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Sweet: Rahm emails reveal secret golf course planning

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

WASHINGTON — At 1:59 a.m. on Saturday, Aug. 6, Mayor Rahm Emanuel used his iPhone to send an email from his private account to Marty Nesbitt, the chair of the Barack Obama Foundation.

“Golf memo for Potus,” Emanuel wrote, using the acronym for President of the United States.

It was just about a week after President Barack Obama and first lady Michelle ended the suspense of whether their Obama Center would be located in Washington or Jackson Park, choosing Jackson Park for their library and museum complex.

Besides an iconic location near Lake Michigan and the Museum of Science and Industry, Jackson Park also has a golf course. Obama is an avid golfer.

Emanuel’s private emails exchanged with Nesbitt in August reveal, for the first time, secret maneuverings to combine the Jackson Park and South Shore golf courses — with no public input. Emanuel’s private emails were released by City Hall last week after the mayor lost Cook County Circuit Court battles.


“It is critical for YOU that this project has the support of the Obama Foundation and the surrounding community,” Park District Supt. Michael Kelly wrote to the mayor in an Aug. 3 memo marked “draft and confidential.” The capital letters were Kelly’s.

“. . . We must be very cautious as this community typically weighs in loudly on any capital project that makes change,” Kelly wrote, referring to opposition to the Yoko Ono sculpture installation and a proposed concert pavilion, both privately funded projects on public park land.

“. . . In order to host a 2021 PGA Tour event, we need to follow an aggressive timeline,” Kelly wrote.

Key, said Kelly, was to redevelop three holes south of the South Shore Cultural Center in 2017 in order to tout it to PGA officials when top golfers compete at the BMW Championship at Conway Farms Golf Club in Lake Forest next September.

While it is not known whether Obama saw the memo, emails exchanged between Emanuel and Nesbitt between Aug. 6 and Aug. 8 showed Nesbitt received it.

The upshot: The announcement by Emanuel on Dec. 16 of a new public-private partnership between the city, the Park District and a just created group called Chicago Parks Golf Alliance, to oversee the merging of the South Side public golf courses. Golf star Tiger Woods’ company is in line to design the course, with private donations paying about 80 percent of the $30 million price tag.

“Although rumors about this have been floating, where was the transparent public process?” said a Dec. 17 posting on the website of Jackson Park Watch.

RELATED: Obama library in Jackson Park spurs big golf course redesign

The redevelopment of Jackson Park, designed by famed landscape architects Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux, is the focus of Jackson Park Watch, which keeps an eye on the evolving Obama Center, the proposed music pavilion and the privately funded efforts that led to the Yoko Ono installation on the Wooded Isle.

The watchdog group noted that the rubber stamp Park District board didn’t even bother to approve its partnership with the new Chicago Parks Golf Alliance.

Other highlights of the Kelly memo:

• Mark Rolfing, the “president and founder” of the Alliance — who is the NBC PGA Tour Golf Channel analyst — actually “partnered” with the Park District “to be our Golf Facilities and Industry Advisor,” Kelly revealed in his memo.

• Rolfing and Kelly both spoke with Nesbitt about a proposed site visit by Tiger Woods. “We think a meeting with the foundation is an excellent idea, but we are concerned about media exposure if Tiger is seen in Chicago’s south side. Nevertheless, we defer to Marty on this matter and he has our support.”

At 1 p.m. on Aug. 8, Emanuel wrote Nesbitt, “Call me to discuss memo when you have a moment.”

The revamped South Side golf courses could be a related element in the overall design and programming for the Obama Center. Donors may be pitched both projects. In the future, the Obama Center may want to be involved in encouraging minority youths to golf.

We don’t know Nesbitt’s reaction or plans. A Foundation spokesman declined to comment for this column.