‘Time to do something really significant’: How Tiger Woods’s newest design venture could change the game

In 1993, a talented young golfer gave a clinic in front of a devoted crowd at Jackson Park, a municipal course on Chicago’s South Side. More than a quarter-century later, that golfer is back at Jackson Park — and Tiger Woods is looking to make a lasting impression.

Woods is lead architect on the proposed renovation of 18-hole Jackson Park and nine-hole South Shore, two historic, beloved munis that sit at the western edge of Lake Michigan. Under the plans laid out by TGR Design (Woods’s design firm) the two courses would combine into a 7,341-yard 18-hole championship track.

On Dec. 12, the Chicago Park District met to approve a resolution to fund services for an engineering firm, the Smith Group, for the next three and a half years. The decision represented a commitment from the city and a huge hurdle cleared in the process of breaking ground on the renovation. What began four years ago as a pie-in-the-sky reevaluation of Chicago’s city-owned courses is nearing fruition as something altogether different: a likely PGA Tour host with striking views of the city and a brand-new concept of what it means to be an urban public golf course.

“I first learned the game on public courses playing with my Pop,” Woods told GOLF in a statement. “I hope this course will be more than just golf and also make a positive impact in the community. We are eager to proceed toward groundbreaking at Jackson Park and South Shore.”

Here’s what you need to know about the proposed TGR Design.

Tiger Woods Jackson Park

The complete new routing, as currently laid out by TGR Designs.

THE BACKSTORY

A hospital-bed view

“A few years ago, we couldn’t get anyone to talk,” says Mark Rolfing. The NBC commentator and his unrelenting optimism has been the project’s driving force since its inception. “Everyone said this would never work. Now here we are on the 1-yard line. I feel very strongly that this is going to happen.”

For Rolfing, a self-proclaimed “Chicago guy,” the inspiration for bettering golf in Chicago has been around for years. A role in marketing the 2012 Ryder Cup at Medinah reenergized his passion to preserve what he calls “the greatest golf town in the country.”

Chicago’s golf scene, he said, was an apple. “It became pretty clear to me that the outside of the apple — the upscale private clubs — was shiny and looked fabulous. But the core was neglected, slowly rotting — and that meant municipal golf in downtown Chicago.” Spurred to action, Rolfing met with the Chicago Parks District and in 2015 began a study on its six-course portfolio.

Just months into the study, Rolfing’s life changed. He found a lump on his left cheek, had it checked out and was diagnosed with a rare form of cancer: stage four in the salivary gland. Rolfing chose to keep the news relatively private, even finishing his duties at the PGA Championship at Whistling Straits before driving to the University of Chicago’s Medical Center, where he faced a seven and a half hour surgery to remove the tumor.

The surgery went well, and something curious happened: Rolfing ended up with a hospital room that overlooked Jackson Park, and one of the exact park-run golf courses he had been studying. Historic Jackson Park Golf Course stretched out from his window at the University of Chicago’s hospital, and he thought of golfers playing through, group by group, while he considered the possibilities of the course’s layout, location and ways in which it could be improved.

Ultimately, the surgery plus a new-age form of intense proton radiation therapy — which he received at MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston — fended off the cancer. But the image from his Chicago hospital bed endured.

“This miracle had occurred and it was like an epiphany,” he said. “I was like, wow, okay, time to do something really significant.”

A call from the president

During this time, Rolfing wasn’t the only person considering Jackson Park as a potential site. President Obama was deciding where his presidential library should go. Three cities were in consideration: Would it be in Honolulu, New York, or Chicago? If it was Chicago, would it be in Washington Park or Jackson Park? Just as Rolfing drew closer to settling on Jackson Park, Obama made the same choice — more specifically, near the Jackson Park Golf Course, not far from the cultural center where he and his wife Michelle had celebrated their marriage in 1992. Fate was smiling on the old courses.

Al DeBonnett, who is a park superfan and the Chairperson of the Jackson Park Golf and Community Leadership Committee, couldn’t believe his luck. “That was so inspired, divine, serendipitous — whatever you want to call it — to have Mark come in, to have Obama’s center come in, it has come together at exactly the right time.”

