York County golf fans can see PGA Tour stars this week at nearby Baltimore County course

The Baltimore Sun (TNS)
President Barack Obama speaks to Under Armour CEO and Chairman Kevin Plank, second from left, and two others before playing a round of golf at Caves Valley Golf Club in Owings Mills, Maryland, in 2016. Caves Valley will play host to the PGA Tour's BMW Championship this week. (AP Photo/Manuel Balce Ceneta)

The year was 1956 and the sight was a municipal golf course in Baltimore. 

Arnold Palmer, on his way to becoming the finest player and one of the most beloved athletes in the world, had hit one shot and already, he was out of patience with Charm City golf.

As Palmer watched his hooked drive bounce on Hillen Road, he decided to quit the Eastern Open Invitational. Only a quick pep talk from his playing partner kept him in the tournament, a staple on the Baltimore sporting calendar at the time. Palmer, as he would so many times, rallied for the third of his 62 PGA Tour victories.

Steve Fader hopes to see a 2021 version of this tale play out on the hills of Baltimore County over the next week. It’s why the chairman of Caves Valley Golf Club spent five years working to bring the PGA Tour and its greatest players back to the Baltimore area after a near-60-year absence. The course is located near Owings Mills, just 30 miles from the southern York County border.

“To have the 70 best in the world here, and they all want to be here and they’re all grinding to get here, it’s terribly exciting,” Fader said as he watched over final preparations for the upcoming BMW Championship. “Just as a sports fan, to see them on your home course, it’s tremendous.”

The BMW Championship, which began with practice rounds Tuesday morning and will commence in earnest at 10 a.m. Thursday, could bring more than 100,000 visitors to Caves Valley and $20 million or more in projected economic impact for the state. With sold-out corporate chalets and 2,000 volunteers lined up to work the event, Fader said Baltimore has greeted the PGA warmly after the tour’s long absence. Given the 20-plus hours of television coverage scheduled on NBC and the Golf Channel, he compared the tournament to a “Preakness on steroids.”

The 2020 BMW Championship at Olympia Fields Country Club in Illinois was held without fans because of the COVID-19 pandemic, but the 2019 edition drew more than 130,000 spectators and created an estimated $20 million in economic impact, including $3 million spent at hotels and $4 million spent at restaurants.

“We anticipate that this championship will bring a similar very positive impact to the state of Maryland,” said Tom Riford, assistant secretary of the Division of Tourism, Film and the Arts for the Maryland Department of Commerce. “This great PGA event is one of the many critical events that is helping bring the tourism industry back to full recovery.”

Riford said the BMW Championship will pump money into restaurants and hotels and, as a multiday event, afford visitors time to tour other attractions such as the National Aquarium or the Guinness Open Gate Brewery in Halethorpe.

Baltimore County Executive Johnny Olszewski called the tournament “a perfect opportunity to remind folks of the tremendous assets that we have right here.”

The COVID-19 specter: The recent surge of COVID-19 cases, fueled by the more contagious delta variant, has cast an unwanted specter over the BMW Championship, though organizers say Caves Valley is large enough that spectators will have plenty of room to spread out. They’ll be required to wear masks indoors but will not have to show proof of vaccination or a negative COVID test to gain entry. It’s not clear whether the recent rise in cases will dampen total attendance, once projected to go well past 100,000, but organizers said they’re optimistic.

“I am convinced that yes, it will still be a shot in the arm for the economy of Maryland,” Riford said.

Baltimore's golf history: The Baltimore area has played host to big-time golf over the last six decades. Caves Valley, in particular, has welcomed the men’s and women’s NCAA championships, the U.S. Senior Open and the LPGA Tour since the course opened off Park Heights Avenue in 1991.

But the last time PGA stars swung their clubs in a tour event was the 1962 Eastern Open Invitational at Mount Pleasant. For a little perspective, the Orioles had been in town just eight years and Johnny Unitas was the All-Pro quarterback of the Baltimore Colts when Doug Ford won that last tournament.

The Eastern Open was a regular event on the tour starting in 1950 and brought some of the sport’s most glittering stars to Baltimore. Sam Snead won in 1952. Four years later, Palmer hooked that drive onto Hillen Road and nearly quit on the spot. “I was a little disgusted and I said: ‘I think I’ll withdraw,’” the late Palmer recalled in a 2011 interview with The Sun. Ford, who was his playing partner that day, talked him out of it. “Played some pretty good golf too,” Palmer said. “At one point, I was up by 12 shots.”

Jon Rahm is a past winner of the BMW Championship, which will be played this week at Caves Valley near Owings Mills, Maryland.

Strong field: Those who worked to bring the BMW Championship to Caves hope the area’s golf lore will gain a few new chapters over the next week. The event will certainly feature a strong enough field, with only the top 70 players in the tour’s FedEx Cup playoff standings eligible to participate. They’ll be fighting to make the field of 30 for the Tour Championship, scheduled for the following weekend at East Lake Gulf Club in Atlanta. A $15 million grand prize awaits.

Past winners of the BMW Championship include tour luminaries such as Jon Rahm, Justin Thomas, Rory McIlroy and Tiger Woods (who’s not competing as he recovers from an automobile wreck earlier this year).

A famed membership: This week feels like a grand culmination for those who created Caves Valley with visions of a world-class golf test on the undulating hills of Baltimore County. Members have included Orioles great Cal Ripken Jr., Ravens owner Steve Bisciotti and Under Armour founder Kevin Plank. Presidents Barack Obama and George H.W. Bush and basketball great Michael Jordan have played 18 holes at the course.

“I think it’s unique,” said three-time major winner Jordan Spieth, who’s played many “fun” rounds at Caves Valley while visiting Under Armour. “You’re going to have an opportunity to get off to a really hot start on the first few holes. It’s a significant test after that, especially as you finish on each nine. … I just love going out there for the entire experience.”

Stern test and new market: BMW Championship organizers liked the combination of stern golf test and new market.

“When we’re making the decision about where to take the championship, first and foremost we want to select a golf course that will challenge the best players in the world,” said Vince Pellegrino, senior vice president of the Western Golf Association, which operates the BMW Championship. “We feel Caves Valley is a place that will do that. … For us, it’s a challenge professionally, not in a bad way, to bring a championship to a new venue and really create the blueprint from the ground up. It’s really satisfying.”

When Fader, the club chairman, found himself alone on the course in recent days, he could practically hear the cheers emanating from tents and pavilions that would soon be filled with fans. The Randallstown native has been a member at Caves Valley since 1996 and the club’s chairman since 2010. For much of that time, he’s fantasized about players such as Rahm and Spieth, Dustin Johnson and Bryson DeChambeau, working their way around the familiar greens and fairways.

“We’ve hosted nothing of this magnitude,” he said. “I am terribly excited for our city to have an event like this. … We do feel like we’re hosting a party at our house.”