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As Obama Center advances, Tiger Woods golf course is stuck in the rough

Fundraising challenges and a change of administrations are among the issues facing the plan to join the Jackson Park and South Shore courses, creating a premier 18-hole attraction.

Construction crews tear up a turf field and track as work begins Aug. 16 on the Obama Presidential Center in Jackson Park.
Anthony Vazquez/Sun-Times

It’s been five years since Barack Obama, still in the White House, lifted his regal finger over a map of Jackson Park and said, “There,” deciding the issue of where his presidential legacy would be celebrated.

Debate ensued, legal challenges were raised and adjudicated, and now the Obama Presidential Center looks like a real thing. There are crews and equipment moving dirt in Jackson Park.

Questions abound: Will his foundation have the money to build the center and support its operations? What kind of programs and events will it attract? Will it benefit the surrounding community while improving part of a historic park?

These are legitimate and important questions, but there’s one more hanging out there for anyone who has followed this development controversy: Whatever happened to the golf course idea? The one that was to involve Tiger Woods and was pushed in tandem with Obama’s project, promising public works with star power? Obama called Woods to get him on board, the Chicago Tribune said.

The idea appears to be in hibernation, like a fairway that never gets water. Signs of life are hard to find, although advocates say the project is still viable. Robert Markionni, executive director of the Chicago District Golf Association, said now that the Obama buildings are underway, “we hope the golf course project will be more front and center. Tiger Woods is still ready.”

Woods, through his company TGR Design, was to have reimagined the 18-hole Jackson Park course and the nine-hole South Shore course, connecting them with an underpass at South Shore Drive. They would become a single, 18-hole course designed to draw PGA events and elite players.

But immediately when the project got aired during the tenure of Mayor Rahm Emanuel, area residents and everyday duffers wondered if they were getting left out.

Beau Welling, senior design consultant for Tiger Woods’ firm, shows community members plans in 2018 for the Jackson Park and South Shore golf courses.
Sun-Times Media

Emanuel pushed the idea along with Park District Supt. Mike Kelly. Emails came to light that showed them talking about how to gin up support. They created the Chicago Parks Golf Alliance as a fundraising arm. Markionni, who is part of the alliance, said it’s approaching its work in earnest, but that fundraising has largely been on hold during COVID and while the legal drama for the Obama Center continued.

Other things are at play, too — money and a change of administration. As the Sun-Times’ Lynn Sweet has detailed, estimated costs for the Obama Center have risen to $830 million for construction and first-year operations.

His foundation doesn’t have that yet, so it needs to raise more as his presidency recedes into the past. Lots of costs have been batted about for the golf course deal, from about $30 million in private money to $60 million if you add taxpayer-funded work such as underpasses and road alignment. Obama loves golf, but he doesn’t need the fundraising competition.

Mayor Lori Lightfoot told the Sun-Times in 2019 she wasn’t keen on the golf course merger.

“It feels like it’s not a well-thought-out plan. It’s not a plan that’s been respectful of the community. There’s some environmental issues with it. I’ve got some concerns and some red flags,” she said then.

Her office did not say last week if that’s still her view. Kelly is still in office but occupied with criticism of his handling of abuse allegations among Park District lifeguards. His spokeswoman didn’t answer emails about the golf courses.

“I think this idea really came top-down,” said Juanita Irizarry, executive director of Friends of the Parks. She said the plan has less public support than the Obama Center’s site in Jackson Park. “Some golfers are excited, but others are afraid they’ll be priced out,” she said.

Supporters say they would insist on guarantees of low greens fees for area residents and that this isn’t “taking” open space, it’s improving what’s there.

It might force the removal of the South Shore Nature Sanctuary. Tracy Raoul, chairperson of the Jackson Park Golf Association and a supporter of the project, said high lake levels threaten the sanctuary and that — well, it’s got other problems. “It’s a place of nefarious assignations,” she said. “There’s all kinds of drug paraphernalia. It’s time to stop.”

Raoul said the courses need improvements anyway. Jackson Park’s dates from 1899 and South Shore’s from 1907. “Horticulture and environmental preservation have advanced since then,” she said. “Many courses have nature sanctuaries and areas that are off-limits to people.”

Another point she makes: Why do objections pop up when the South Side wants something? Why should downtown and the North Side lakefront get everything?

Apart from the Obama Center issues, the golf course project deserves a hearing on its own merits. It’ll take time. “There’s confidence and bullishness, but there’s a lot of work to be done,” said one backer of the course merger.

Just like in golf’s long game, the approach shots can make the difference.

A plan for the Jackson Park-South Shore golf course merger that was circulated in 2017.
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