By Len Ziehm

Back in 2002 it was hard to imagine that the Senior PGA Tour wouldn’t be coming back to Chicago the following year.  After all, the circuit for golf’s 50-and-over stars had been well-received for the 12 previous years and the players made it clear they liked coming here.

Sponsorship didn’t materialize, though, and the event known originally as the Ameritech Senior Open and then – in its last three stages – as the SBC Senior Open was gone forever.

On a more upbeat note, however, the most exciting feature of this golf season is the circuit’s return — for the June 17-23 Encompass Championship at North Shore Country Club in Glenview. Chicago’s devoted golf fans, though, shouldn’t expect to see revival of the tournaments held here from 1991-2002. Lots of things have changed since then.

The 50-and-over circuit is now known as the Champions Tour (a more appropriate name, I believe).  The home course – for this year as well as 2014 and 2015 – is much different, too.  The previous events were held at relatively new venues – Stonebridge Country Club in Aurora, Kemper Lakes in Long Grove and Harborside International, the 36-holer built on what had been a Chicago South Side garbage dump.

North Shore, by contrast, is a private club rich in tournament tradition.  It hosted the 1928 Western Open, 1933 U.S.Open, the 1939 and 1983 U.S. Amateurs and the 2011 Western Amateur.

More than anything, however, the Encompass Championship will stand apart because of its format.  It’ll be loaded up with pro-ams.  The standard version will be held on Wednesday and Thursday, and then all 81 professionals in the tournament field will get an amateur partner for Friday and Saturday – the first two rounds of the tourney proper.  Only the 81 pros will play on Sunday, when the $1.8 million purse will be divided.

The amateurs in the Friday-Saturday tournament within a tournament will include some celebrity types.  That’ll make it more spectator-friendly.  So will the professional field, which should be stellar.  With the Champions Tour off the previous week to avoid a conflict with the U.S. Open at Merion, in Philadelphia, the top players figure to be well-rested and chomping at the bit to get to North Shore. A extraordinarily high number of them – Hale Irwin, Fuzzy Zoeller, Chip Beck and Jeff Sluman – showed up for the formal  tourney announcement last August.

Encompass Insurance, headquartered in Northbrook, is relatively new to golf sponsorship but did put on the Encompass Pro-Am of Tampa Bay in April of 2012 as part of an agreement with the PGA Tour that called for the creation of the new tournament in Chicago.

Since then a presenting sponsor, CareerBuilder, has joined the fold and the first batch of player commitments included Fred Funk, Mark Calcavecchia, John Cook, David Frost, Ben Crenshaw, Bernhard Langer, Sandy Lyle, Larry Mize, Craig Stadler and Mark O’Meara.

Coupled with the expected participation of Irwin, Zoeller, Beck and Sluman, the field will be as good as it gets on the Champions Tour. Irwin has already won the Western Open at Butler National, the U.S. Open at Medinah and three Senior Tour events – one at Stonebridge and two at Kemper Lakes. Clearly he deserves the moniker “Mr. Chicago,’’ but it’d be fitting if he could win a Champions Tour event as well.

The galleries should be sizeable, and not just because of the big names playing.  Ticket prices are reasonable — $20 in advance or $25 at the gate, and those 18 and under will be admitted free. All in all, the Encompass Championship will demonstrate that spectator golf is alive and well in Chicago – even in the aftermath of last Septembers’s Medinah spectacular — the most successful Ryder Cup ever.