Chicago: A World Class Golf Destination

February 21, 2007

Let’s just say that Chicago never had Al Capone. Or Michael Jordan. Or the Mayors Daley, Richard and Richard II. Imagine Halas hadn’t invented pro football and Da Bears. No Ditka. No Payton.

No soaring colonnades standing sentry at Soldier Field. What if Sammy Cahn never had written about his kinda town. Or that Sinatra never brought it to everlasting life.

What if the ivy didn’t grace the outfield walls at Wrigley (“You know, Chip, there’s no padding under there, so going to the wall in the spring before the ivy’s in full bloom can be dangerous for an outfielder”). Or that Harry Caray never broadcast from the bleachers at the old Comiskey Park with Falstaff in his cup and a song in his heart, or that Bill Veeck never installed a shower in center field so that God’s gift to baseball broadcasting could freshen up on demand.

Let’s just say there were no Art Institute, no Orchestra Hall, no Magnificent Mile, no Northwestern, no University of Chicago, no Loyola or DePaul or UIC.

How ’bout no Frank Lloyd Wright, no Louis Sullivan, no Mies Van der Rohe, or no center for unparalleled American urban architectural expression? And, speaking of art, what about no Second City, no Steppenwolf Theater, no Belushi or Malkovich or Mantegna? Where would New York and Hollywood be without that crew? What about writers? No Royko, no Mamet, no Ebert, and never a Siskel even for a just little while. Hey, and where would Bubba have been without Hillary?

Without all those people and places shaping Chicago’s identity, the area probably would have defined itself as something quite different: namely, a world class destination golf resort. You may laugh, but it’s no joke. The Chicago area boasts about 200 public golf courses according to the Chicago District Golf Association, and many of them are of the high quality, upscale variety that players find so compelling these days. Chicago courses come in all shapes and sizes and there’s one to fit every pocketbook or level of player.

Of course, with so much else happening in Chicago, people don’t think of the place as a golf destination. They should. Here are a few of the reasons why.

The late Joe Jemsek, who died earlier this year, earned the reputation as America’s “patriarch of public golf,” and for good reason.

Jemsek was the first daily-fee course owner to bring country club-quality course designs and amenities to the public golfer.

Until his dying day he stood on the first tee greeting his customers with a wisecrack and good cheer. Today, the trend toward upscale daily-fee courses is so well established it’s almost impossible to imagine it wasn’t forever thus — an enduring tribute to the notion that Jemsek was more than 30 years ahead of his time.

Jemsek’s vision of public golf lives on most vividly at Cog Hill — a four-course, 72-hole complex located about 15 miles southwest of Chicago. The No. 4 course, known as Dubsdread, has hosted the PGA Tour’s Western Open since 1991.

When the tournament was forced to leave the race and gender-restricted Butler National, Jemsek donated the use of his club to the Western Golf Association, which has staged the tournament since 1899.

In so doing, Jemsek not only bailed out the Evans Scholars Foundation — the WGA-run caddie scholarship charity made famous in the movie Caddyshack — he shrewdly gained for Dubsdread the widespread recognition and prestige his great course so richly deserves.

Almost to a man, the pros loved Dubsdread. The 1964 parkland style course designed by the renowned team of Dick Wilson and Joe Lee allows them to drive their ball to generous fairways off the tee yet requires them to work it into the greens around trees and strategically-placed sand bunkers.

Dubs’ 18th hole requires players to clear a lake in front of the slick green, which pitches severely back toward the water, making for nail-biting finishes. It all looked great on CBS for years, and will now on ABC, too.

If the quality of a course can be measured by the stature of its champions, Dubsdread is in an elite class. Over the last 11 years, major champions such as Tiger Woods (1997, ’99), Nick Price (1993, ’94) and Ben Crenshaw (1992) have captured the Western. Its runners up have included Greg Norman (1991, ’92 and ’93), Price (2000), Justin Leonard (1995), Vijay Singh (1998), and Davis Love III (2001).