But there would be plenty more heavy hitters involved. Rolfing’s first instinct was to turn to two “it” kids of the course architecture world to tackle the project: the renowned design team of Bill Coore and Ben Crenshaw. The duo came to check out the site and expressed interest, but they recognized the trickiness of tackling a project of this scale within Chicago’s city limits, too. Before Rolfing had made a final decision on course designer, Obama got involved with a well-placed call to his No. 1 choice.

“As I heard it, Obama called Tiger and said something to the effect of, ‘Hey, do you know Mark Rolfing?’” Rolfing recounts now. “‘And Tiger says ‘Yeah, sure, I’ve known Mark for a while.’ Obama tells him, ‘Well, he’s working on a plan for my home course. I think you should get involved — in fact, I think you should be the architect.'”

It was an effective pitch (calls from presidents tend to be). Soon Rolfing got a call from Woods’s architectural team, TGR. Woods was interested, and he wanted to come see the site. “When?” Rolfing asked, and got a surprising reply.

How about next week?”

Beau Welling, TGR’s head of design seconded Rolfing’s surprise. “I remember distinctly — he said, we’ve gotta go check out this thing in Chicago. He had never done that before, but he was like okay, I’ll come pick you up!”

“To have the opportunity to work with the president on something like this in his home city,” Woods said when rumor of the course first broke, “if we can pull this off, I think it can benefit so many people on the South Side. Hopefully we can do it.”

“Where are all the kids?”

It was August 2016 when Woods arrived for a full day touring the Jackson Park and South Shore sites. He’d been to the site before; some 23 years earlier. In 1993 his father Earl had arranged a clinic at Jackson Park to help support Woods’s junior golf efforts — but that was an entire lifetime ago. Rolfing took him by the cultural center first, and then down to the lake.

Tiger Woods Jackson Park Clinic

Tiger Woods with his father, Earl, at a Jackson Park clinic in 1993.

“He was just mesmerized. I could see it in his eyes; he kept looking out at the Chicago skyline and saying ‘Wow — there’s just no other city in the country where you could do this.’ We drove around the site for a while, and I actually almost killed him crossing Jeffery Blvd., where you’re always having to dodge cars. That wasn’t ideal but it was also perfect because he could see that this was a project that really needed some work.

“We stopped a few times and just talked big picture, and one of those stops he said this line that really stuck with me: ‘Where are the kids?’ Here it was, a beautiful August afternoon, school was out, and there were no kids playing.”

To Rolfing, that moment marked the shift in Woods’s interest in the site from making a bundle of appealing golf holes to something bigger: a chance to change a community.

“I kept thinking he’d get on his plane, he could get back to Florida and it was going to be too complicated, that he’d somehow say no, that this was too good to be true.” Instead, he got a call back from Welling, who declared Jackson Park “a game-changing project” and a perfect fit for Woods’s desires.

“The entire reason Tiger got into architecture in the first place is because he wanted to do impactful, meaningful projects,” Welling said. “This was a confluence of a lot of things: a historic site, Mark’s vision, President Obama, and the opportunity to do so many things across a diversity of demographics. I’ve worked for a long time and this certainly has the potential to be my most meaningful, impactful project — by a lot.”

TigerWoodsMarkRolfing

Tiger Woods and Mark Rolfing look over one routing plan.

THE MODEL

The community-focused nature of the project seemed to hook Woods. It hooked another important business partner, too: Mike Keiser. Among golf course developers, Keiser cuts a unique profile: he made his fortune selling recycled paper greeting cards, he’s passionate about speed golf and he now spends much of his time thinking of creative pricing models for golf courses. Keiser’s beloved developments, generally marked by breathtaking scenic beauty and minimalist amenities, include Bandon Dunes in Oregon, Cabot Cliffs in Nova Scotia and Sand Valley in Wisconsin. But he has a sweet spot for Chicago municipal golf, too.

