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EDITORIAL: Bold proposal for South Side golf course still hooking and slicing

Chicago needs hard data, not pledges from a sales team, before signing on to a plan that would put the city on the hook for tens of millions of dollars.

Markku Kanerva, 55, on vacation in Chicago from Finland, plays a round of golf at Jackson Park Golf Course, 6401 S. Richards Dr., Thursday morning, Aug. 15, 2019.
Markku Kanerva, on vacation in Chicago from Finland, plays a round of golf at Jackson Park Golf Course on Thursday morning,
Ashlee Rezin Garcia/Sun-Times

Tiger Woods is in town this weekend for a golf tournament in the suburbs, which has stirred talk again about building a big new course, designed by Woods, on Chicago’s South Side.

“We’re excited about it,” Woods told reporters. “It’s still going forward.”

Ald. Leslie Hairston, sounding more sold on the idea than ever, told reporters that she hopes to convince Mayor Lori Lightfoot to get on board.

When Lightfoot was asked about a possible meeting with Woods, though, she said: “I don’t think the ball’s in my court.”

Precisely. The ball is not in the mayor’s court. And it should be in nobody’s court until promoters of the plan can provide convincing answers to basic questions about the cost and community impact, which they have yet to do after two years.

An enthusiastic sales pitch will never be enough.

Merging two existing courses

The proposal is to combine two Chicago Park District golf courses — the 18-hole Jackson Park course and the 9-hole South Shore course — into a single course of a size and grandeur sufficient to host PGA tournaments. The idea has been around for years, but gained steam after President Barack Obama chose Jackson Park for his presidential center.

Obama likes to play golf, as do many of the muckety-mucks he expects to host at his presidential center. A fancy golf course would be a real treat.

The Chicago Park District has been working on the project for two years, in cooperation with a group of local golf enthusiasts, the Chicago Parks Golf Alliance, but they have made notable progress on only one front — community involvement. They have gained Hairston’s support, as we said, and held 10 public meetings that — by their count — drew more than 1,800 people.

They’re also pretty proud of a college scholarship program the Golf Alliance has created for young golfers in the city — they asked us to mention that — and we commend them for it.

It’s just that Chicago needs to see hard and independent research — not pledges from a sales team — before signing on to a financially fuzzy plan that would put the city on the hook for tens of millions of dollars. And possibly price out golfing duffers.

Where the hazards lie

Among the key concerns:

• The new course, as envisioned, would feature a spectacularly scenic 12th hole, jutting out into Lake Michigan, that would destroy an existing nature sanctuary. The Golf Alliance says the sanctuary would only be “reshaped,” but it would effectively be wiped out. It would be reduced in size, and the remaining portion would be subjected to a hail of golf balls from hooks and slices.

Hairston on Tuesday told the Sun-Times’ Fran Spielman that the nature sanctuary, in its current form, is “actually all dead.”

It is, on the contrary, alive and beautiful as we see it. It is underused, to be sure, but still a park district gem.

• The Golf Alliance estimates the new course would cost $30 million to build. The Alliance would raise 80% of that money and Chicago taxpayers would pay the remaining 20%. The city also would invest $30 million in road, bridge and lakeshore erosion protection improvements.

Are any of those estimated costs to be trusted? We have no idea. Numbers are thrown out without much supporting documentation. And would the Golf Alliance come through with its share of the funding — $24 million? A leader of the Alliance told Spielman they’ve got pledges for $10 million so far. From whom? And where’s the rest coming from? If that private funding never materializes, Chicago taxpayers — and park district golfers — will be stuck with the bill.

The Golf Alliance estimates the economic benefit to Chicago would be $150 million. But, with all respect, that sounds like a made-up number. The Alliance and the park district have yet to release an authoritative independent study of the costs and economic impact.

• The Golf Alliance and park district offer reassurances that the new course, grand though it might be, still would be affordable to the average golfer. They have pledged that the cost for a round would be $50 or less.

When we have asked how they can be sure of that, they cite no independent studies done specifically for Chicago. They point instead to five PGA-caliber public courses elsewhere that have managed to keep greens fees affordable.

We looked at those five courses, as well, and found that the greens fees were considerably higher, especially on weekends, than the $50 max being floated for Chicago.

The Golf Alliances’ favorite comparable is Torrey Pines, a magnificent, ocean-side public course in San Diego, California, which is not reassuring. Torrey Pines, to begin with, is open 360 days a year, pulling in money during all those winter months when Chicago golf is in hibernation.

South Side needs economic boost

Chicago’s South Side needs economic development, and the Jackson Park and South Shore golf courses — as underused as a couple of other park district courses — are outdated and worn. There is a great appeal, at first blush, in merging the two older courses into a single grand course that could be a catalyst for further economic development.

But as Mayor Lightfoot said, mixing sports metaphors, the ball’s not in her court — or ours or yours.

It’s up to the Golf Alliance and the park district to make the case.

So far, they’re not coming close.

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