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Chicago Loves Golf

You’ve gotta be devoted, and a little bit crazy, to play golf in Chicago. But then you’ll be rewarded by some of the country’s best courses, public and private

By: Ed Sherman

Appeared in the Fall 2012 issue of LINKS.

TO REALLY UNDERSTAND THE PASSION for golf in Chicago, you have to observe the game during the winter. It’s a joyless time of year, when the green bleeds out of the greens, replaced by the dull oatmeal shades of the frozen tundra. The cold air hangs heavy over the town as people, wrapped in layers of sweaters and scarves and wool hats, race to seek shelter. 

Yet despite the brutal elements, golf hardly goes into hibernation in the Windy City.

Mike Munro operates the White Pines Golf Dome in suburban Bensenville. Encased under a white synthetic bubble, the 90,000-square-foot facility is a winter oasis for hungry golfers who want to see their balls fly, even if only for 100 yards before hitting the back wall.

Munro reports that when he arrives at 7 a.m. on a typical Saturday or Sunday in January, he is greeted by a line of golfers anxious to get in.

“Some of these people have permanent tee times during the summer,” Munro said. “They just transfer them from the golf course to the golf dome.”

The scene is repeated at other indoor golf facilities that do a brisk winter business. However, swinging inside a bubble is hardly enough to satisfy the diehards who continue to flock to area courses when logic says to do otherwise.

Chip Beck isn’t one of them. Even though the four-time PGA Tour winner has lived in suburban Lake Forest since the 1990s, he still carries the thin blood of his native North Carolina. So when asked to quantify the passion for golf in his adopted hometown, his first thought is of driving past a golf course during the winter and seeing players walking the frozen fairways.

“I’m thinking, ‘Man, it’s so cold today,’” Beck says. “It’ll be 30 degrees and blowing 25 miles per hour and they’ll just have a little light sweater on. Sometimes the trees don’t bud until June. They’ve been playing for months already. It’s just shocking to me. It’s incredible how much they love golf here.”

Chicago’s passion for golf will be front and center to the entire world with the Ryder Cup at Medinah Country Club. The matches between the United States and Europe will be framed against the backdrop of the club’s unique clubhouse, which blends classic characteristics of Byzantine, Oriental, Louis XIV, and Italian architecture. The structure is one of the true snapshots of Chicago golf, but it hardly paints a complete picture. This is a story about quality and quantity.

Despite the weather, Chicago has one of the highest concentrations of golf courses in the country. The Chicago District Golf Association has nearly 400 member clubs, including top private clubs such as Medinah, Shoreacres, Butler National, and Olympia Fields, which hosted the 2003 U.S. Open.

The evolution of American golf can be seen through several of those clubs, and the early history of course architecture through the roll call of designers, which features Donald Ross, Seth Raynor, Charles Blair Macdonald, and Tom Bendelow, among others.

It all begins with Chicago Golf Club, the first 18-hole course in the U.S., which was designed by Macdonald in the 1890s. More than 100 years later, it ranks in the top 20 of the LINKS100 list of best courses in the country.

“This area is like a history book of classic architecture,” says Chicago-based architect Rick Jacobson, who has done renovation work on several classic courses. “You look at what Macdonald did at Chicago Golf. You look at the strategic elements. It stands the test of time.”

However, like many of the top clubs, Chicago Golf is ultra-exclusive, so few area players get a chance to play it.

Fortunately, there are many outstanding alternatives. Chicagoland’s strength is its public courses, the finest collection of public venues in the country. Period. There are more than 200 facilities where golfers can play without having to take out a second mortgage.

The saying goes: If a visitor had 30 days to play, he could tour 30 different public courses and have a terrific golf experience. “If you look at our public courses, we don’t have to take a back seat to anyone,” Jacobson says.

There also are plenty of inexpensive county and park district courses that cater to young players getting their first tastes of the game as well as older players on fixed incomes. None are busier than the Sydney R. Marovitz course, sandwiched between Lake Shore Drive and Lake Michigan downtown. The nine-hole facility does nearly 60,000 rounds per year, an astounding number given the short season.

Robert Markionni, the executive director of the CDGA, traces the public golf boom to the 1950s.
“In many ways, Chicago is a working class city,” Markionni says.

“Back then, people started to get into the game. They saw [President Eisenhower] playing and they wanted to play. They couldn’t afford theprivate clubs. That created the demand for more public courses.”