“Jackson Park was my favorite place to bring our youngest son,” said Keiser, who raised his kids in Chicago. “He didn’t want to drive all the way to the suburbs, but if we could whisk down to Jackson Park from Lincoln Park in 15 minutes, he was all in.”

Four aspects of the Jackson Park “model” make it particularly unique: The funding, the pricing, the caddie program and the focus on community. Rolfing isn’t sure he’d compare the plan at Jackson Park to anything in the golf world. But there are pieces and ideas it draws from, he says.

Funding

The Jackson Park/South Shore course renovation is being funded almost entirely through private dollars. That makes it an easier sell politically — many munis are struggling, and earmarking public dollars for golf courses can often be painted as an extravagance. But the key to this piece of the model is that the funding isn’t coming in as an investment, but as a donation. Keiser is headlining a group of Chicago-area contributors who are pitching in to turn the blueprints into realities.

Rolfing says he’s never seen this piece to it. “I’ve seen examples with corporations and businesses investing in courses, but I’ve never seen it where there’s a donation and there is no return,” he said. “It’s like building a park, where you donate money — and look, that’s what it takes to accomplish those kinds of things.”

Pricing

When it comes to rates, Keiser and Rolfing each pointed to Sand Hills, the Nebraska golf club where they became acquainted. Most of the golf world knows Sand Hills as an uber-exclusive destination golf course in a remote section of the Cornhusker State. “If a member sponsors a guest, it’s at least $300 if not more,” Rolfing says. “But if you are a resident of Hooker County, Nebraska, you pay $75 a year. That $75 gets you free greens fees for the summer. It’s still their course, it’s their community, which means they’re protective of it. You see it when there’s a hailstorm on the way. The folks from the community want to help protect the greens, to keep the course clean. It’s their course. And it’s operated at a profit every year for almost 20 years.

Jackson Park is different in many ways — public and urban, just to name two — but the course is planning a similar bifurcation in its price structure. Keiser expects heavy demand from affluent golfers from the business world eager to check out the area’s newest flagship course and willing to shell out more than $200 for a round. But for South Siders, that rate won’t climb over $50 per round.

“That $50 rate was literally a deal breaker with the community golfers. That price has to stay at $50 or a little bit under,” says Cassandra Curry, who serves on the Board of Directors for the Jackson Park Golf Association.

The caddie program

The caddie program is what drew Keiser’s commitment to the project. He anticipates having a pool of 150-200 young caddies from the local area to draw from; those paying full price will be encouraged to take a caddie. The Jackson Park pilot caddie program is already underway; the Western Golf Association has set aside money to pay for the loopers, so players can take a caddie at Jackson Park right now without paying for it.

“The nine-hole senior group can take caddies and walk! That allows kids from the area to caddie, to make money, to learn about the game,” Rolfing says with pride. The possibilities afforded to those caddies will start with a job and a learning experience but could turn into far more: a number of Evans Scholarships are expected to be in play for local caddies, too.

Jackson Park Caddies

Jackson Park has already begun its caddie program.

The community

Keiser and Rolfing each reference the caddie program as a piece of what made East Lake Golf Club in Atlanta so useful in revitalizing the area around the course. At East Lake, golf became the viable thread to make things happen to solve problems that have nothing to do with golf. That meant investing money in the neighborhoods surrounding the club and it meant bringing in a number of locals as caddies.

“East Lake is private, yeah, but it was transformative to the whole area and they employ I don’t know how many caddies, so in that way it’s a model.”

Rolfing references St. Andrews, the Home of Golf, where the course is used as a public park one day a week. While that’s not in the cards for Jackson Park, he sees the space as supporting multi-use recreation regardless. A large sum of park funding will go toward non-golf items: reopening the concession stand by the South Shore, renovating baseball diamonds and improving roads and highways. “There’s now a pedestrian walkway right through the course,” Rolfing says. “Folks from the furthest neighborhood are going to be able to walk through there to the beach for the first time ever. That’s a powerful message to me — preserving open space but also working around an important need for the community for it to fit in.”

A pedestrian walkway will allow unprecedented access from the neighborhood to the beach.

