Mark Rolfing, an NBC/Golf Channel analyst who grew up outside of the city, is spearheading a plan to combine two current public courses on the South Side into a standout 18- or 27-hole facility that could possibly attract a regular tour stop or even a major championship.
The playing of the BMW Championship this week at Conway Farms Golf Club in the Chicago suburb of Lake Forest, Ill. has brought new focus to a golf course development plan that could bring future professional tournaments to a city-based venue, the Chicago Tribune reported.
Mark Rolfing, a golf analyst for NBC and the Golf Channel who grew up in DeKalb, Ill. outside the city, is spearheading a plan, the Tribune reported, that would combine the Jackson Park and South Shore courses currently operated by the Chicago Park District to form one standout 18- or 27-hole facility.
Advocates of the plan see it as an engine for youth golf and economic development on the city’s South Side, where the University of Chicago is located and where President Obama has his Chicago residence.
“I’m dubbing this as the future of urban golf in America,” Rolfing told the Tribune. “We’re not creating access for golfers who already have it [with a private club]. This would be affordable for everyone. The PGA Tour and a major event would be the carrot at the end.
“The fact that what is arguably the greatest golf town in America doesn’t have a PGA Tour event on a regular basis pretty much says it all,” Rolfing added. “If we don’t have a compelling reason for the PGA Tour to be here, we’re missing the boat.”
Rolfing had hoped to take interested parties who were in town for the BMW Championship on a tour of the potential South Shore property this week, the Tribune reported, but he had to be in Houston for radiation therapy after having a cancerous tumor removed from his cheek.
He is undeterred by the challenges of cost, red tape and possible community reaction to the plan, the Tribune reported. While combining the courses might require building out land on Lake Michigan, the resulting holes could be spectacular, proponents say.
Michael Kelly, General Superintendent for the Park District, was not made available for an interview, the Tribune reported, but said in a statement that the Park District is “constantly looking for ways to provide growth and expansion of our golf programming for residents and visitors alike.”
The 18-hole Jackson Park course and 9-hole South Shore combine for about 40,000 rounds per year, according to an official at Billy Casper Golf, which manages the Park District’s eight golf properties.
When Jackson Park opened in 1899, the Tribune reported, it was the first public course west of the Allegheny Mountains. South Shore prospered as a country club through the 1950s, but was turned over to the Park District in 1974.
A BMW Championship or other tournament that lives in Chicago, rather than rotating among Conway Farms, Medinah (Ill.) Country Club and cities such as Indianapolis and Philadelphia, is an idea that intrigues some of the top power brokers in Chicago golf, the Tribune reported.
“It’s easy to envision the end result,” said Mike Keiser, the visionary Chicagoan who developed the acclaimed Bandon Dunes Golf Resort in Oregon and is now developing the new Sand Valley resort in Wisconsin.
“But it’s hard to envision all the ins and outs,” Keiser added. “It is fraught with political and cultural [challenges].”
John Kaczkowski, CEO of the Western Golf Association, which runs the BMW Championship, told the Tribune that having another potential option for where the tournament could be held in the city would be “really appealing.”
“I’ve looked at the map, the aerials [of the South Side property],” Kaczkowski said. “There’s certainly space enough to build an 18-hole facility and maybe another par-3 [course] or nine holes and have room for ancillary stuff for a tournament. And you can’t beat those views.
“But it can be tough to build a golf course to test the best in the world that also would be playable for someone learning the game,” he added.
“There are so many hurdles,” said KemperSports President Josh Lesnik, whose company manages courses such as The Glen Club in Glenview, Ill. and Washington’s Chambers Bay, which hosted the 2015 U.S. Open. “But could it be done? Absolutely it could.
“It has to make financial sense, where residents pay a favorable rate and tourists pay a big rate,” Lesnik told the Tribune. “And the project itself would be an enormous challenge, crossing roads and filling in the lake. But with a caddie program and college scholarships, it could be a phenomenal thing for that part of the city.”
Rolfing’s idea calls for private funding to support municipal golf, the Tribune reported. Keiser said he and Jerry Rich, who built the Rich Harvest Farms private course and country club in west suburban Sugar Grove, Ill., are among those who would offer financial support.
Jackson Park is among the areas in Chicago vying for the $500 million Obama Presidential Library, with a decision due in early 2016, the Tribune noted. And as Keiser put it: “President Obama loves to play [golf]. What better place to have a championship course than out the back of the Obama library?”
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