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9 Holes In Chicago’s Jackson Park Project

By BILL DANIELS

COMMENTARY – For more than three years, the Chicago Park District and television golf commentator Mark Rolfing have promoted building a new 18-hole championship golf course at the current sites of the 18-hole Jackson Park Golf Course and the 9-hole South Shore Golf Course,  for the cost of $60 million.

The project has been touted as an economic engine for the South Side, bringing in jobs and investment, tourism and a PGA Tour event all while reinvesting in the two historic golf courses.

Tiger Woods has been brought in for the design, but just scratch the surface of this Woods/Rolfing project and you will find gaping holes in the narrative, raising serious questions about the wisdom and capacity of the project. 

Hole 1 – Where’s The Beef?

The Park District’s CEO, Mike Kelly, and Rolfing have not provided any facts, budgets or even projections for this mammoth golf project. There is no business plan, no projections of how many rounds would be played by residents (at a lower fee as promised by the Park District) or by visitors (at a higher rate). 

So, where’s the beef? The quick answer is no one seems to know. Rolfing spent more than 30 years marketing Hawaii and their golf courses, so perhaps he could be excused for not having these answers. But is this any way to run a railroad, as the saying goes? The Woods/Rolfing group has not provided any specifics justifying this venture, essentially saying, “trust me.”

Even by Chicago standards, this may be a highwater mark for chutzpah.

Tiger, Rolfing’s Chicago Course Project Far From Fruition

Hole 2 – The Great Chicago Fire 

Every piece of marketing material by the Rolfing group describes the project as a “restoration/renovation.” This is patently untrue.

The Woods plan calls for the total destruction of every hole at both courses. It’s a demolition. If this is a restoration then the Great Chicago Fire was a cozy campfire. Jackson Park is a historic golf course — the first public 18-hole course west of the Alleghenies, built in 1899.

Jackson Park has some excellent holes underserving of decimation. In a Chicago Tribune editorial, an alternate was discussed that would indeed restore and, in some places, renovate the course for about one-tenth of the projected cost of $60 million for the Woods course.

This might be a good Plan B if anyone wants to take it up.

Hole 3 – The New Math. Really? 

Tiger Woods is out in front of the project indicating his desire to bring more people to the golf course. His chief designer, Beau Welling, has described the new course as, “catering the golf experience to a wide swath of people — juniors, elderly and not so avid players.”

However, the new course will not increase golf opportunities for those same people. By taking 27 holes down to 18, it will reduce opportunities for inexpensive and accessible play especially for beginning golfers, juniors and seniors.

You can’t make additions by subtraction. The proposed golf course runs counter to what industry experts say is needed to grow the game. The World Golf Foundation and the USGA agree that more inexpensive 9-hole courses are needed for to procure the next generation of golfers.

The Woods-designed golf course will do just the opposite. i.e eliminate an inexpensive 9-hole and 18-hole golf course for a high-priced 18-hole course. Do the math.

Hole 4 – Caddy Whacked

Once again, the glowing marketing materials extoll the virtues of the Rolfing/Woods project as hosting a strong caddy program, bringing many opportunities to local youngsters. This is really unlikely.

The only public access courses that have strong caddy programs are a few resort courses that are strict “walking only”  courses, such as Bandon Dunes and Sand Valley in Wisconsin. Rolfing should know that most public golfers would prefer a motorized cart and often are uncomfortable with a caddy.

Even the supporters of the new course recognize that a walking only course is a non-starter. In a pilot program, the Western Golf Association provided caddies at Jackson Park. On most days three or four caddies were employed, and this was subsidized by the WGA. 

On the other hand, there is a strong tradition of walking with caddies at Chicago’s private clubs. At Beverly Country Club, about five miles southwest of Jackson Park, 250 caddies are used weekl,  according to caddy master Mike Haslitz.  Each year Beverly sends eight-to-10 worthy caddies to college via the Evans Scholars Program.

If the goal is work and education opportunities for youngsters, that can be accomplished by getting the kids on the bus to Beverly. Or, even better, provide a shuttle bus just for the kids.

Caddies at public golf courses simply do not work because most golfers would rather take a cart.

Hole 5 – If You Build It, Will They Come?