DeBonnett was particularly pleased with the meshing of big names with the community-first mindset. “It’s a global story but a community-based process that has been shepherded and stewarded from those in and outside the golf community and the Jackson Park community. The kids will be the future, they’ll have facilities they should have had years ago.”

Above all, transparency seemed to curry the most favor with the local crowd. Mike Kelly, Superintendent and CEO of the Parks District, facilitated 13 open meetings which were attended by more than 2000 people. Concerns were addressed, he said, and ultimately died down.

“No meaningful project is unanimous, especially in Chicago. Even the presidential center!” Kelly says. “But in the end the reasonable people excited about the investment in their community got much louder. When this is done the rehabilitation of the entire Jackson Park South Shore Community is going to be extraordinary.”

“The South Side does not get construction like that,” Curry says. “You can skirt around it any way you want, but they don’t do that kind of construction in those kinds of communities, it just doesn’t happen. If these people have great academics and get into golf, they might go to a certain school and get a scholarship. These are opportunities that a lot of the kids in our neighboring communities are not exposed to.”

 

THE GOLF COURSE

Since they agreed to come on for the project, Welling and Woods have worked with Rolfing on a series of concepts and routing plans. They started on plan A. Twenty-two tries later, they’ve come close to settling on plan V — and that’s not counting modifications within each plan.

Current conditions

Curry is proud of the course as it currently stands, but acknowledges the need for an upgrade. “We like it, but the plans for it…oh my God. We are just ecstatic,” she said.

DeBonnett was far more blunt. “It’s almost criminal, the state of the course. Its time has come.”

Without a renovation, the courses’ current construction seems unsustainable. The irrigation system is crumbling. When Jackson Park waters the course, nearby residents have trouble using their plumbing. The bunkers are falling apart. And there’s little to no drainage.

Rolfing thinks it’s renovation or bust. “My opinion is these are not going to be active golf courses within a decade without this sort of action,” he says.

Playability

Welling described Woods’s mindset entering the process. “Tiger has the definite idea that he knows how to build something that’s hard and challenging. But he also wants and needs to cater to beginners, young people, all kinds of different people. He’s a big tent guy and he’s that way at every course he designs. But here it’s even more important because the goal is to have world-class events and kids just starting out.”

Woods emphasized the course’s adaptability in a statement to GOLF. “We have developed a plan for a public golf course that will be fun and playable for golfers of all abilities, but still challenge the best players in the world,” he said.

Welling laid out the feel of the place in greater detail: It’ll be relatively wide and not overly bunkered off the tee, but the greens will have some stronger defenses. It’s intended to be a course of angles. If you’re really trying to score, it’ll require a very accurate approach shot, set up by a well-placed tee ball.

Around the greens, Welling expects to use plenty of short grass. That can make things easier for less experienced chippers, who can pull putter and do just fine, while putter from well off the green can be hard for a better player. There’s a lot to that idea at Bluejack National, Woods’s Texas course, and Payne’s Valley, his brand-new Missouri track.

Welling and Woods also want to pay homage to the property’s history. “Golf has been in Jackson Park since 1899, so it’s old,” Welling says. “It would be a disservice to come in and build a golf course that feels new; we’re striving for more Golden Age kind of era.” He suggested borrowing some inspiration around the greens from Seth Raynor, whose Golden Age putting surfaces live to impress down the road at Chicago Golf Club.

“If we pull that off it’ll fit in one of America’s historic places,” Welling said.

Views

A major selling point for investors and players alike it the simple fact that as many as 10 holes would have views of Lake Michigan and the Chicago skyline, according to routing plans. That’s more than any course, public or private, in the entire Chicago area.

Input from local players helped inform TGR’s decision to make the new routing have returning nines, allowing players to stop at the turn. This clubhouse and routing shift had an unintended benefit: the routing means that the featured stretch of lakeside holes shifts to later in the round. Holes 14-17 now run dramatically up against the lake.

“We’re going to be the midwest version of Pebble Beach,” Curry says confidently.

Holes 14-17 are routed to run up against Lake Michigan, with dramatic cityscape views.

