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Tiger, Rolfing’s Chicago Course Project Far From Fruition

By Bill Daniels,
Contributing Writer

COMMENTARY — Reports that a Tiger Woods-designed 18-hole golf course replacing the 27 holes at the  Jackson Park (JP) and South Shore (SS) Golf Courses in Chicago is “close to fruition” are wildly exaggerated.

In the words of Alan Greenspan, these statements exhibit “irrational exuberance.” This may be the first time that Greenspan has been quoted in a golf context, but it applies. The glowing statements that the Woods project is that close to getting done is not reflected by the realities on the ground.

Not even close. There are financial, logistical and political considerations that need to be understood, but the current boosters don’t like talking about these cold realities.

First, the Chicago Park District (CPD), the manager of all the city courses has to approve the proposed new course. The fact is that no approval has been given. At the April 2018 board meeting of the CPD, when faced with vocal and local opposition to the plan, Mike Kelly, the CEO and General Superintendent, emphatically said that no approval had been given because the Park District can’t afford to build Woods design. The original cost was pegged at $30 million but has since soared to $60 million.

Kelly explained that the course will be financed purely by private donors — not public money — and that until that money is secured, no approval can be given.

A little history is needed here.

Mark Rolfing’s Involvement

In 2015, Mark Rolfing, television golf commentator and long-time marketing man for the Kapalua Resort and other Hawaiian events, came to Kelly with an idea to build a new course on the Jackson Park and South Shore sites.

After receiving a consulting contract to determine the feasibility of the project, Rolfing came back to Kelly and said it could be done. Along the way, former President Barack Obama got interested and enlisted Tiger Woods for the design work. That is when the cost was estimated at $30 million — too much for the CPD.

So, the CPD and Rolfing entered into an agreement where Rolfing would establish The Chicago Parks Golf Alliance (CPGA), a 501(c)(3) charity to raise private donor funds for the building of the golf course. That was in 2016.

The CPGA, in its 2017 required Form 990 to the IRS, listed its net assets at $150,406, a far cry from the newly-estimated $60 million price tag, and points to why the proposed new course is far from fruition.

If, somehow, that money was found in 2018, no one knows because the CPGA hasn’t filed its 990. You would think that if that money was raised that maybe there would be a press release or some good news from the CPD and CPGA. Instead, silence.

In a good example of “irrational exuberance,” in emails between the CPD and CPGA obtained in a Freedom of Information Act request, the planned opening for the course was set for Spring 2017

Environmental Obstacles

There are other substantial strategic barriers to a new course beyond the monetary. Even if $60 million were suddenly found tomorrow, no plans, structural evaluations or environmental studies have been revealed, much less presented to the various regulatory authorities.

Since part of the course is on Lake Michigan, the Army Corps of Engineers has to have reviewed all the plans. This could be an issue because the lakefront along South Shore has long been identified as having real problems with erosion.

No one wants a golf hole to fall into Lake Michigan. That happened at Arcadia Bluffs in Michigan just a few years ago. Not good. And the Woods plan includes an island par-3 built out onto the lake. The Corps of Engineers is only one of many agencies that would have to pass on the wisdom of new construction along and in Lake Michigan. 

Golf course architects and developers know that the permitting process for new courses is often the most time-consuming and onerous part of a project. Working with multiple governmental authorities is slow work often requiring going back and revising and re-revising plans. Two years is often considered the norm for this step in building a golf course. So, in the Jackson Park scenario, this would hardly be low hanging fruit(ion).

Political Roadblocks

Now let’s talk politics; not any politics, Chicago politics. It’s amazing how the politicians, especially the CPD, forget how often they got their lunch handed to them because they ignore local politics and public opinion. Take, for example, the grassroots organization “Friends of the Park.” Established in 1975, Friends of the Parks advocates for an “equitable park system” and has always sought to protect the lakefront from development or destruction.

