The Heartland: Touching down in the Windy City
Monday, August 16, 2010
CHICAGO – As a boy growing up in the Chicago suburbs, Josh Lesnik often whiled away the hours watching planes alight at Glenview Naval Air Station, a military base on the city’s outskirts.
It was wholesome entertainment.
But as the years passed, the air station shut down and Lesnik turned to golf as a diversion. On a recent summer morning near his childhood stomping grounds, Lesnik stood on what had been a busy tarmac, gazing at a landing strip of a different kind.
The fairway of a par 4 extended before him, bending around a water hazard toward a bowl-shaped green. On the same terrain where F-4 fighters had touched down, the land now bucked and rolled with gentle elevation changes, its former runways rumpled, its asphalt replaced by river birch and native grasses.
“For anyone who grew up in this area and remembers what it was, this setting is especially staggering,” said Lesnik, 41, president of KemperSports, a leading sports management and marketing firm. “It’s hard to believe how much it’s changed.”
The transformation began nearly 20 years ago, when Kemper assigned Tom Fazio to alchemize the abandoned air base into The Glen Club, a high-end daily-fee course on Chicago’s North Shore, roughly 25 minutes from downtown. The sheer scale of the work appealed to an architect of Fazio’s ambition, partly because it gave him vast creative range.
Chicago: Where to play
The Glen Club
• $155 (No. 4); $57-$73 (No. 2)
To construct the course, Fazio moved 2 million cubic yards of dirt, adding hills and swales to holes that wound their way around man-made streams and wetlands. After its completion, when asked to name his favorite projects, Fazio is said to have singled out Shadow Creek in Las Vegas and The Glen Club, because he’d built both essentially from scratch.
In its postcard looks and playability, The Glen Club defends itself through artful deception, in the placement of its bunkers and the visual distortions of its small rises and falls.
The layout, ranked No. 3 among Golfweek’s Best Courses You Can Play in Illinois, hosted a Nationwide Tour event for five years. Its fairways forgive the average player’s foibles, making it a hot spot for corporate outings and client golf. It’s also adjoined by a 21-room hotel, a rarity in a city where public stay-and-play destinations are in short supply.
Private clubs, by contrast, abound in Chicago. The most fashionable among them (Butler National, Medinah, Olympia Fields) have hosted a mix of Tour stops and majors. Nowadays, however, Chicago’s only regular Tour venue is public-access: the No. 4 course at Cog Hill, site of the 2010 BMW Championship. Also known as Dubsdread, and ranked No. 1 by Golfweek in Illinois, this 1964 design by Dick Wilson and Joe Lee was an adult layout from the day it was born. But it grew sharper teeth in 2008, when Rees Jones updated it – adding bunkers and shifting greens close to hazards – to better gird the course against the modern game.
From the opening hole, a 458-yard par 4, Dubsdread stands up firmly to technology’s assault. Prepare to hit it long and straight.
Cog Hill owner Frank Jemsek hopes to bring a U.S. Open to Dubsdread some day. True to that intent, he maintains the layout in mint condition, the greens kept glassy, the fairways trim.
Like his father Joe (who acquired Cog Hill in 1951) before him, Jemsek likes to cast the course as a people’s playground, in the spirit of Bethpage and Torrey Pines.
“When our players go out of town and someone asks them if they’re a member anywhere, they say Cog Hill,” says Jemsek. “The way they see it, this course is theirs, even though anyone can play it.”
Lesnik feels the same way about The Glen Club, and not just because his company helped construct it.
As he wrapped up a recent round on a par 5 with a water-guarded green, childhood memories washed over him.
“All that plane-watching I did,” he said, “I usually did it with my dad.”
When his snaking par putt dropped, Lesnik raised his arms and smiled. It was enough to make a grownup feel like a kid.