“Most other cities that are on water, the Great Lakes in particular, the lakefront is industrial,” Rolfing said. “Cleveland, Detroit, Milwaukee, you understandably have industrial development on the lake. Here in Chicago we have park district land on the lake, which makes it a totally unique opportunity.” After leaving the 17th green, players will go through a tunnel to the 18th tee, where a monster par 5 tipping out at 654 yards awaits them. As they play in toward the clubhouse they’ll be hitting approach shots into the soaring buildings of Chicago’s cityscape.

Future tournaments

Rolfing has an ambitious vision for the future of the golf course as an event space. In 1893, six years before the founding of the golf course, Jackson Park played host to the World’s Fair. He thinks some of that sensibility could return to the park for a PGA Tour event — though he’s not limiting himself.

The BMW Championship has rotated in and out of Chicago in recent years; it was held at Aronimink in Philadelphia this year but is scheduled to return to the greater Chicago area at Medinah in 2019 and 2020. Rolfing sees Jackson Park as a future home for the event.

“The PGA Tour is basically saying that’s their intention is to have this on the schedule,” he said. There are still several factors that would determine whether the course would be ready for a spot on the 2021 schedule, but Rolfing suggested 2022 would be a safe bet. He envisions a scenario in which the tournament would showcase the different neighborhoods and styles of golf that Chicago has to offer.

“What I would love to see is that a plan gets settled for every four years and goes north to [2017 host] Conway Farms, then west to [2019 host] Medinah, then southwest to [2020 host] Olympia Fields and then to Jackson once,” Rolfing says. “That would be ideal. I’m kind of the eternal optimist but I feel like that’s extremely feasible.”

He also teased the possibility of an even larger tournament landing at Jackson Park: the Presidents Cup. While the 2021 edition will be held at Quail Hollow and 2025 at TPC Harding Park, 2029 remains unclaimed.

“We’ve got involvement with a president of the United States, and the architect of the renovation is the captain of the Presidents Cup team,” Rolfing said. “I’ll let you do the math from there.”

tiger-woods-barack-obama.jpg

Tiger Woods speaks to former President Barack Obama on the first tee Thursday at the 2017 Presidents Cup.

WHAT’S NEXT

The challenges

While the golf course is largely in the clear in terms of permitting and approval, the Obama Presidential Center is going through a federal review process. In order for the golf course project to be feasible, the Presidential Center and its associated modifications to roadways and underpasses must be approved. Most people associated with the project don’t anticipate the review being an issue, but it pushes back the start time on the golf course itself until at least late spring.

From a design perspective, Welling sees both challenge and opportunity.

“I’m fortunate in that we’ve always viewed our role as we’re working for a client who has a goal and an objective. In this case what’s cool and unique is that the client is the public itself. From a design standpoint it’s very tricky. You’re right near Lake Michigan, you’re right in an urban environment, there’s a ton of roads and everything that goes with that. But the other side of it is so cool and radically unique and exciting: when do you get the chance to build a golf course in the middle of a city?”

Jackson Park South Shore

The Chicago skyline, seen from the South Shore.

The big picture

“This was always about transforming all of our golf courses, not just Jackson Park and South Shore,” says Kelly. “My vision is that Marquette, the course that I grew up on, could be played for free. One by one, we’ll find ways to take on each of these courses.

“If you’re a golfer, you can’t help but be excited about this. If you’re a Chicagoan, you can’t help but be excited because of the local investment. If you’re a naturalist, you should be excited because we’re adding acres of natural area. And if you are a fan of Chicago’s youth, of the young people, you have to be excited for them, because we’re going to create jobs and opportunities through the parks, through the caddie program and through the game. The industry of golf seems to be realizing this is something that can be invested in and replicated.”

Rolfing, ever the optimist, seems to have extra reasons for optimism here. “I like to think big all the time, and so I think it’s huge that the industry is taking notice and getting involved. All of golf, the Tour and the governing bodies should be involved in developing the model for sustainable urban golf, especially with such a unique diversity component.”