In 1978, the CPD backed down from destroying the South Shore Country Club building, now the South Shore Cultural Center, due to opposition from Friends of the Parks and public pressure. The nine-hole short course at South Shore winds its way around the original 1909 Mediterranian Revival-style building. But for this action, we wouldn’t have the final scene in the Blues Brothers movie.

In 1982, Friends of the Parks, in its first ”State of the Parks” report, found that the Park District discriminated against African-American and Hispanic communities by underfunding those areas. In 1983, the CPD and the Justice Department entered into a consent decree promising to correct these inequities. The Friends of the Parks was made a party to the consent decree. Thirty-five years later, in 2018 Friends of the Parks issued another “State of the Parks” report. That report declared that, once again, resources were not being spread equally to parks in predominantly minority neighborhoods.

In 2014,  Star Wars creator George Lucas looked to building his personal museum on lakefront property though long-standing policies were contrary to the construction of this kind. Mayor Rahm Emanuel and other heavy hitters pushed hard for the museum, but once again Friends of the Parks prevailed and in 2016, Lucas went back to California without his pet project. The moral of these stories: don’t mess with Friends of the Parks.

The Woods/Rolfing proposal will reduce what is currently parkland used by all Chicagoans. There is also a lovely wildlife sanctuary at South Shore that would become decimated by three proposed golf holes. This would be contrary to the Friends of the Parks policy of keeping Chicago parks, “open, clear and free.” It didn’t work for Lucas, and it may not work for Rolfing. Again, don’t mess with Friends of the Parks.

Another environmental group with political roots is Openlands, established in 1963. They have been very active in protecting natural areas in Northeast Illinois. The group recently said, “Openlands is opposed to any change with the golf course that would have a negative impact on the (wildlife) sanctuary.”

Over the years, Openlands and Friends of the Parks have been very successful in raising public support for their concerns. They aren’t thrilled about the plans for Jackson Parks and South Short and are a political force in Chicago.

New Leadership In Chicago

Then there is Chicago mayoral politics. Current mayor Emanuel, a former Chief of Staff to President Obama, was the 700-hundred-pound gorilla in Chicago politics until he wasn’t. Last September, he announced a bombshell when he said he would not seek another term. Other emails show that it was Kelly who urged Emanuel to get behind the push for the new golf course and Emanuel obliged bringing in Obama who brought in Tiger Woods.

With Emanuel not running, the fate of the golf course may be up for grabs. All of the candidates running for mayor have distanced themselves from Emanuel, and many are running away from his past policies, fast. 

The next mayor could likely be a minority person, either African-American or Hispanic and the new mayor could be very sensitive to the 2018 Friends “State of the Parks” report showing continued inequities in park resources. There will be pressure on the new mayor and Parks Super Kelly to answer and respond to the Friends report.

In Chicago, the mayor appoints the Parks CEO/Superintendent. In politics, every new leader gets to choose their new team. So, Kelly’s job may not be that secure, especially with the negative 2018 “Parks” report. If Kelly is replaced, you can expect the new CEO to examine any and all of the previous administration’s decisions, especially a controversial one like the Woods/Rolfing project. That’s just politics, Chicago-style.

In a place like Chicago, a dramatic change in the political scenery always creates uncertainty. In Chicago in 2019, this is magnified by a number of political scandals currently swirling in the city that is impacting the mayoral election and could have legs beyond the mayoral election.  

In this atmosphere, it seems hard to imagine that there would be much enthusiasm by wealthy donors to ante up for a golf course that is beset with lingering and potentially crippling issues. There’s no fruition here. Move along.

This Is Only The Beginning

But this is only the tip of the proverbial iceberg. There are holes — big holes — in the narrative about the bounty and boon that the new golf course would bring to Chicago. And there is another narrative that Jackson Park could be truly renovated for about one-tenth of the current plans. That’s $6 million versus $60M.

Stay tuned for more to come.

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 communication 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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