Obama library in Jackson Park spurs big golf course redesign

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A company owned by Tiger Woods will merge two Chicago Park District golf courses into one near the site of the Obama library. | ANDREW CABALLERO-REYNOLDS/AFP/Getty Images

A pair of century-old South Side golf courses would be combined into a single championship-caliber course designed by a company owned by Tiger Woods under a $30 million project that gained momentum when President Barack Obama chose Jackson Park for his presidential library.

On Sunday, Mayor Rahm Emanuel and Chicago Park District Superintendent Mike Kelly will announce creation of the Chicago Parks Golf Alliance to spearhead the project that’s been on the park district’s drawing board for the south lakefront since 2000.

The not-for-profit alliance will be led by Mark Rolfing, an analyst for NBC Golf Channel and a golf-course designer himself. The group hopes to convince private donors — who may be some of the same individuals and businesses tapped to fund the Obama library — to pony up most of the $30 million needed to transform the Jackson Park and South Shore golf courses into a single, 18-hole course by late 2020.

The project is expected to begin sometime next year, “primarily” financed by donations.

“I’m pretty bullish on this because there’s so many corporate partners with the PGA now in Chicago,” Kelly told the Chicago Sun-Times on Friday. “Chicagoland, in spite of our climate, is a golf-crazed area. While golf is down, Chicago still can support golf and we still operate our golf courses in the black.”

Does that mean not a dollar of public money will be used for the project?

“No. No. No,” Kelly said. “I always hope there’s no public money involved. But, I can’t say that there won’t be on this. I just don’t know yet.”

The prospect of using public money is not the part that scares Juanita Irizarry, executive director of Friends of the Parks. Irizarry’s opposition to Emanuel’s giveaway of lakefront park land near Soldier Field killed movie mogul George Lucas’ plan to build an interactive museum in Chicago.

“The question is, whether ultimately low-income people and people from the neighborhood will still have access to that part of a public park,” Irizarry said. “We would always be concerned about the budgetary implications. But, it really goes to a much larger, comprehensive planning process.

“There are lots of other priorities folks have for the park. We need to think about how all of those fit together — not just have one puzzle piece put forth and then the rest of the puzzle have to be built around that piece. The decision-making is backwards.”

Kelly insisted that the revamped golf course would remain “for all practical purposes within the current footprint” for both courses.

“That was one of the stipulations we made from the get-go . . . to stay within the footprint,” he said. “I want to create dynamic park space to complement the golf course. But, I certainly do not want to take away park space for more golf.”

Obama is an avid golfer who has spent more time on the links than almost any other president in the nation’s history.

A combined championship course carved out of the existing, 18-hole Jackson Park course and the 9-hole, par-3 South Shore course would give him a potentially glorious place to play whenever he returns to Chicago.

“Was the library announcement a catalyst for the golf? Probably,” Kelly said. “That’s great because it’s not a new idea.”

Five years ago, Kelly made golf free for anyone 17-and-under to try and minimize the cost of an expensive sport and get more inner-city kids involved.

“My hope is that, when we’re done here with the likes of Tiger Woods and his brand, there’s gonna be a huge resurgence in golf in Chicago,” he said.

In a press release announcing the non-profit that will spearhead the ambitious project, Emanuel touted the golf course merger.

The release stressed that “neighborhood golfers will be able to continue to access and enjoy” the new course “at a reduced rate.” The alliance will also work with the Chicago-based Western Golf Association to “promote caddie programs that will help young men and women from nearby neighborhoods” become Evans scholars with a free ride to college.

Woods, owner of TGR design, called it an “honor” to be asked to design a course in “one of American’s greatest golf cities.”

“This project can create incredible possibilities for the community of the South Side. We want to design a course that everyone will enjoy,” he was quoted as saying.

The Jackson Park golf course opened in 1899. The shorter South Shore course opened in 1907.

Ald. Roderick Sawyer (6th), chairman of the City Council’s Black Caucus, said he’s all for the merger, so long as all of the money is raised privately.

“Those course are prime pieces of real estate that should have been developed a long time ago. But, I would be concerned about using public money on the golf course when we have so many other issues we need to attack—from homelessness to crime to education,” he said.

Unlike Obama, Sawyer said he doesn’t play much golf. But, he said, “Maybe it would convince me to play more if I had a course like this to go to.”

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