Rude: It doesn't get any better than Chicago golf

Nicolas Colsaerts plays at Medinah Country Club, just one of the many highlights to golf around Chicago.

Nicolas Colsaerts plays at Medinah Country Club, just one of the many highlights to golf around Chicago.

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Golfweek Senior Writer Jeff Rude is an Evans Scholar out of Glen Flora Country Club in Waukegan, Ill.

• • •

MEDINAH, Ill. – An uncommon rich thread weaves through the tapestry that is Chicago golf. One can argue without much stretch that this weather-challenged area rates as the country’s most special golf community. Never mind that golfers, pent-up and wanting in winter, must cram 12 months of golf into seven.

The rare golf spirit and culture here are built upon several elements but none more important than these three: Depth of outstanding public and private courses; a history boasting legendary tournament winners, club professionals and even gangsters; and an unrivaled caddie program that has elevated thousands of low-income lives.

Tradition is nice. You can reminisce about it and hang it on your wall and paste it in your scrapbook. Harry Vardon, Walter Hagen, Francis Ouimet, Ben Hogan, Byron Nelson, Sam Snead, Babe Didrikson Zaharias, Patty Berg, Bobby Locke, Mickey Wright, Arnold Palmer, Jack Nicklaus, Tiger Woods, Annika Sorenstam and, of course, Chicago’s own superstar, Chick Evans, have won here. Everyone big has made a big mark here.

But the golf courses, they are more important. You can play them, feel them, in the here and now. And they keep coming at you, like flies in an Australian summer. Chicago-area golf is nothing if not Q-squared, all about quantity and quality.

The essence of its high perch lies in the volume of terrific lesser-known tracks, many of them century-old, parkland classics with small, sloping greens and tree-lined fairways. Besides the touted likes of Ryder Cup host Medinah No. 3, Olympia Fields North, Shoreacres and Chicago Golf Club are so many country-club gems with which the great unwashed are unfamiliar. Same applies to the daily-fee category, where beneath an upper crust including Cog Hill Dubsdread, Glen Club and Thunderhawk lie a litany of wonderful, and affordable, golf experiences.

So, so many. That’s the refrain from all corners.

“You could play the whole PGA Tour schedule right here in the Chicago area (weather permitting),” said 1988 PGA champion Jeff Sluman, an assistant U.S. Ryder Cup captain who makes suburban Hinsdale home. “There are that many good courses here.”

Some 38 Chicago-area venues have contested well more than 100 events conducted by the U.S. Golf Association, PGA Tour and LPGA. Fifty-four USGA tournaments have been held here on 20 courses. In other words, so many clubs can turn their clubhouses into museums with historic photos and artifacts.

Chicago, of course, has gained much attention through its marquee stagings. Eight Chicago District Golf Association courses have hosted 13 U.S. Opens. The resume also features a dozen U.S. Amateurs, six PGA Championships, three U.S. Women’s Opens and about 90 regular PGA Tour stops, mainly Western Opens. Medinah itself has had three Opens, two PGAs, a U.S. Senior Open, three Westerns and now a Ryder Cup.

“The best golf city in the country for me is Chicago,” late legend Byron Nelson once said. “I won seven tournaments there.”

But Chicago’s pillar stands behind all that neon. Namely, as college football coaches like to say, “quality depth.” Namely close to 400 CDGA courses. Namely the vast next level below the Medinahs and Cogs. Namely daily fees such as Harborside International, Highlands of Elgin, Cantigny, Pine Meadow, Village Links. Namely privates such as Kemper Lakes, Skokie, Beverly, Conway Farms, Point O’Woods, Dunes Club, North Shore and Merit Club.

“If you live in Chicago and have the opportunity to play all the good daily-fee and private courses, you’re in golf heaven,” Sluman said. “You should be happy for many, many years without having to play the same course again.”

The Chicago district is this deep: Olympia Fields has a U.S. Open course, and many members like to play its South Course better. Remarkably, so many of the area’s jewels sit on prime, multimultimillion-dollar real estate that would make any developer salivate.

“Friends of mine who come here are shocked at the number of good courses we have,” said Jerry Maatman, CDGA president in 1999-01. “We have a lot of hidden gems people have never heard of but would give an arm and leg to play if they had a chance.”

New York City’s Metropolitan Golf Association, Chicago’s only worthy challenger, has had more U.S. Opens (21 total). It has had more USGA events (almost 100). But it has about 150 more courses (about 500 total), and its facilities are more spread out, some separated by 200 miles. As longtime PGA Tour player David Ogrin said, “You’ll get to more good courses faster from Joel Hirsch’s office (in Chicago) than, say, Willard Scott’s office (in New York).” What’s more, the Big Apple is known for its top-tier private clubs, not for an array of excellent daily fees.

“Pound for pound, there’s not a city where there are so many good golf courses, so many good options, as Chicago,” said John Kaczkowski, Western Golf Association president and CEO. “The comment I always hear from other tournament directors is they can’t believe the number of good ones here.”