“There’s just so many places to play,” adds Frank Jemsek, the owner of Cog Hill. “The game is available to so many people.”

Cog Hill is an industry leader in that regard. You’ll be hard-pressed to find a better public facility than the sprawling four-course venue in suburban Lemont. The jewel is Cog Hill No. 4, aka “Dubsdread,” which has hosted the PGA Tour numerous times over the past decades as site of the Western Open and BMW Championship.

Frank’s father, Joe Jemsek, was the patriarch of public golf in Chicago. His favorite course was Medinah No. 3 but knew many of his regulars would never play there. So he conceived No. 4, designed by Dick Wilson, as a way for them to experience a tough, front-line golf course.

“Joe Jemsek was such a visionary,” Markionni says. “He was years ahead of his time.” The older Jemsek passed the flame to his son, Frank. After watching thousands of golfers tackle Cog Hill, Frank has his own theory on why golf has such a hold on Chicago.

“I’ve found the further North you go, the more avid golfers you have,” Jemsek says. “When people go through winters like we have, they want to play. They want to be around green grass and trees.”

Weather is a common thread to Chicago golf. It rains in Illinois. The wind cuts through your skin like a bladed 7-iron. Sometimes, snow covers the greenest of greens. And that’s in spring, which locals know can be nothing more than a false rumor.

“Whenever I’m dealing with a recruit,” said Northwestern coach Pat Goss, “the first question is about the weather and the last question is about the weather.”

Northwestern did manage to snag a recruit in the mid-’90s named Luke Donald. And despite earning millions en route to becoming the number-one-ranked player in the world, Donald didn’t venture far from the Evanston campus, settling in the North suburbs. He joins Tour pros Mark Wilson, Jeff Sluman, and Beck in making Chicago home.

Yes, Donald does go to Florida in winter. But he is in the area enough to get more than his share of golf in less than ideal conditions. He thinks it has helped his game.

“It does toughen you up,” Donald says. “There’s not too many sunny days in the 70s in the spring. You have to fight through the wind and the rain. You learn not to let the conditions bother you.”

Donald will face an interesting dynamic during the Ryder Cup, where he will be the hometown favorite playing on the visiting team. The cries of “Loooookkkee,” often heard when he plays locally, won’t be as robust if he sinks a putt to clinch a match for Europe.

Players on both sides figure to hear plenty of noise. Chicago galleries are not known for their gentility. Tournaments at Medinah have a history of bringing out the histrionics. Such as the scene during the 1990 U.S. Open when Hale Irwin raced around the 18th green, slapping hands with the wild crowd after sinking a long birdie putt that eventually put him into the Monday playoff that he won.

Medinah nearly boiled over when a couple of kids named Woods and Garcia battled down the stretch of the 1999 PGA Championship. U.S. Ryder Cup Captain Davis Love III expects the locals will add to their lore at Medinah.

“I think in Chicago, with great sport fans used to pulling for so many different professional teams and so excited, knowledgeable about sports, that it will be a very friendly home crowd,” Love says. “I certainly feel like we are going to have a 13th man.”

Late September conditions can be unpredictable in Chicago. Summer often lingers, and without the heat and humidity can produce some of the best days of the year. Then again, Love should have the rain- and cold-weather gear ready because it isn’t unusual for the winds of November to pay an early visit.

Again, it’s always about the weather. This past March produced a run of improbable winter golf in Chicago, with the temperatures suddenly bolting into the low 80s. On March 18, the temperature in Arizona was 48 degrees for a Cubs-White Sox exhibition game. Meanwhile, it was 81 degrees at Wrigley Field.

That gift from the golf gods had the local courses as busy as a Saturday in July. Josh Lesnik, president of Chicago-based course-management company Kemper Sports, played a March round in shorts.

“There is nothing like the beginning of golf season in Chicago,” Lesnik says. “It’s literally a feeding frenzy. I played nine holes and we were all giddy to be back out knocking off the winter rust.”

The unseasonable warm weather lasted almost a week. Then reality returned as the temperatures retreated to cold and colder. Yet that didn’t stop players from pulling on their warm clothes and venturing out on local courses. Obviously, some days are better than others, and the great days are few and far between. But regardless of the conditions, it’s always golf season in Chicago.

Ed Sherman is an award-winning sports writer and former writer  for the Chicago Tribune. He hosts a weekly Chicago-based golf radio show and writes The Sherman Report (shermanreport.com).    

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