The names of such highly accomplished players as Hoch, Allenby, Durant, Stricker, Mayfair and Cochran have been etched onto the Western trophy during the Dubsdread era. Matt Kuchar won the U.S. Amateur there in 1997. And, yes, he was smiling then, too — right along with Joe Jemsek.

The most vivid memory ever produced at Cog Hill occurred on the 72nd hole of the 1997 Western Open. After Woods struck his tee shot and began his march down the final fairway, the Dubsdread crowd broke through the ropes and fell in behind him.

But for all the whooping and hollering and indiscriminate fist pumping, it looked a fair bit like the British Open.

The difference between Dubsdread and the area’s private country clubs boils down to one thing: as a pure golf experience, it is superior to all but a few. Not only that, you can throw your Christmas party or a wedding reception in the clubhouse without the requirements — or financial burdens — of membership.

Pine Meadow is another facility operated by Jemsek Golf, which runs it under the stipulations of a long-term lease agreement with the Chicago Roman Catholic Archdiocese.

Located on the property of St. Mary of the Lake Seminary in Mundelein, a far north Chicago suburb, Jemsek took an existing golf course, had golf course architect Rocky Rocquemore redesign it, built a small utilitarian clubhouse, and installed a driving range, putting green, full sand practice area, a teaching program and lights.

The rest, as they say, is history. A product of the late 1980s golf boom, Pine Meadow has been wildly popular since it opened.

Regarded by knowledgeable local golfers as one of the top two public layouts in Chicago’s far northern suburbs, Pine Meadow is a pleasant course to play thanks to its leafy scenery. But lurking behind that gentle woodsy facade is a terrific layout that poses a stiff challenge while rejecting the principle of punishment for its own sake. Fairways are generous and most of the greens large.

Yet the course has length — 7,141 yards from the “you’ll-never-see-me-going-way-back-there” tees. It has movement — plenty of hills, doglegs and challenging pin placement zones on the greens. And it has strategically placed sand and water hazards. All of which presents a stiff enough challenge to keep lower handicap golfers coming back week after week, year after year.

Four par threes punctuate Pine Meadow’s golf landscape. Three are exceptional holes — the eighth, 12th and 17th — each visually and strategically unique. The other, the 245-yard fifth, is only ordinary, which is not to say bad.

The par fives — the second, fourth, 13th and 15th — range from 537 yards to 563 yards in length from the back (black) tees, and Rocquemore always provides Jemsek customers with a place to hit — and usually find — the ball.

Until he won the 1989 PGA Championship at Kemper Lakes , the late Payne Stewart was known as one of those victory-starved pros who banked a whole bunch of cash by finishing second a lot on tour and gave little indication he had the game or mental make up to evolve into the great champion he became. Kemper Lakes was Stewart’s coming out party.

Outfitted in Chicago Bears-themed plus fours, he birdied four of the last five holes on Kemper’s brutal back nine, shooting 31, and applied so much pressure to leader Mike Reid that “Radar,” as he is known, lost his way, and collapsed like the 1969 version of his beloved Cubs.

Designed by Dick Nugent and Ken Killian, Kemper Lakes is one of the Chicago area’s most feared and revered courses.

Opened in 1979 as the first of a new breed of upscale daily-fee golf courses in the Chicago area, Kemper Lakes wasn’t your daddy’s kind of golf course.

Just as the Beatles and the Rolling Stones once made the Rat Pack seem oh-so-passe, Kemper Lakes thumbed its nose at the conventions of the benign tree-lined, parkland style courses that Chicagoans had come to know and love.

Kemper Lakes was designed to be a hard golf course and to this day, it is. Water comes in play on eight holes, including 16, 17 and 18 — where Reid went bogey, double-bogey, and par en route to oblivion. They are without question the three most difficult finishing holes in all of Chicago golf.