Early on, Kelly touted Rolfing as having a “unique relationship” with PGA Tour Commissioner Tim Finchem that would bring a Tour event to the new course.

My, how the times have changed.

Finchem is gone, replaced by Jay Monahan, and the PGA Tour has not made any commitment to a tournament. Their position is that they will take a look only after the course is built.

This is not a situation of “if you build it, they will come.” And even if the Tour would use the new course, it would likely be in a multi-year rotation with Medinah, Olympia Fields and Conway Farms. The promise of a Tour event at Jackson Park is faint at best and at worst, just marketing hype.

Hole 6 – Kids Will Play For Free

Kelly has said kids under 17 will play free at the new course. Kids already play free at Jackson Park. You can go to the clubhouse and read the prominent poster. It’s been that way for some time.

So, what’s this about? Critics point out that Kelly’s original emails made no mention of being “all about the kids,” and kids were brought in because Kelly sensed he was losing support for the project.

There is already a First Tee program in place at Jackson Park. The First Tee is the leading junior golf program in the United States, teaching life skills, core values and golf all rolled into a single educational program.

Also, local high school teams play and practice at South Shore. This will end when the course is plowed under. If it’s “all about the kids,” then expand the First Tee program by enlarging the short game practice area at South Shore, build a full-scale practice range north of Jackson Park and relocate that ball field to the current driving range.

Hole 7 – A Good Walk Spoiled

Woods, Rolfing and Kelly have all gone on record as making this a player-friendly walking course, encouraging the use of caddies. Stretching the new course to 7,314 yards, most holes will require golfers to walk back to the tee of the next hole. That means an occasional trek of hundreds of yards just to get to the proper tee for the lesser-skilled golfer.

Jackson Park and South Shore are old courses built long before motorized carts. On most holes, the green and next tee are really close, that’s the way golf was meant to be. Looking at the Woods drawings, the distance between the 14th green and the amateur tee at 15 is at least a quarter mile through an underpass of 67th Street that hasn’t yet been built.

This will discourage walking, further encouraging would-be walkers to consider taking a cart, increasing the expense and time it will take play.

Hole 8 – Too Little, Too Late

The current Woods design will not challenge PGA Tour players.

At 7,314 very flat yards, the pros would rip up the course. In 2017, the US Open was played at Erin Hills, a public access course in Wisconsin. The course was played at 7,740 yards, the longest course in US Open history. Brooks Koepka won at Erin Hills with a record-low score of 16-under par.

Erin Hills is a huge, rolling monster of a course with fescue rough that grew four feet high and greens that even bedeviled the best golfers in the world.

Erin Hills is also expansive, covering 632 acres. Three Jackson Park golf courses could easily fit inside Erin Hills. This is important because size does make a difference. It gives the freedom to carve out huge holes that provide large undulating greens, complemented with canyon-like bunkers that resist low scoring.

There just isn’t enough space to do this at the Jackson Park site, But if Tiger insists on making the greens resistant to scoring, meaning unduly undulating greens, the big loser will be the average daily fee golfer. In this case, you can’t have it both ways.

Hole 9 – Show Me the Money

The Chicago Park District made it very clear that it could not afford to build a $60 million golf course, so a unique plan was adopted. Rolfing would start The Chicago Parks Golf Alliance (CPGA), a 501(3)(3) charity to raise private funds to finance the course. That was done in December 2016.

Three years later, all we know is from the most current filing is that the CPGA has net assets of $152,000. Why the $60 million hasn’t been raised has many possible answers, but the money isn’t there. It would seem that until Rolfing and company can show the money, this project is dead in the water.


Bill Daniels has been in the golf industry since 1992 as a writer, editor, photographer and publisher. He was editor of the Chicago District Golfer, a publication of the Chicago District Golf Assn. In 1997, he founded Golf Chicago Magazine and GolfChicagoMagazine.com.

In 2008, he started Golf Chicago Insights, a communications and consulting firm. He served as a Director of The First Tee of Greater Chicago for six years, and is a certified coach for The First Tee. His photography has appeared in Golfweek and Golf Magazine.

He prefers walking the course and is still looking for the perfect carry bag.

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