Errie Ball, 101, who played in the first Masters (1934), spent about half a century in the Chicago area as head professional at Oak Park and Butler National. Today, you will find him in the Stuart, Fla., area. You also will hear him talking up Windy City golf.

“What’s the best golf city in the country?” Ball said. “I would say Chicago. There are so many darned good golf courses in and around the city. It’s a very special golf city.”

For varied incomes, too. One need not be a captain of industry to play memorable sites.

“There are so many very good, relatively inexpensive daily-fee courses available here,” said Hirsch, winner of the British Senior Amateur in 1996 and 2000. “There are quality courses available for every pocketbook, not just for the well-to-do. That’s so important.”

Significant, too, is the opportunity to run into a course wrapped in history, a place to walk where the game’s greats have.

Start with Chicago Golf Club, America’s first 18-hole course, circa 1895, designed by Charles Blair MacDonald and later rerouted by Seth Raynor. It held both the 1897 U.S. Open and U.S. Amateur. Vardon won the Open there in 1900, and there 11 years later John McDermott, at 19, became the first American to win the U.S. Open, ending Scottish dominance.

Chicago golf history means Charles "Chick" Evans Jr., the great lifelong amateur who won 54 tournaments over four decades. Evans won the U.S. Open and U.S. Amateur in 1916, the year the PGA was formed. On his mother’s advice, he retained his amateur status by placing his golf earnings in a fund to educate caddies. In 1928, the WGA agreed to administer the trust, with Western Open proceeds going to the Evans Scholars Foundation, the nation’s largest privately funded college scholarship program.

The importance of this caddie element cannot be overstated. This is Chicago’s trump card. It sets Chicago apart, for no other golf area in the world makes such an enormous difference in the lives of needy boys and girls whose parents make a relative pittance.

“If there’s a swing factor in what city is the best golf city, it’s Chicago’s caddie programs,” said Ogrin, who played his way from the Glen Flora CC caddie yard in Waukegan to two CDGA Amateur titles to two PGA Tour victories. “It gives non-monied kids an opportunity to cross over, to network and to get into a better way of life.”

The vast majority of Chicago-area private clubs have a caddie program. As a young looper, you learn how to be street-tough in the caddieshack, and you learn social skills and business on the course. You learn golf, the lifetime game that puts kings and paupers on equal footing for four hours. You learn life and make connections and a buck. And if you are fortunate enough to earn an Evans Scholarship, you learn that dreams indeed come true, that chances are your life will be forever charmed. More than 10,400 Evans recipients, including 800-plus currently in college, have felt the love.

“No other top golf cities have a caddie program like we do,” said Chicago Golf Club member Bill Shean Jr., winner of the 1998 and ’00 U.S. Senior Amateurs and ’99 British Senior Amateur. “It wouldn’t be considered a good club here if it didn’t have a caddie program.”

Chicago golf history, too, means Bobby Jones. His remarkable playing career spanned only the Roaring ’20s, but his course records at Chicago Golf Club and Flossmoor lived until the 21st century. They lasted more than 70 years.

Chicago history means Hogan’s 62 in the 1942 Hale American Open. It means Hagen winning majors at Midlothian (1914 U.S. Open) and Olympia Fields (1925 PGA). It means Johnny Farrell upsetting Jones in a 1928 U.S. Open playoff at Olympia Fields. It means Sarazen winning the 1922 U.S. Open at Skokie, Ouimet the 1931 U.S. Amateur at Beverly and Woods the 1999 and ’06 PGAs at Medinah. It means Snead and Berg winning at Olympia Fields in 1938. It means Jerry Barber holing a mile of putts to take the 1961 PGA at Olympia. It means Hogan winning three Chicago Opens, Nelson two and Snead one. It means Nelson winning George S. May’s festival at Tam O’Shanter four times, Hogan twice and Snead once. It means Nicklaus and Palmer each winning twice at the Western Open, once considered a major. It means Hale Irwin’s high-five lap at Medinah.

Chicago history means legendary players as club pros--Tommy Armour at Medinah, Babe Didrikson Zaharias at Skycrest, Jock Hutchinson at Glenview, Johnny Revolta at Evanston, Harry Cooper at Glen Oak, Ky Laffoon at Northmoor and Jack Fleck at Green Acres.

It means 1970s public links players Gary Hallberg, Gary Pinns and Ogrin competing against one another in junior golf on their way to the PGA Tour. It means local kids Bob Zender, Lance Ten Broeck and Pete Jordan also growing into Tour players. It means transplants Chip Beck and Sluman. It means past PGA Teacher of the Year Jim Suttie at Cog Hill.

“Chicago can give a young golfer a chance to be a complete player,” Ogrin said. “Even with the winter. Every year I wouldn’t play from Thanksgiving to opening day, but every spring I was way better, not just a little better. There’s something about rejuvenating the juices. You recharge the batteries, and you’re excited.”

