What to make of Jackson Park
Aerial photo of Jackson Park Golf Course with Lake Michigan in the background. [Photo: Chicago Tribune]
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By Herb Gould
May 15, 2019

I don’t know what’s going to happen with the grand plan to transform Jackson Park, a quaint little 5,508-yard Park District course on Chicago’s South Side, into The Next Great Thing.

Nobody does, actually.

The project — a Tiger Woods design envisioned by broadcaster Mark Rolfing, a Chicago native, and backed strongly by outgoing Mayor Rahm Emanuel, Park District CEO Michael Kelly and any number of movers and shakers in the golf industry — is "totally on hold," as more than one person has intimated.

That’s because a federal judge ruled in February that a lawsuit challenging the location of the proposed Obama Library can proceed. The environmental group Protect Our Parks is trying to block the proposed $500 million presidential campus from being built on parkland near the lakefront.

Until that is resolved, the proposal to turn "JP," as it's called, and an adjacent nine-holer, South Shore, into an upscale layout is going nowhere. And unlike Emanuel, Chicago’s new mayor, Lori Lightfoot, is not enthusiastic about creating a golf oasis on Chicago’s South Side.

"It’s not a plan that’s been respectful of the community," she told the Chicago Sun-Times in April. "I’ve got some concerns and some red flags."

Without the mayor onboard, the plan to build Jackson Park is looking very shaky.

That disappoints many who think a fancy new Jackson Park golf course is a great idea. I am absolutely between clubs on this whole thing.

On one hand, it’s an exciting idea. A PGA Tour-worthy golf course on Chicago’s lakefront, with the Obama Library nearby? Reviving a neighborhood that could use some reviving? Creating jobs, including a caddie program for youngsters? And bringing the best golfers in the world to Chicago? That’s a lot of good stuff.

To top it off, the proposed golf course would be built mainly from private funds, although there would be some public funds used for things like infrastructure. And hey, it’s Chicago.

That said, this could be Chicago’s version of Harding Park, which has been rejuvenated in San Francisco.

On the other hand, organizations like Protect Our Parks have a point. We only have one lakefront. And we keep encroaching on it.

When the Friends of the Parks helped torpedo a $400 million plan by filmmaker George Lucas to build a Star Wars museum on our lakefront three years ago, was I bothered? No. 

Every time I visit a city that has revived a neighborhood with a stadium, I wish Soldier Field, which reopened in 2003, would have been moved off the lakefront, where lotteries are held for parking spaces to Bears game, and placed near an expressway.

Unlike a museum or a stadium, a golf course at least would take full advantage of being located on Lake Michigan.

And on a purely selfish front, I kind of like Jackson Park the way it is. It’s the only true 18-hole option in the city. Because it’s short and playable, rounds tend to be quick there.

South Shore, which is right on the lake, actually has the best ground, but it's a nine-holer that’s overgrown in some places, and unappetizing in others.

It’s Jackson Park that we love. It’s a very walker-friendly course. Just be careful when you cross Marquette Drive and Jeffery Avenue, the streets that divide its three segments.

Officially, JP is an 1899 Tom Bendelow design, and described as the first municipal course built west of the Alleghenies. I’m guessing Mr. Bendelow would no longer recognize it. But the same could be said for a number of Donald Ross courses, we well.

Until 1920, there were no greens fees at Jackson Park. Golf was so popular there that a second course was added. One course did an astounding 140,000 and the other 70,000 in 1911, if old newspaper accounts are to be believed. In 1936, Bobby Jones was among the 8,000 spectators who turned out for an exhibition of top pros.

I played at JP often in the ’80s. Where else could city dwellers walk on, spur-of-the-moment, on a Saturday afternoon? I then abandoned the course for several decades. The shaggy greens, not to mention non-golfers who would pick up your ball and offer to sell it back to you, became distractions.

But I returned several years ago and found it delightful. Under Billy Casper Golf management, JP’s greens are as good as many high-priced suburban layouts. The neighborhood has improved.

And the golf course is very sweet and unpretentious. You can tee off at 9:30, finish up by 12:30 — maybe even noon somedays. And it’s a fun little test.

"I do hope Tiger won’t change No. 4,’’ we jokingly say as we play the 300-yard dogleg that bedevils us. 

"He wouldn’t dare touch the 11th, would he?’’ we say, as we try to flip our short irons over the pond that guards this 296-yard signature hole.

Yes, five of the 10 par 4s are ridiculously short. My big-hitting friends are able to drive two of them. Then again, I always hit driver on two of the five par 3s—and I rarely hit the green on one, and never on the other.

Holes 14 through 16 — what I call JP’s Amen Corner — has back-to-back par 5s, followed by a very challenging par 4. No. 14 measures 559 yards, including a second shot that has a landing area only slightly wider than a Chicago alley. And try not to hit the people on the 15th tee with your approach to the green.

"It’s the longest hole in the city of Chicago,’’ I proudly tell visitors. I was a little embarrassed, though, when I saw the son of a college friend collect from his dad on a bet that I would say that when we got to No. 14.

The special moment of each round comes when you make turn from the ninth green to the 10th tee, the farthest point from the clubhouse.

Jackson Point, we call it.

From that spot, you can look across Lake Shore Drive and see Chicago’s skyline, in all its glory,

When we take in that view, we know why JP is coveted by Tiger Woods and any number of movers and shakers yearning for a high-caliber golf course.


Herb Gould is a former golf and senior college-sports writer for the Chicago Sun-Times, where his work still appears occasionally, and is a co-founder of TMGcollegesports.com.

Email: herbgould85@gmail.com.
Twitter: @HerbGould

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