In My Opinion

Tiger’s Plans for Chicago Course Misses the Mark


Bill Daniels
April, 2019

Tom Doak’s Discarded Plan for Jackson Park and South Shore Golf Course Shows How the Current Proposal Misses the Mark

The University of Chicago retained renown course architect, Tom Doak, to “improve” Jackson Park and South Shore Golf Courses as part of their anticipated development of the Obama Presidential Library. Doak’s plan was submitted in June 2014 as part of the University’s initial bid for the Obama Center. But Doak’s plan remained under wraps until October 2018.

Jackson Park  and South Shore golf courses are part of the Chicago Park District and comprise a total of 27 holes. Jackson Park was the first 18-hole public course west of the Alleghenies, built in 1899. And South Shore was built in the 1920’s originally as a private course. They have changed little since their inceptions. But they should not be discounted.

According to architect Greg Martin, of Sugar Grove, IL, “ …Jackson Park…has good bones…” calling it impressive with, “…fun and unique green complexes…” as well having a range of yardages and challenges. Another regional architect, Mike Benkusky compared it to Wrigley Field as “… a gem residing within  a neighborhood.”

There now exists a major controversy as to what to do with the two courses, because the Chicago Park District want to demolish both in favor of an 18-hole course designed by Tiger Woods and being promoted by golf TV commentator Mark Rolfing. This is in conjunction with the proposed Obama Presidential Center near the courses, which is also mired in some controversy. But it is interesting to learn what Doak proposed long before the Woods/Rolfing design had even been considered.

Even though the U of C never adopted any of Doak’s plans, his report is instructive  because it shows possible  flaws of the current plan offered by Woods and Rolfing.

And Doak does have the experience with small projects that make his comments noteworthy. In his report to the U of C he said, “One of our past projects, The Rawls Course at Texas Tech University, was funded by a single graduate of the engineering school there, Jerry Rawls. Mr. Rawls remembered that at graduate school at Purdue, the university’s golf course provided opportunities for him to socialize and engage with vis- iting alumni and professors while still a lowly student. He felt that the golf course was a magnet to bring successful alumni back to the area. We believe that an improved golf facility at Jackson Park, in conjunction with the presidential library, could offer exactly the same benefits over the next 100 years to the south side of Chicago and its residents.”

Doak offered the University three different plans. Plan A was for one 18-hole course using all the land of JP and SS and more. Plan B was for 27 holes and Plan C was for 9-holes courses at each location, with an additional three holes for tournament play. Each plan was problematic.

Doak noted his own problems reducing the current 27 holes to 18; He said, “We do have a concern that a solution with only 18 holes might become too much of a money-maker for the city, to the point that it crowds out the local golfers altogether. That would be a tragedy.“

Doak assumes that his course would be a success. This is not a given. But his comments about squeezing out the local golfers are well taken. The current Rolfing/Woods  proposal of 18 holes only is even more grandiose because it is planned as a site for a future PGA Tour Event. ( also, very problematic).  Courses like that are always expensive, with daily fees typically exceeding $150 and possible topping $300.  And though the Park District says, without  specification, that they will keep fees low for local golfers, Chicago golfers could see fees double from what they pay now- between $22-$35.  Further, local players could be limited to certain times and/or days. In Doak’s words that would be a tragedy.

Doak’s Plans B and C foresaw nine holes at each course. Plan B would have nine holes at South Shore, though the current holes would be abandoned. Plan C would place  nine holes each at JP and SS. Plan C would also include practice and teaching facilities at each course.

Doak’s plans included building three holes on lake landfill just north of SS and three more  holes on Wooded Island north of the current Jackson Park course and north  of 63rd st. Though Doak probably didn’t know it at the time, but those six holes, in the lake and on Wooded Island, are political hot potatoes, with little chance of ever getting approval from all the regulatory authorities.

So, while Doak’s plans were destined to be non-starters, his comments are about the virtues of nine-hole courses are helpful.

Doak said, “ Though many people in the golf business today scoff at 9-hole courses and think of them as second-class facilities, those very same experts lament losing customers because the game takes too long to play!” Doak is correct about keeping 9-hole courses, not only because they are time efficient, but because they are more attractive to younger  and older players. And contrary to what Doak says there are many people in the golf industry who are in favor of more 9-hole courses. The United States Golf Association (USGA), has a program called “Play9”. It says that,…”playing nine holes is a great way to fit the game into a busy schedule and introduce new players to the game.”

So why is the Park District and the Tiger Woods design team so intent on taking 27 holes to make an 18-hole golf course that could in Doak’s estimation squeeze out local and new junior golfers?

Well, you can probably attribute it to slick salesmanship and ambition. This requires a little bit of history. Mark Rolfing, a TV golf commentator and marketer from Hawaii, first floated the concept of 27 into 18 in 2015 while convalescing at the U of C hospitals. He then contacted Park District CEO Mike Kelly and proposed a course for Chicago along the lake front that in his words would be “world class”. Before much more happened Rolfing secured a $100,000 plus consulting contract to determine if the project was feasible. Rolfing later came back to the Park District essentially saying that, “ yeah” we can do this. Now that’s salesmanship. Then CEO Kelly went straight to Chicago mayor Rahm Emanuel extolling the virtues of Rolfing’s project and the game was on. Has there even been a Chicago politician who wasn’t fascinated by a bright, shiny (read expensive) special project?

Rolfing initially contacted Coore & Crenshaw but the firm quickly withdrew not wanting to get involved with what would obviously be a very political project. Then the emails starting flying around city hall and it wasn’t long before President Obama became involved. Once he heard of Rolfing’s project he said, I want Tiger. And that’s how TGR Design got the contract to take 27 and make it into 18 golf holes.

And the sales job continued. Kelly, Rolfing and Emanuel have touted the new golf course as an economic engine for the south side. They say the new course will bring in jobs, and other growth to the neighborhood. But they have not explained or documented how or how much the course will bring to the southside. And how much more will this fancy course cost to run and maintain? No answers. You would think that for a project estimated to cost $60M that someone would want to know if this all makes sense.

In August 2018 Chicago Tribune columnist and amateur golfer, Eric Zorn considered the $60M price tag and suggested that the Park District re-think their plans and take a  mulligan. Zorn pointed out that that other  architects with experience in renovating municipal golf courses suggested that for $3-5M the existing courses could be refreshed and enhanced This seems like a common-sense alternative. But until people start demanding common sense explanations judgment should be withheld.

Finally, Tom Doak is a really good golf course architect. Of his twenty-three original designs he has five courses in the Top 100 of golf courses in the world as rated by Golf Magazine. And he has eight American courses in the Top 100 as rated by Golfweek, including spots at #2,4,5,and 7! No one can top that. Tiger Woods has just begun his golf design business and so it isn’t surprising that none of his designs can match Doak’s record.

When Tiger started his pro golf career he was savvy. Even with his tremendous talents he knew he needed as much knowledge as possible. So, he sought out such legends as Jack Nicklaus and Arnold Palmer to pick their brains about succeeding on the PGA Tour. It’s too bad he didn’t talk to Doak before he put his hands on JP and SS courses.

The End