“The short season is a major part of golf being so big in Chicago,” said three-time Tour winner Hallberg, a construction worker’s son who caddied at Biltmore CC before going to Wake Forest and becoming the first four-time first-team NCAA All-American. “We couldn’t wait to get out there. Not being able to play in the winter drove me.”

Chicago’s fabric is about late course owner-professional Joe Jemsek, patriarch of public golf, at Cog Hill, Pine Meadow and beyond. It’s about international champions Hirsch and Shean. It’s about the WGA in suburban Golf, Ill. It’s about the PGA of America being headquartered here for decades. About Berg representing St. Andrews in West Chicago. About the CDGA Golf House in Lemont and Illinois Golf Hall of Fame at The Glen Club. About Bill Murray caddieing at Indian Hill. About club pros Bill Ogden at North Shore and Hubby Habjan at Onwentsia. About golfaholic Michael Jordan’s one-time celebrity tournament and his several local club memberships. About Stan Mikita teaching golf. About Mike Ditka once playing in the PGA Grand Slam. About Mr. Cub, Ernie Banks, being a golf junkie.

Chicago golf is all about intensity and being crazy enough to play in 30-degree temperatures with snow on the ground. It’s about improving the swing (through education) and body (through exercise) in winter. It’s about permanent tee times on weekend mornings. It’s about many suburban country clubs being built near the train line so rich city folk could get there 100 years ago. It’s about enthusiastically waiting till next spring, full of hope. It’s about so many good municipal courses.

“Every suburb has made a commitment to having a park district course,” Ogrin said. “I haven’t seen that anywhere else in the country. If they do, it’s usually a rat hole.”

And Chicago golf is about lore you won’t find in a record book.

Jemsek was a 17-year-old assistant pro when Chicago crime czar Al "Scarface" Capone called Cog Hill in early February 1929 and asked where he could get some clubs while in Miami for golf. When Capone said he and his boys were about to board a Florida-bound train in Chicago, Jemsek said he’d bring four sets to the train stop in Kankakee. When Jemsek delivered, Capone playfully balked at the price of $110 apiece until Jemsek informed of the glove, tees and dozen balls in each bag. So Capone forked over $440, plus a $100 tip.

“My dad was probably nervous, but he was a bulldog and wasn’t going to lose that sale,” says Frank Jemsek, Cog Hill president.

A couple of nights later, seven of rival gang leader George "Bugs" Moran’s well-dressed men were killed by a barrage of bullets while lined up facing a wall in a city garage. Capone was the one and only suspect but got off. He pleaded not guilty, saying he was in Miami. And so Joe Jemsek, future golf legend, unwittingly was something of an alibi in the unsolved St. Valentine’s Day Massacre.

Four years later, Capone’s ace hit man, “Machine Gun” Jack McGurn, known as Public Enemy No. 5, was arrested by three plainclothes officers on Olympia Fields’ seventh hole while playing the Western Open under his real name, Vincent Gebhardi. A detective, armed with a judge’s warrant, had spotted Gebhardi’s name in the sports section after his first-round 83. The cops granted his request to finish the second round, during which he roughed up a photographer after making an 11 on the eighth. Then, accompanied by flashy wife Louise, known as the “Blonde Alibi,” Machine Gun was taken to jail.

“Just put it down that I’m booked for carrying concealed ideas,” he said entering his cell.

Machine Gun, the Blonde Alibi and others of their gangland ilk often would play Cog Hill back then. That would scare Joe Jemsek at times. Perhaps “Who’d you shoot?” was sometimes more of an apropos 19th-hole inquiry than “What’d you shoot?” But when asked why so many mobsters played at Cog, Jemsek was at his marketing best. “Because,” he said, “it’s the best course in town.”

Several courses around town were good to Byron Nelson. He prolonged his 11-straight streak at Calumet in 1945. He won four times at Tam O’Shanter and twice at Medinah. His memories could fill a hard-cover.

The first time Nelson came here, for the 1931 U.S. Amateur, he took a bus from Texas and, low on money, slept on a couch in a friend’s hotel room. Then, encountering bentgrass greens for the first time, he three-putted 13 times in 36-hole qualifying.

Another time, Nelson was near the first tee at Tam O’Shanter when tournament organizer George S. May bet boxing champion Joe Louis $1,000 to $1 that he couldn’t break 80 in that round of the World Championships. “Then Joe hit his tee shot off the toe and over the clubhouse on the right and out of bounds,” Nelson recalled. “He didn’t break 80.”

May, though, didn’t win all of his bets.

One year he bet Nelson $100 to $1 that he wouldn’t shoot 34 or lower on the back nine. As it happened, Lord Byron eagled the par-5 10th and made a hole-in-one on the 11th. He shot 32.

He won the tournament handily and collected a handsome first prize. And more.

“I got my $100 from George, too,” Byron Nelson said.

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