Kemper Lakes always has been a tournament course. It has been the permanent site of the Illinois PGA Championship since the early days. In 1996, the then-Ameritech Senior Open (now SBC) moved to Kemper Lakes from a gentler, member-oriented club, and Walter Morgan’s winning score was 10 strokes higher than Hale Irwin’s in 1995.

In 1992, Vicki Goetze defeated Annika Sorenstam 1 up in the U.S. Women’s Amateur at Kemper Lakes, and just last year the U.S. Golf Association conducted the Women’s Amateur Public Links here.

The SBC is moving to another course this year, giving golfers an extra week during summer’s prime playing days to go out and lay it all on the line at Kemper Lakes.

Chicago’s newest upscale public access course is The Glen Club , located on the former Glenview Naval Airbase in the heart of Chicago’s exclusive close-in North Shore suburbs. At $110-$150 for 18 holes, it’s also one of the area’s most expensive daily fee courses.

Like Kemper Lakes, The Glen Club was developed and is owned by Kemper Sports Management, which hired Tom Fazio to transform the flat runways of this former military airport into to idyllic fairways and greens.

The cost of removing the slate gray landing strips, creating 40 feet of undulating green space, building five lakes and a stream, and planting nearing 5,000 trees added up to $30 million, give or take.

Throw in another $10 million for the 47,000-square-foot clubhouse and — to paraphrase the legendary pecuniary observation of Illinois’ late U.S. Senator Everett Dirksen — “pretty soon you’re talking about real money.”

Fortunately, in The Glen Club you are also talking about real golf. Located in an area dominated by top notch private clubs and a solid string of local munis, The Glen Club brings contemporary design features and grandeur to the first new public golf course built on the North Shore in decades.

On some of the holes, Fazio’s earthmovers and tree importers have enabled him to import a rolling North Carolina drawl to the naturally flat nasality of the Great Midwest.

Each hole on the course is unique, but most agree that the par-three 17th — a 200-yard affair guarded by water — and the 585-yard, par-five 18th are the most memorable.

The Glen Club also offers corporate memberships, which have proved particularly popular among those seeking a second “business” club in addition to their home country clubs. Memberships go for $30,000 for one corporate designee and $45,000 for a “dual designee” membership. Even with the members, however, public tee times are available daily.

As if to make sure they left out nothing, the Kemper folks built 21 overnight guestrooms on the upper floor of the clubhouse. Each room has ample space and the highest quality amenities, and is decorated in a richly detailed golf theme.

The cherry on the sundae is that each Glen Club guestroom is named after an historically significant Chicago-area golf club — e.g., Medinah, Cog Hill, Kemper Lakes, etc. Needless to say, these rooms are ideal for anyone with even the slightest golf jones.

Cantigny Golf Club is a 27-hole facility plus a nine-hole “youth links” located in the 500-acre Cantigny Park in Wheaton, about 30 miles due west of downtown Chicago.

Robert McCormick, former editor and publisher of The Chicago Tribune, left the acreage in his will “for the recreation, instruction and welfare of the people of the State of Illinois.” The park has long featured formal gardens, nature trails, and military and art museums. The slightly more captivating — also more revenue producing — golf facilities were added in 1989.

Over the years, the Roger Packard-designed Woodside, Lakeside and Hillside nines have received high praise from all quarters. In 2000, the Wooside/Lakeside combination at Cantigny came in 50th on the list of GOLF Magazine’s “Top 100 You Can Play.”

If, as Mark Twain remarked, golf is a good walk spoiled, the natural beauty of Cantigny goes a long way toward redeeming even the least satisfying round.

Public-spirited in its relationship with the game, Cantigny has developed a strong youth golf program and now hosts a variety of relatively prestigious tournaments, including the 2002 Illinois State Amateur championship, as well as U.S. Open qualifying. All of it honors McCormick’s memory in ways he could hardly have imagined.

Talk about public-spirited. The Village Links in Glen Ellyn seems to be the best overall municipal golf facility in the Chicago area.

