By Tony Dear
He won’t take the credit and will insist nothing could have happened without the Board’s efforts prior to his becoming involved, but it’s safe to say Jason Way has been the catalyst behind the restoration/renovation project currently going on at Canal Shores Golf Club, 15 miles north of downtown Chicago.
Forty-four-year-old Way is a father of two boys and the remote manager of a small consumer goods business based in Phoenix, Ariz. He doesn’t have a lot of spare time, but what little he does get he uses to dig, cut, prune, mow, shovel, plant, clear, and shape the 40 or so golfing acres of the nearly century-old community course that opened in 1919.
Canal Shores, officially the Evanston and Wilmette Community Golf Course, is a 3,904-yard 18-holer split almost in half by the canal—actually the North Shore Channel which was built between 1907 and 1910 to flush sewage from the North Branch of the Chicago River down the Chicago Sanitary and Ship Canal (visitors needn’t worry, the Chicago Deep Tunnel does the job now). Seven holes run alongside its eastern edge, nine are on the opposite side of the water, and two par threes cross it.
The land on which the course sits is owned by the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District of Cook County which leases it to the City of Evanston and Village of Wilmette which, in turn, sub-lease it to the entirely voluntary, non-profit, self-funded Evanston Wilmette Golf Course Association (EWGCA).
About four years ago, Way turned up at an EWGCA board meeting wondering how he might get involved in the renovation efforts the Association had begun.
“I’d basically been free-riding for years,” he says, “coming over and hitting balls whenever I liked. But I could see that people really cared for the course and the community it’s part of. So I stopped free-riding, got an annual pass, and offered to work wherever needed.”
Spend any amount of time with Way and you soon realize he’s a doer, not a talker. “The course had been decaying for decades,” he says. “The City had basically turned the water off, and the Association was a couple of weeks away from turning in the keys. I didn’t want to sit by and watch it happen knowing I could do something about it. This is where I live and spend time playing golf with my kids. It’s important to me.”
Local politics in Chicago can get pretty complex, Way says, and with a 19-man Board, he sensed things might be slow to happen at the course. So he joined forces with the course’s then-superintendent Tom Tully, Chris Carey—now the President of the EWGCA, and Board committee member Steve Neumann. “I suggested we just tinker with some stuff to begin with, and see if anyone notices,” he says.
They did. One day, shortly after starting, Way was rebuilding a bunker with Pat Goss, former coach of the Northwestern University golf team, Luke Donald’s swing coach (Donald lives in the area, used to practice at Canal Shores, and is a big supporter of youth golf) and an Evanston resident who wanted to help out, when a man approached and asked what was happening. “We told him about our plans for the course,” says Way. “He was really excited, and said the green at the 2nd looked like something at Augusta.” Way and Goss later laughed at the comparison, but admit it felt great that someone had noticed a difference.
“A little while later, I was clearing the tree line at the 3rd when a group of women came over,” Way remembers. “They were all neighbors and lived on a road that borders the course. They asked when I would be coming to their area, and said they had kids that would get out and help.”
These are just two such stories among dozens. “People have been very curious,” says Way. “And they want to get involved. When people volunteer for something like this they take ownership of the project, and become good stewards of the land.”
In addition to input from locals, Canal Shores benefited in December 2015 from being the first recipient of a joint USGA/ASGCA (American Society of Golf Course Architects) venture offering pro bono consulting to public facilities. “That enabled us to get architects Dave Zinkand, Drew Rogers, and Todd Quitno (Lohmann Golf Designs) on board,” says Way. “Their contributions were considerable, and helped us establish the four main sections of the facility—Rolling Green putting course; Kids’ Links; the Back Lot; and the Jans Course, named for Scottish immigrant Peter Jans who was instrumental in establishing the course in its early days.”
In March of this year, Tom Tully left Chicago for a government Parks position in Aurora, Colo., and was replaced by former Glen View Golf Club superintendent and turfgrass consultant Tony Frandria who made an immediate impact, utilizing his contacts, at John Deere specifically, to overhaul the course’s fleet of maintenance vehicles, and hiring an experienced maintenance team.
“Tony is hyper-anal about his work here,” says Way. “He’s made an incredible difference already. Tom did an amazing job with the tiny budget he had to work with. He took the greens (a salad of rye, Blue, bent, and poa) from an F- to a C+. Thanks to the Canal Shores 100 campaign (the course celebrates its centenary in 2019, and is attempting to raise $100k), Tony has had a little more money to work with and has taken the C+ greens to an A-. People frequently tell us they are the best greens they’ve seen all year.”
Frandria has hosted several volunteer groups, and typically has 40 or more people come out to work on the course each time. Way does the same once a month with a group of six or seven friends. LINKS Associate Editor Graylyn Loomis and I participated in one of Way’s sessions a couple of weeks ago when we turfed a former cart path to the left of the 14th green, dug a couple of small bunkers, and watched in something approaching awe as Quinn Thompson dug space for 30 wooden sleepers between the bunkers. Architecture geeks will know the name—Thomson was just back from Japan where he had worked on Bill Coore and Ben Crenshaw’s renovation of Yokohama Country Club.
“Quinn called me one day and asked how he could help,” says Way. “He’s worked on several projects with Coore and Crenshaw, so he was certainly in a position to critique and comment. But he just showed up, put his head down, and worked hard. The result is amazing.”
Thompson, like every other volunteer, no doubt felt exactly the same as Loomis and I had. Canal Shores is a precious community facility where golfers of all ages and abilities can come together to enjoy the game. As C.M. Cartwright, the former President of the Evanston and Wilmette Community Golf Course, wrote in a 1946 edition of the Evanston Review “The course affords inexpensive golf for people of all classes.”
Way says there have been no deadlines for any of the improvements so far, but adds a formal master plan will be drawn up sometime next year. He can’t be sure exactly what Canal Shores will look like in five years’ time, but he’s confident it will be in a significantly healthier position than it has been in recent years. “This place is so special,” he says. “I don’t want it to sit on the edge of oblivion like it did for so long. And I can’t wait for the day it genuinely becomes a hub of community activity. We’re significantly closer to that now than we were just a few years ago.”
Do you have an old community or municipal course in your area that could use some tender love and care? Tell us about it in the comments below!