in the area who want to help and support us. As the host school, Northern Illinois University and their staff are contributing to the volunteer staff as well.
You hit the nail on the head! April showers might bring May flowers, but it seems May in Chicago can be pretty rainy, too.
We've learned from our past experiences, though. For example, it rained a bit during the Solheim Cup in 2009, making our parking areas muddy. Now those same parking areas are all set for 10,000 cars thanks to the inter roads I put in, which will cut down on any issues if the ground gets wet.
It can also get very windy, too, so we've taken extra care to make sure everything on the course is lashed down correctly. I swear, the winds can blow any one of four directions at 25-30 mph! If it's a northerly wind, the players better watch out — it will make the golf course more of a challenge than it already is.
5. Rich Harvest Farms is ranked by Golf Digest as one of America's Top 100 courses. What, if any, changes have you made to the course in preparation for the championships?
The biggest change I made to the golf course in preparation for the tournament is putting in a drainage system for our approximately 120 bunkers.
With all the players that need to go through the course during medal play Friday through Sunday with tee-offs from 6:45 a.m. to 2:30 p.m., we cannot afford to be interrupted by half an inch of rainfall. Just a little bit of water used to cause major erosion to the bunkers, so over the past three years, I installed a Billy Bunker System, eliminating 98 percent of erosion.
Now, my grounds crew can have the course back into playing condition in a half-hour to an hour after heavy rains.
6. The greater Chicago area is home to some of the greatest courses in the United States and has hosted many major championships over the years. How has the support from the area been in advance of the events? What are your expectations for galleries for the two tournaments?
Support has been great, especially from two of the greatest golf organizations in the country, the Chicago District Golf Association (CDGA) and, of course, the Western Golf Association (WGA).
The CDGA has approximately 60,000 members, all golfers, since the CDGA does the handicap ratings for all the golf facilities in Illinois and the surrounding area. The WGA has a database of 40,000-plus people who give yearly to the Evans Scholars Foundation, which I also proudly support. Both have done marketing and promotion of the championships on our behalf.
Being as this is an NCAA event, the alumni base for universities who will be competing is huge, too. University of Illinois has 600,000 alumni and friends, Northwestern University has 60,000 alumni, host school Northern Illinois University has 200,000 Friends of the Huskies, etc.
Even the Big Ten Conference has been helping since their corporate headquarters is located nearby. Talking with Commissioner Jim Delany, he stated they have 350,000 alumni in the area. Without even approaching corporate Chicago, the enthusiasm for the tournaments has been unbelievable, and the support is tremendous.
My one complaint is that a lot of people are overlooking the women's tournament in favor of the men's. My team and I have been trying to highlight the women in order to fix this imbalance. My staff have personally called the 350-plus golf courses in Chicagoland area to make sure their women's golf leagues are aware that the tournament is coming and to encourage them to come out and see the future of women's golf May 19-24.
7. Finally, what is next for Rich Harvest Farms?
At present, we have the WGA's Western Junior in 2019. However, we expect a lot of tournaments that have been here previously to return within the next few years, so keep an eye out.
We will continue to work with the NCAA and hopefully bring the National Championship back to the Windy City in the near future. We will also continue to host Northern Illinois University's golf tournament, the Northern Invitational, and grow their golf program since we are the proud home course for the Northern Illinois University Huskies Men's and Women's Golf Teams.
And the Kids Golf Foundation is never far from my mind. I plan to increase the number of our program sites across the great state of Illinois and teach hundreds of thousands of children the wonders of the game of golf.
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