With its 21 lakes and 96 bunkers, the David Gill-designed 18-hole golf course is big and strong enough to serve annually as host of U.S. Open and Western Open qualifying rounds.

It has a nine-hole executive course that caters to juniors and seniors. Its driving range is full of young golfers, a testimony to a thriving junior program that’s second to none. Its clubhouse/pro shop is gracious but not overdone, as is its friendly, down-to-earth staff.

How serious is The Village Links about remaining at the top of the municipal golf heap? So serious that the club has hired the late Gill’s son, Garrett, to renovate the whole place next year (the nine-hole course will remain open during the renovation process).

Since it opened in 1993, Chicago area golfers have been beating a path to Heritage Bluffs , a Dick Nugent-designed course located well southwest of the city near Joliet. Unlike Kemper Lakes, which can be tough on the golf ball supply, not to mention the ego, Heritage Bluffs provides a good challenge in a pleasant atmosphere at a very reasonable price.

Owned and operated by the Channahon Park District, Heritage Bluffs has a full practice range, putting green and short game practice area. Even with the soaring price of gas, it’s worth the drive.

Operated by the Fox Valley Park District, Orchard Valley is another example of just how good municipal golf can be.

Located about 40 miles west of downtown Chicago, this is a course where excitement and fun are the name of the game.

The first hole, for example, is a drivable par four for a power fader, but don’t hit it straight through the fairway or you’ll fall victim to a sand bunker that seemed from the tee box to be oh-so-far-away.

Architect Ken Kavanaugh gives players options from the tee — the choice is to make the safe bailout play that will make for a difficult second shot or to go for the more difficult tee shot in exchange for easier access to the green. The course played host to the Illinois Open in the late 1990s.

The drive to far north Lake County to the municipality of Beach Park — about 45 miles due north of Chicago — will take you past places like Six Flags Great America, the Gurnee Mills discount shopping center, and a couple of equestrian centers.

By the time you arrive at Thunderhawk Golf Club , you will be ready to play some golf at this Robert Trent Jones Jr.-designed course, which is operated by the Lake County Forest Preserve District.

Open for only a few years, Thunderhawk has the look and feel of a traditional tree-lined, parkland-style course that has been there for decades. Jones provides a challenge for players of all different abilities.

Located just west of Lake Michigan on the shores of Lake Calumet (just east of Interstate 94), the Harborside International Golf Center is more than just a 36-hole complex built 16 miles south of downtown Chicago.

Open since 1995, it is an extraordinary story of environmental reclamation. Harborside is owned by the Illinois Port Authority, which operated a 458-acre sanitary waste landfill on the property for eons.

When the landfill was full, the powers that be decided to build a golf course. Dick Nugent of Kemper Lakes fame was hired, and he designed two 18-hole courses (the Port and the Starboard).

He had little choice but to design a treeless links course, because the landfill was capped by a two-foot layer of clay and covered with a liner, making it impossible for trees to develop root systems.

Those who play Harborside will get a taste of all aspects of Chicago. Looking north, you’ll see the glitter of city’s spectacular downtown skyline.

To the south and east are sites of old industrial Chicago with the carcasses of dormant steel mills standing on the shore, awaiting either their unlikely resurrection or their conversion to waterfront residential subdivisions.

To the north and east is the Chicago Skyway Bridge, a huge steel corridor that connects Chicago’s southeast side to Northwest Indiana for the price of a $2 toll.

The facility also features an enormous 58-acre practice area that includes driving range, short game areas and putting greens.

And if you play the Port Course , you can try to match the only presidential hole-in-one in Chicago history, which took place last summer when former commander-in-chief Bill Clinton carded his first-ever ace on the 125-yard sixth hole (using a 9-iron).

These are just a handful of Chicago’s outstanding golf courses. And there’s another one opening this July — the Arthur Hills-designed Bolingbrook Golf Club southwest of Chicago — which will only add to the area’s stellar golf reputation.